Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross left the Rio Olympics with bronze medals in the women's beach volleyball tournament, but they accomplished much more than that. Even though Walsh Jennings came short of her goal to win a rare fourth consecutive gold medal this summer, she and her new partner want the world to know that their careers do not revolve around the Olympics. They took the gold during Sunday's Long Beach Grand Slam, and in between dominating international competitions no matter what country they're in, Walsh Jennings and Ross are constantly challenging stereotypes about female athletes.
The Long Beach Grand Slam was something of a homecoming for Walsh Jennings and Ross. Coming from Orange County and Los Angeles, respectively, they say Long Beach was the perfect location for their families and friends to come watch them play. It also gave them a chance to remind beach volleyball fans that the Olympics aren't the only important athletic event in their lives.
"We want to capitalize on the momentum after the Olympics," Walsh Jennings tells Bustle. "We had so much love and support, and we just want to keep reminding people that it’s not just the Olympics. Like, there are other amazing events. We have the AVP Tour. We have great international events here."
At at these different events, Walsh Jennings and Ross pay homage to the female athletes who came before them and made it possible for them to compete. Both women agree that because of the "Title IX pioneers" who preceded them, they have rarely faced the double standards that many other female athletes have reported experiencing. And the challenges they do have, they face together. Walsh Jennings and Ross both point to each other when asked who their role models were. "My partner is a good, an amazing role model," Ross says of Walsh Jennings. "The way she always looks for growth, I think is really inspiring."
"It’s such a good time to be a woman."
The partners perceive their sport as "so pure and true and equal," as Walsh Jennings puts it, but they still know what it's like to deal with the pressure that accompanies being an athlete — especially when it comes to social expectations and stereotypes around women in sports. In dealing with these stereotypes, Walsh Jennings had some simple but important advice for young women. "Oh man, enjoy being a woman," Walsh Jennings says. "It’s such a good time to be a woman."
Ross elaborates on this, encouraging young women to do what they want to do instead of what is expected of them. "I think, just, don’t buy into stereotypes," she says. "Don’t feel boxed in by anything society feels you should be, or you should do, or you shouldn’t do. If you want to do something, go do it. If you never want to wear makeup, if you never want to do your hair, don’t feel pressure to do that. I went to high school every day in sweatpants like, just straight out of bed. Just be yourself and follow your passion, regardless of what it is."
In other words, "blaze your trail," as Walsh Jennings tells Bustle. She and Ross are definitely doing that, both as volleyball players and as women living their lives. After wrapping up a few more tournaments, Ross is looking forward to taking a vacation and possibly starting a family with her husband. Walsh Jennings says she will continue drawing inspiration from her three children.
This is precisely how they've shattered stereotypes this whole time. They continue to be talented and dedicated athletes while choosing their own paths for themselves, and that's what they want every young woman out there to do, too.