After more than a dozen years and three gold medals with Misty May-Treanor, Kerri Walsh Jennings will be trying for a fourth Olympic beach volleyball championship with a new partner.
With May-Treanor retired, the sport's most successful partnership is breaking up and Walsh Jennings is teaming up with April Ross starting this weekend at the AVP Santa Barbara Open. Ross won the silver medal at the London Games, losing to Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor in an all-American championship match.
"It's really exciting because I think our potential to be the best team in the world," Walsh Jennings said in a telephone interview this week as she prepared for the California event. "We have all the tools. We have something special, and we know that, and I think we're both willing to go through fire."
First partnering up in 2001, Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor have won a record 104 tournaments together, including three straight Olympic gold medals in Athens, Beijing and London. May-Treanor will not be trying to make it to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, and neither will Ross' partner from the London Games, Jennifer Kessy.
"I'm sad that Jen and I had to come to an end, while at the same time it is kind of perfect timing," Ross said. "I don't think a partner switch could have gone any better."
So far, at least.
With their recent Olympic hardware, Ross and Walsh Jennings immediately become the team to beat -- at least domestically. But they concede that with little practice time together there are still many kinks to work out.
By finishing up this season together, they have a chance to be an established team when Olympic qualifying begins in 2015. And that starts on the AVP tour Saturday.
"It's our first showing, we just want to go out and play good volleyball," Walsh Jennings said. "She's just so geeked out to get better. She brings new life; everything is new with April. All of that is really fun and really refreshing. It makes me uncomfortable, but it's not a bad uncomfortable. ... . I'm just excited for the journey to start."
Walsh Jennings, who is married to fellow beach volleyball pro Casey Jennings, gave birth to their third child this spring. She said she rarely actually talks to May-Treanor much; both are so busy that they communicate with missed phone calls, text messages and on Twitter.
"But that doesn't change the love," she said. "That will be with me forever."
Instead, Walsh Jennings will find herself getting teary-eyed at an airport, thinking back to the trip she once made with her old partner.
"What's lingering is the fact that I miss Misty so much on a personal level," she said. "It's affected me at every tournament'; it's affected me on every day of every tournament. But I'm all-in with April."
Beach volleyball partnerships are sometimes compared to marriages because the players spend so much time on the road together -- a trip can take them from Russia to Brazil to China -- that they need to get along as well as play well together.
"It's a relationship and it's a partnership and, like with the best marriages, it's not all about work," Walsh Jennings said. "I feel like we're kind of in the honeymoon stage. It's all very fun and upbeat. We both want to please each other, which is really fun."
But Ross doesn't like the analogy.
"I don't feel like I divorced Jen," she said. "We're still great friends. It's more like adding a new friendship."
Replacing May-Treanor, either as a teammate or a friend, is not something Ross feels pressure to do.
"I think of us as a completely different team, a completely new team. And we have to find our own path," she said. "Kerri doesn't expect me to be the same type of player that Misty was. I'm just not. So I don't look at it that way. I don't think anyone going into a new partnership looks to fill the old partner's shoes. And I'm not going to try to."