Walsh-Jennings Reflects On Career At Stanford
By Ann Killion
It's not far from Kerri Walsh-Jennings' hometown of Saratoga, Calif., to Stanford University. But Walsh-Jennings never had any desire to travel further when it came time to select a college.
"Stanford first came into my consciousness when I was about 11 and my dad took me to a baseball game there and I saw the campus," she said. "I was hooked. I had a single-minded focus from then on. I kept my fingers crossed, my toes crossed, my eyes crossed, in hopes I could go there.
"My heart was always at Stanford."
And though Walsh-Jennings, 32, has since traveled the globe in her volleyball career and is now settled in Southern California, her heart is still at Stanford, describing it as a "storybook experience."
Walsh-Jennings said her parents held Stanford in high esteem.
"[My parents] always said if you want to be the best, Stanford is the best," she said.
She started out going to volleyball camps at Stanford. She blossomed into a high school volleyball star. And though she politely listened when other universities recruited her, she never wavered from her dream of being a Cardinal.
"It was way better than I expected," she said. "It's such a special time, being in college and being a college athlete. It really helped shape my dreams and goals and had a huge role in the woman I am becoming."
The storybook included two NCAA championships and three trips to the finals. Walsh-Jennings became only the second player in NCAA history to receive first team All-America honors in all four seasons. She was named national freshman of the year in her first season. She was the first player in Pac-10 history to record 1,500 kills, 1,200 digs and 500 blocks.
"Being part of the Pac-10, competing against the best, was huge for me," she said. "It really lit a fire under me, to go against all those awesome athletes at the other schools."
Walsh-Jennings remembers the environment on campus in the lead up to big conference competitions was full of "insane energy."
But the athletic achievements were only part of the experience. Walsh-Jennings said her time at Stanford helped her become a strong, motivated woman.
"I was so lucky to play with women who were so motivated and driven and lovely," she said.
Early in her Stanford career, Walsh-Jennings was paired with two-sport star Kristin Folkl.
"I was totally intimidated," Walsh-Jennings said. "She was larger than life to me. But she was so nice and mellow."
Walsh-Jennings considered setter Lisa Sharpley, two years ahead of her, an influential role model. Teammate Sarah Clark became her best friend. And she calls head coach Don Shaw and assistant coach Denise Corlett important mentors who helped her learn about discipline, perseverance and how to deal with challenges.
An American Studies major, Walsh-Jennings said her academic career at Stanford also had an impact on her life.
"It was definitely daunting," she said. "You can't just be an athlete at Stanford. I was surrounded by brilliant people. I learned about time management and prioritizing the hard way."
Walsh-Jennings went on to have a strong indoor career with the U.S. national team, playing at the Sidney Olympics in 2000. But it was after those Olympics, when she made the switch to beach volleyball, when her career and fame skyrocketed.
She and partner Misty May-Treanor became the most famous duo in beach volleyball, winning two gold medals (in Athens and Beijing) and three world championships.
After the Beijing Olympics, Walsh-Jennings and her husband Casey Jennings, also a beach volleyball player, started a family. They now have two boys, Joseph, born in May of 2009 and Sundance, born last May. Walsh-Jennings returned to competition last fall, pairing with Nicole Branagh in Thailand where Walsh-Jennings won her first international tournament since motherhood.
The trip caused her to miss a ten-year reunion of her Stanford volleyball team, but she will always have a connection to Stanford. Walsh-Jennings said she loves running into other Stanford athletes at competitions around the world.
"It's so fun to see their success," she said. "It's a special community and we're all very proud of each other. We all walk a little taller when we talk about the Cardinal."
And though her husband went to Brigham Young University, Walsh-Jennings said her two sons have much more Stanford gear than BYU gear.
"I guess I'm the one that does the shopping," she said.