Beach volleyball: Minus longtime partner, mother Walsh Jennings aims for 2016 Olympics
Beach volleyball • Olympian calls ESPN issue “graceful,” says Rio is chance to prove herself.
Published: August 17, 2013 11:17PM
Updated: February 14, 2014 11:32PM
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Jim McAuley | The Salt Lake Tribune Kerri Walsh Jennings warms up her spike before a match against Emily Day and Brooke Niles at the AVP Salt Lake City Open beach volleyball tournament at Liberty Park on Saturday, August 17, 2013.

The world sees a lot of Kerri Walsh Jennings, particularly in Olympic years. But never had the three-time beach volleyball gold medalist exposed so much of herself as in ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue last month, in which she posed au natural for a pair of photos: one of her nine months pregnant, the other eight weeks later, cradling newborn daughter Scout.

Walsh Jennings, who won gold medals in Athens, Beijing and London with longtime partner Misty May-Treanor, did not come to the decision to pose nude lightly. She is the most recognizable ambassador for a sport in which physiques are studied as much as, if not more than, mechanics. But the superstar has become an even greater spokeswoman for melding family life with the life of a professional athlete — something that factored into her participation in the Body Issue, the sometimes controversial issue highlighting the smartly contorted frames of athletes including John Wall of the Washington Wizards and 65-year-old golfer Gary Player.

“I’m a mom,” said Walsh Jennings, who will try to advance through the consolation bracket Sunday at the AVP Salt Lake City Open. “I’m a wife, I’m a daughter and a sister. Those are the people I was thinking about.”

After turning 35 on Thursday, the mother of three children, with former BYU star Casey Jennings, is at the stage of her career where many women have decided to either leave the game or significantly reduce their involvement. May-Treanor retired after they beat fellow Americans Jennifer Kessy and April Ross in London, and Kessy will limit herself in the future to domestic tournaments.

“It just shows we can keep playing if we want,” said 29-year-old Whitney Pavlik, who is playing with Walsh Jennings in Salt Lake City. “You’re done when you want to be done, not just because you want to start a family. You can do both.”

Ultimately, Walsh Jennings opted to do the Body Issue, she said, because she had long admired past editions.

“I look at it every year,” she said, “and I think the way they treat the athletes and their bodies, there’s nothing gratuitous. It doesn’t even walk the line. It’s very graceful, very sophisticated and the integrity’s all there.”

She added: “I’m a pretty modest person, but I appreciate my body so much. It’s given me the whole world.”

On Saturday, second-seeded Walsh and Pavlik, as well as No. 1-seeded Kessy and Ross, dropped matches. Those teams will meet in a consolation-bracket game early Sunday at Liberty Park.

Later this summer, Walsh and Ross will team up full time, shooting for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. As a pair of medalists, they are virtual locks to earn one of the two spots available to teams from the United States.

Walsh Jennings said there was never any question that she would keep playing, even as they sat on a podium at the Horse Guards Parade a block from 10 Downing Street in London, gold medals hung by purple ribbons around their necks, and May-Treanor said, “It’s time for me to be a wife and a mom.”

Only a year younger than her partner since before the 2004 Olympics, Walsh Jennings quickly stated that she’d be back.

Later that night, it began to hit her. She was enjoying the high of victory, but was five weeks pregnant with Scout — named after the character in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The commitment, she said, is “so huge,” and suddenly she was giving serious thought to what she had considered an easy decision.

Ultimately, it was.

“I was like, ‘I got it,’ ” she remembered. “I’ve got one more in me. I’ve got so much more room for improvement and I want to do it on the world’s biggest stage. I love this sport and I love my job, it’s given me such a beautiful life and I want to keep going.”

As for moving forward without May-Treanor, she said her decision has nothing to do with proving she can do it without her longtime partner (call it Kobe Bryant Syndrome).

“I’m not thinking I want to one-up Misty,” she said. “I’m thinking I want to be better than I ever have been, and I have 31/2 more years to prove it on the world’s stage.”

boram@sltrib.comTwitter: @tribjazz

AVP Salt Lake City Open

• Top-seeded women’s teams Kerri Walsh Jennings/Whitney Pavlik and Jennifer Kessy/April Ross were both upset by the eighth-seeded team of Christal Morrison Engle and Tealle Hunkus.

• Walsh Jennings/Pavlik will face Kessy/Ross in a consolation-bracket game at 9 a.m. Sunday.

• Bountiful native Jake Gibb and partner Casey Patterson, a former BYU player, advanced to the semifinals on the men’s side.

Sunday finals

P Men’s final • 3 p.m.

Women’s final • 2 p.m.

• Both final matches can be seen on CBS Sports Network.