Corona Virus Quarantine Day #98: Sports, GOATS & Kerri Walsh Jennings: June 26, 2020

Corona Virus Quarantine Day #98: Sports, GOATS & Kerri Walsh Jennings: June 26, 2020

Sports.

Oh my goodness do I. miss. sports.  I miss playing them.  I miss watching them.  I miss coaching them. I miss seeing my kids play them in a team setting.

I miss sports.

Today I got to step on a court with 11 other athletes, who were on average 20 years younger than me and play volleyball.  That’s right…I played today and it was glorious.  It felt so good to do something I love so much in a competitive environment.  The best part…our kids got to see it.  Whenever I did something even remotely good one of the kids would come cheer for me.  Finley, who is our most serious about sports was so excited that his mom could hang with all those young women, even a little bit.  It brought back all the memories and while it made me incredibly happy it also made me feel a little sad.

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This.  It kills me.  Finley Joe was proud of his mommy.  Warms my heart.  His love of sports is so incredible.  Today after lunch he shot and dribbled in the barn for 4 straight hours.

We have all lost sports with COVID and as we hope to make a safe return to sport in the fall there are still a lot of questions and not a lot of answers.  So in light of all things sports, I’m writing about someone who is awesome in my sport.

Before I begin…

If any of you didn’t watch the documentary LAST DANCE.  Make. It. Happen.  You don’t have to be a Chicago Bulls fan like myself, or a Michael Jordan junkie, like myself, to enjoy the masterful leadership of the best athlete to ever play the game of basketball.  Arguably one of the best athletes to play any sport ever.  For those of you debating that right now in your head…feel free to exit stage left. These are forgone conclusions for me.  MJ’s the goat.

I have loved hearing about his theories on leadership and how that winning and leadership comes with a price.  Sometimes that price is unpopularity. Truer words.  I have watched this legend of a man cry when talking about how competitive he is…if only we could teach that level of desire to our athletes.

I am moved by so much that I see in this documentary and quite frankly…it makes me miss sports more.

But…because there are countless books and now this documentary to teach us about the greatest to play the game of basketball I want to talk to you about a different athlete.  Another goat in her own right.  Kerri Walsh Jennings.

For those of you who don’t know that name, I would have to assume you either don’t like sports, the Olympics or have been living under a rock.  Kerri Walsh Jennings is the most successful beach volleyball player to ever play the game.  She was also one hell of an indoor player.

Kerri Walsh Jennings is also an amazing person. She is a mother to 3 children, a wife, a philanthropist and the founder of her own platform to grow the game of volleyball that has given her a beautiful life and that she has given so much back to.

When I think of professional athletes the words inaccessible comes to mind.  So many of them are inaccessible to the masses.  We have to play exorbitant amounts of money to see these people play their game. When I was a kid I waited for what felt like hours for an autograph that I never got.  The athlete actually said no.  I was devastated.  Legit 30 years later and I’m still not over it and no it wasn’t Michael Jordan.

Kerri Walsh Jennings, to me, has always been the opposite of inaccessible.

She has made herself accessible to her fans and more importantly to the game of volleyball.

In fact, I think it would be safe to say she is the BRAND ambassador of our sport.

Now when I watch many professional and amateur athletes perform I cringe at their behavior on the floor.  They yell at their teammates, have bad body language, argue with officials and showboat like it’s nobody’s business.  What these athletes often forget is the little kids watching will mimic their behavior.  As a coach I have no tolerance for showboating or talking trash.  Your play should speak for itself and all celebrating should be kept on your side of the court.  Our athletes are not allowed to talk to officials other than to tell them thank you when the match is over.  Period.  Athletes should do what they do best…play the game.

While I have known Kerri Walsh Jennings as a player and person for some time…my kids began to become enamored with her in the year 2016 during the Summer Olympics.  As most of you know, Kerri didn’t win that time.  Instead she got a bronze medal.  It was the first time in her Olympic game history as a beach volleyball player she didn’t win the gold.

As we watched them lose that semi-final match most of the people in my house cried.  Not because she lost, but instead, because of how she conducted herself as she lost.  She didn’t play her best game.  She knew it.  However, instead of throwing a fit or blaming someone else or refusing to shake people’s hands or cussing in the direction of the camera she congratulated the other team and proceeded to thank every official, lines person and the scores table before she ran off the court waving to her fans.

This was arguably one of the worst days of her professional life but she left that court a champion in our eyes.  We then talked to our very young kids at the time about what a winner she was and explained why.  That Halloween Ellen (then 6) wanted to be Kerri Walsh Jennings. It was a perfect representation of how important athletes are in the lives and development of our young people.  A few days later we watched her play for and win a Bronze medal and cheered our collective asses off because she is and always will be a true champion.

As a player and coach I have come across Kerri’s path many times.  Most recently however, it has been in my role as a coach.  In 2009 my mom won an award with the WIN for KC organization.  Kerri Walsh Jennings was the key note speaker.  She gave every single award winner time at the gala the night before.  She didn’t only take pictures with them she tried to learn a bit of their story.  The next day she addressed a whole room full of young women that want to be just like her and she congratulated my mom on her award.

The following year in 2010 she came into KC for the NCAA tournament Final Four being held in Kansas City. I had not seen her or talked to her for a year but she remembered meeting me and asked about my mom.  We also chatted about having children as that was the first time both of us had given birth.  Me to the triplets and Kerri to her son Joseph.  Kerri then addressed several high schools that day and answered all their questions and signed all the stuff they brought with them with a bright shiny smile on her face.

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Kerri visiting St. James in 2010!

Years later in 2015 when I won a coaching award with the AVCA…she was there and congratulated me.

When I was at the AVCA convention as a speaker after the 2016 Olympics I saw her again. As I said, that Halloween my daughters had been Kerri Walsh and Misty May and she gave our daughters, at the time 6 and 4, many moments of her time.  I will never forget how she got down on the floor with them and looked them in the eye and acted as if there was no place she’d rather be than talking to them in that moment.  The next day at the matches, she waved at them from the floor.  Their hearts were bursting.  I thought Ellen might pee her pants.

Oh man…the girls loved meeting her and she was so kind to spend so much time talking to them about their Halloween costumes!

The next year…at the AVCA Convention, again, in conjunction with the Final Four, I saw her and she was more than gracious, even asked about the girls.

One day that year my girls were helping their brothers organize their baseball cards and Ellen asked “why don’t they have these for girls?”  An excellent question I thought…so my girls decided to make trading cards for volleyball players.  They of course made some of Kerri Walsh Jennings as well as some of the SJA volleyball players that were playing collegiately at the time.  My girls wanted to change the fact that girls weren’t represented in trading cards and I have to tell you…I LOVED that!  My mom heart was quite proud….the coach in me was even more happy!  So these two sweet little girls made playing cards for their favorite players.  Their brothers made them as well.

It was pretty special.

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Way too cute for words!  I cannot!  

That winter (2017) at the Final Four we saw Kerri Walsh Jennings again in Kansas City.  This time we had the four oldest kids.  They all had their trading cards of Kerri Walsh Jennings.  They all gave them to her.  She was incredibly kind and was really moved by the cards.  She took them and put them in her wallet and told the kids she would put them somewhere really special to remind her of her goals.  She told them that her plan was to kick butt in the 2020 Olympics.

Kerri Walsh Jennings cards made by our sweet children.  

The kids giving Kerri their cards.  I love how she gets down on the ground at their level.  That is a sign of a humble person in my opinion.

The kids were so excited and the skeptic in me thought…she was so nice, but no way she’s keeping those cards.  This is a celebrity, a woman that has many other great things to collect.  These sweet kids trading cards aren’t it.

Fast forward to this past December 2019.  I saw her at the All American banquet, again, at the Final Four.  Kerri attends each year to hand out the player’s awards and she approached me, we began talking and before I could ask her about it she pulled out her wallet and showed me the kids playing cards she had inside.  I was speechless.

I cannot believe she held on to those for 2 years.  Again…speechless. Even now I find myself at a loss for how to explain how that moment made me feel.

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And there it is, she pulled it right out of her wallet.  I was stunned.  Pretty stinking special.  I had to get a picture to prove it to the girls.  They were so excited to see the picture and were jealous that they weren’t there.

I have not had the pleasure of meeting a lot of professional athletes. In many ways they are normal people like you and me.  But in so many more ways they aren’t.  They can’t go anywhere without being stopped or asked for autographs and most never feel like they aren’t on display or on camera.  Just look no further than the Michael Jordan documentary. Fame was not fun.

This woman who has won 3 Olympic Gold medals and one Bronze medal and is training in her 40’s to compete in another Olympic games is a true gem.  She is unique.  She is different than most. She is special.

Bryan and I always tell our girls they need to leave their mark…in any gym they play in there may be a person there that only gets to watch them play that one time.  It’s their job to make sure that person remembers it.  Leaving your mark isn’t always about how you play on the court but how you act off of it as well.  So again, we tell our players that how they act and conduct themselves in public may be the only time someone encounters them.  Leave your mark.

Kerri Walsh Jennings left her mark on our family in 2016 when we watched her play in the Olympics but the mark she left in 2019 when she pulled those cute little trading cards out of her wallet is a moment I will never forget.  The highlight was of course showing my kids when I got home.  To say they were excited would be an understatement.

Every encounter I have ever had with this remarkable woman has been positive.

Is she perfect?  I doubt it.  Is anyone?  But she is the kind of athlete I want my children and my players to mimic, to admire and to aspire to be like.  She epitomizes all the most important lessons we have to learn as athletes…Play with passion, play with confidence, own your mistakes, give back to the sport that’s given you so much and always, always, leave your mark.

There is a reason her nickname is 6 feet of Sunshine.  She leaves her mark wherever she goes.

Thank you Kerri Walsh Jennings for leaving your mark on our family, for leaving in on the sport of volleyball and for being the best ambassador of strong, confident women a mom and coach could ever ask for!

GOD bless!

Stay well my friends!

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