Kerri Walsh Jennings and Kerri Strug were born within a year of each other in the late 1970s, overlapped for two years at Stanford, are fellow Olympic gold medalists and share a first name.
They also share a sponsor, KT Tape, for which they made a promotional appearance at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan Tuesday — the first time they have spoken to each other since Jennings left Stanford in 2000.
But there is a gulf between them, one even greater than the one between their heights. (Jennings is 6-3; Strug is 4-8.)
Jennings, 37, is preparing to seek her fourth consecutive gold medal in beach volleyball in Rio de Janeiro this summer. Strug, 38, has been retired from competitive gymnastics for 20 years.
“It is amazing,” Strug said, looking across a gym floor as Jennings conducted interviews. “In some ways I’m a little bit envious they’re able to stay in their careers. But in other ways, everyone has different chapters in their life, and eventually your career does have to come to an end.
“I feel very fortunate as a gymnast that I was able to compete in two Olympics. But with the changes in technology to where we are today and the changes within the sport of gymnastics, now you can be a specialist and have an opportunity to have a longer career. I was born in the late ’70s, and that’s just the way it goes.
“I think attitude is a lot, so I’m very thankful for the opportunities that have come my way, and I don’t want to be bitter that I haven’t gotten more. But Kerri Walsh Jennings went to Stanford, and we were there at the same time, and she’s still going strong! I’ve been retired for 20 years. So it’s different depending on which sport you pick.”
Jennings sympathized, shrugging and saying, simply, “Different sport.”
She has had five right shoulder surgeries but has no plans to retire anytime soon.
“Physically, I’m good for another 10 years,” she said. “I literally have no doubt. I am smart with my training. I am more supported than I have ever been. When you partner up with a company like KT Tape, they educate you as well. I just keep adding stuff to my toolbox.
“Physically, I feel amazing. Being away from my kids is hard.”
Jennings’ three children all have birthdays coming up this spring, when they will turn 7, 6 and 3. She recently left them home in southern California for 16 days for a competition.
“The initial dream, because my husband [Casey] plays as well, was to travel the world together,” she said. “We did that for two years with the boys before the last Olympics, and it was ridiculous, like the best dream come true ever. But it was so hard, so challenging.
“This time my kids have their routines and they’re playing baseball and soccer and to take them away and have them come cheer me on, it’s a little selfish. So that will be the impetus, I think, when I make my choice to retire.
“But I would never say this is my last Olympics. My heart is so full of joy of the journey and I keep improving, so that’s so addicting. So I don’t know.”
Casual fans might be surprised this summer to discover that she has a new partner. Misty May-Treanor, with whom she won gold in 2004, 2008 and 2012, retired after the last Olympics; her current partner is April Ross.
“People get very upset,” Jennings said. “It’s so interesting because if I do interviews and talk about April and how great we want to be, people are like: But you’re kind of dissing Misty! I’m like, that’s impossible. She’s sacred. What we did was sacred, and that’s forever.
“Things move on and Misty retired and she’s so happy and I’m so happy for her and I have an amazing new partner. That’s the situation. Get behind us. I feel like once people see April and I play they’ll be like: OK, I got it. Because change is hard for people. It’s certainly hard for me. So it’s a little bittersweet.
“But it’s such a fun opportunity, and for me as an athlete the potential for growth and the growth that I’ve seen with a new partner has been off the charts.”
Asked when she will feel ready for Rio, Jennings said, simply, “Ready. So ready. If the Olympics were tomorrow I’d be very happy. That being said, I’m very excited about the lead-up. We just finished our first two events of the season and we got a first and a second, and that second will drive us and motivate us way more than the first.
“To be part of Team USA is amazing. It’s so much bigger than our sport. It’s so much bigger than me. And it feels really good. The vibe in Rio was great [for an event earlier this month]. I’m just ready.”
Strug is ready for Rio, too. As a spectator. She fully expects to watch the United States women provide plenty of cheering opportunities.
“They’re phenomenal,” Strug said. “USA women’s gymnastics has just been on top for several years now. There are always surprises, and injuries play a role, but we’ve just been dominating the world championships and we’re really just at another level as a team, with the depth that we have.
“Since London [in 2012] they’re really just, well, it will not be as exciting as some other competitions when it’s close, because we really are just that much better. But I’m sure they’ll do a great job making it wonderful for all of us to watch. And let’s be honest: It’s fun to dominate at times in certain sports.”
Strug is married with two toddlers and lives in Tucson, Arizona. She works for the federal government’s office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention. She has worked for the government for about 15 years, and moved in 2012 from Washington, D.C., to her native Tucson.
“On the side I still continue to do different things like today where I team up with different Olympic or corporate sponsors,” she said. “I feel very fortunate that people still remember my moment, because it was a long time ago, and there have been so many phenomenal athletes that have come through the various Games.”
Strug famously clinched the team competition gold in the ’96 Games in Atlanta by performing a vault on a badly injured ankle.
“The Olympics are still really important and special to me,” she said. “They changed the trajectory of my life, and I think it does for so many people. Not only the athletes, but many of those who get inspired by athletes and their stories. So I like to promote the Games because I think it does a lot for us.
“It unites us, it gets us excited about something in our lives, it teaches youngsters you have to work hard. It’s not this immediate gratification every second, which in today’s world it’s a little different than it used to be. So I’m really excited going into Rio. I will not be competing, but it’s really nice to be a spectator.”
Even in the 21st century, only a select group of Olympians have the wherewithal to continue competing into their late 30s and beyond. Jennings is among them, and is grateful.
“I’m in a privileged position where financially I can make it work,” she said. “I am partnered up with amazing people who support me on the court and who support my dreams. KT Tape is a big part of me chasing my dreams. So I feel like a lot of people retire because they can’t make it work. I can make it work.
“My husband is very, very supportive. My children are a part of my team. They get excited and they’re a big part of the process.”
She will turn 38 during the Games and will turn 42 in the summer of 2020.
“Even though I have had five shoulder surgeries, I’ve learned after each one,” she said, wearing a blue swatch of the sponsor’s kinesiology tape with a USA logo on it on the right shoulder, which she referred to as “a warrior.”
“I feel like the way the world is now, why am I going to limit myself just because I’m turning 40? I feel like the world is changing. Sixty is not what it used to be. My parents just turned 60, and they’re so young. So I think it’s just a mindset.”