Beach volleyball queen Kerri Walsh Jennings may not have had any practice at losing at the Olympics, but she seemed good even at that.
After Walsh Jennings lost her first of 26 Olympic matches and saw her chances for a fifth gold medal evaporate after a 2-0 loss to Brazil early Wednesday, she could have been forgiven for showing disappointment. She could have blamed her defeat on the ecstatic, not entirely polite, crowd that cheered on its home team of Agatha Bednarczuk and Baraba Seixas at Copacabana’s beach volleyball arena in a sport the country loves almost as much as soccer. She could have blamed the other team, like American soccer goalie Hope Solo, who called Sweden “cowards” after they defeated the U.S. last week.
But she and partner April Ross were clear: The Brazilian duo played better and deserved to win. Walsh Jennings and Ross had a 5-0 run through the tournament, dropping just one set, but the U.S. team was outmatched by the Brazilians whose tenacious, diving defense had an answer to every attacking strategy attempted by the Americans.
Speaking to reporters early Wednesday after the midnight game, Walsh Jennings, appearing stoic in a yellow sarong, said the loss felt “terrible.”
“We could have squashed the other team, and we have in the past. I say that with so much respect because they are really good,” Walsh Jennings said. “Tonight they rose to the occasion and I certainly did not and there’s no excuse for it.”
Ross, her eyes red-rimmed, said, “We had so many opportunities to take the match and do what we wanted. They played great and I know it’s going to kill me to watch that. We wanted to win the game and it’s disappointing and heartbreaking not to do it tonight.”
The crowd, waving Brazil’s green, yellow and blue flag, screamed and danced to samba, Brazilian funk, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as their team advanced. They also roared boos at the U.S. team, which Walsh Jennings and Ross, almost inexplicably, said they hadn’t heard.
“The crowd was great,” Walsh Jennings said. “We didn’t hear one boo. We heard cheering for good volleyball.” If the match had been played in the U.S., Ross said, a home crowd would have been just as enthusiastic.
“It was a highly energized crowd cheering for their team,” Ross said.
Walsh Jennings, who turned 38 on Monday, has a reputation among her fans and other athletes as a preternaturally upbeat person whose determination is so strong she played in the London games while in the first trimester of her pregnancy. Last summer, she competed with Ross in tournaments with an injured shoulder, she played with “one arm,” she has said.
The 6'2" California native even had a spin on the Brazilian crowd’s displeasure with her game. “It was because I wasn’t passing the ball,” she said.
“I don’t even know how many aces they got—four per game, maybe, on me? That’s unacceptable and inexcusable. I’ve been served aggressively this whole tournament, when people serve at me, and so has April. We’ve handled it in every other situation so it’s really disappointing and heartbreaking not to do that tonight.
Walsh Jennings misjudged the number of aces—the Brazilians only had a total of five in the match—but she believed her failure to set up her teammate was decisive.
“You can’t do anything without a pass. That’s what set the tone. We never got our mojo after that, and that’s why.”
Asked if she would return for a sixth Olympics in 2020, Walsh Jennings said, “I know I can. I don’t know if I will.”