Kerri Walsh Jennings participated in her first Olympics in 2000 in Sydney. She was a 22-year-old indoor volleyball player on a team that finished off the medal stand. In 2016, Walsh Jennings will turn 38 during the Rio Games, her fifth Olympics, and she has three consecutive beach volleyball gold medals under her belt. She is also married with three children. Her playing partner from 2012 to 2012, Misty May-Treanor, has been retired for four years. This week, Walsh Jennings returns to action after four months off the sand due to a fifth shoulder surgery. She pairs with 2012 London bronze medalist April Ross. Walsh Jennings spoke to ThePostGame on behalf of Dick's Sporting Goods.
ThePostGame: You're working with Dick's. What are you doing with them?
KERRI WALSH JENNINGS: They launched their Olympic campaign today. They launched a TV commercial, which really shows the grit and love and sacrifice that it takes to be an Olympian. There's also an amazing program called the Contender Program, and Dick's is working with 200 Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls that are working at Dick's stores. They're helping these athletes fund their Olympic dreams. They're giving them flexible hours, so they can make time for the training it takes to get to the Olympics. That's something very near and dear to my heart. I certainly lived that life, where the difference between finishing fifth or third was my rent. It's something that's a load off, and it's such a peace of mind when you have an employer who understands and is flexible.
TPG: What is it about the life of Olympians, in terms of maintaining an income outside of sports?
WALSH JENNINGS: I would say a vast majority of Olympic hopefuls, whether you're me and you've been to four or it's your first one, we pay to work. (Laughs) It's just truly a labor of love. Most amateur athletes or professional athletes, unless you're in the NBA, you're paying to work. Your trainers, your medical staff, your travel. Our federation, the USOC, is not government-funded. It's unique to the world. I think it's because of the grit and individual initiative it takes to make the journey.
TPG: When did you feel like you stopped paying to work?
WALSH JENNINGS: That's a great question. I feel like after my second Olympics, or leading up to my second Olympics. That being said, I live in California and I have three kids and it's not a cheap life that we live, and it's so worth it. You have people that have to choose between going to an Olympic event and rent money. I'm very fortunate to be over that hump, knock on wood. I plan to keep riding this wave and turn it into a beautiful life after my career and who knows what that will be. For all the contenders, it warms my heart for them because it was such an important part of my struggle when I was walking dogs to make ends meet, when I was working in a children's shoe store. That's an important part of the puzzle. It makes you look in the mirror like how much do I want this? Am I willing to do this, to juggle all these things. For all American Olympians, the answer is always a resounding a yes.
TPG: What about a shoe store?
WALSH JENNINGS: I worked in a kids' shoe store. I had odd jobs.
TPG: When was that?
WALSH JENNINGS: Probably after Athens (2004). Earlier on in my career, in the offseason, I would work and save money and fund my next season.
TPG: What were some of the odd jobs you had?
WALSH JENNINGS: I started as a student, when I first started playing internationally. I was going to Stanford. Then I graduated. Those two jobs (walking dogs and working at a shoe store) were the main jobs, but now, I feel like I have four jobs. The business of beach volleyball, the business of being an Olympian, I'm privileged to have partners that I'm authentically aligned with to help achieve their goals and they're helping me achieve my dreams.
TPG: How are you feeling right now coming back to competition?
WALSH JENNINGS: Amazing. I feel so good. I have my fifth shoulder surgery in September. I've been working so diligently and with so much joy toward my comeback. It's been so much fun working with April and our team. We feel good. We leave on Sunday for our first Olympic qualifier of the year. If we do our jobs well, we're in. We're qualified and then it's time to focus on Rio and the big picture.
TPG: Are there nerves about just making the team right now or you're feeling confident about that?
WALSH JENNINGS: Not at all. I have nothing but confidence. I take nothing for granted. Historically, I would have already qualified by this point the past three Olympics. That was a luxury because you could just keep thinking about the bigger picture. This year, we're on point now and every single day leading up to Rio. I'm excited to see how that's going to make April and I. There are no days off, no points off. My goal is for us to take a page from the Warriors' playbook and play with so much joy and freedom because we are so well-trained and I just want to go and have fun and press play. We certainly look to those who are kicking butt, whether it's the Spurs, the Warriors, or the Super Bowl just happened.
TPG: How much Warriors do you watch (Walsh Jennings is from the Bay Area)?
WALSH JENNINGS: Lately, a lot. Usually, they're not on in LA. Since they're so amazing, I've been watching them a lot. With social media nowadays, I see all the clips. I know I'm not unique in this way, but I'm just so impressed with Stephen Curry. If I could sit down with anyone right now, it would be to pick his brain. Or just to watch him. There's so much joy and faith and love and playfulness when he plays. That's a really important part of this because it is a job. It becomes tedious. He's a father of two and he has to leave his kids. I feel like he allows that to elevate him and transcend. That's my goal. It's not easy leaving.
TPG: Have you met him before?
WALSH JENNINGS: I haven't. I will. I have a thought. We're good friends with Luke Walton, who is amazing and did such a great job with the Warriors while he was head coach while [Steve] Kerr was out and I had a thought to call him to see if we could sit in on practice just to watch and feel all the energy.
TPG: Well, you'll meet Steph, assuming you're both heading to Rio.
WALSH JENNINGS: I know! It's so fun to see who USA Basketball picks. I think every Olympics I've been to, USA Basketball has come to watch us.
TPG: I assume you grew up a Warriors fan.
WALSH JENNINGS: I did. I did. Since moving away [to LA], it took me a long time to become a Lakers fan, but I'm a huge Kobe [Bryant] fan. But my team for the longest time has been the Spurs. I truly love great teams and that team, 100 percent of the time, is great. It just resonates with me. It takes a great team to be great.
TPG: Now, you have talked with [two-time Olympian] Kobe before.
WALSH JENNINGS: I have. He's supported us numerous times. It's such an honor because he's as legit as it gets. It was so cool to see him at the Olympics. There's so much pride in representing our country and it's not too big for even these guys at the top of the world. To see the humility that Kobe took in the Olympics and will always take at the Olympics, is really wonderful to see, and the fact that he would support Misty [May-Treanor] and I, and now April and I, it's a really big deal to me.
TPG: How have you been a role model to April with all your success?
WALSH JENNINGS: I don't know. We really just hit the ground running when we partnered up. We're on a mission and we've been really eager to take on challenges. We've had challenges and we've allowed each one of the challenges and obstacles to make us stronger. I like to lead by example more than anything. I don't mind talking about things, but I really try to lead by example. I'm bringing every single past experience than I have. I'm bringing that with me. April's been so receptive. I'm learning so much from her.
It's like a derogatory term to say my age. People are like, "You're an athlete who's older." I don't feel that way. I have so much experience and I have the mental side of the game, which is everything to me. My partner is just young and fiery.
TPG: You're like 25, right?
WALSH JENNINGS: Exactly. Perpetually. I plan on getting better until I die.
TPG: A lot of people are disappointed that the cast of Friends seemed like they were not close off the set. How close will you and Misty off the beach?
WALSH JENNINGS: I adore her. I love her with all my heart. We're the dearest of friends ... more than that. We're sisters at this point. And I never see her. We connect as we go along, but she's a busy working Mommy. I'm a busy working Mommy. I always know where she stands. We're very close. The love is very real. We went through 12 years together. We lost people we love. We lost matches together. We lost world championships together. We won. Everything that's beautiful about life, we did together. If you're not close after an experience like that, you didn't do it the right way.
TPG: Did you guys ever fight?
WALSH JENNINGS: Of course. We disagreed. Ultimately, it's the same thing with April, when you're on a team, or even in a partnership like your marriage, it's OK to have conflict. That means you're connecting. It's important to connect. You've got to call people out, be accountable. If I'm frustrated, it's rude and selfish for me to hold that against my partner without expressing that. Everything is really heightened when you're chasing huge dreams.
That helped separate us from everyone else -- our level of respect -- between Misty and I and April and I. We can endure that stuff because it comes from a good place.
TPG: When you talk to Misty through text or on the phone, is the conversation about beach volleyball?
WALSH JENNINGS: Generally, not. It's hi, love you, miss you, what's going on? I reached out a few weeks ago because I just wanted to pick her brain on anything she sees in my game. She's a genius when it comes to the sport. Even if I don't see her, even if she's not at our practice consulting, I'm bringing her with me because I've learned so much from her. I value her opinion in so many ways. We talk about life, but our careers are big things for her and I, so nothing's off the table.
TPG: If someone asked you in 2000, "How many Olympics do you think you'll be a part of?" what would you say?
WALSH JENNINGS: As many as my heart's in it for. It's not an age thing. It's not a numbers thing. I knew the minute we won in London. I knew it when we finished fourth in Sydney. You just know it. Every day, if I'm having a challenging week, the last few weeks have been a roller coaster of emotions, it's such a gift to want something so badly and to work daily in and out for it and then look in the mirror and say, 'Do you want it any more?' It's awesome.
TPG: Which Olympics stands out the most?
WALSH JENNINGS: London. To do that as a Mommy, to do that when I knew Misty was retiring, it was just fully loaded. I was pregnant. There was a lot going on there.
TPG: Do you think this is going to be your final Olympics or when will you determine when you're done?
WALSH JENNINGS: I think it'll be an organic feeling. I'm not even thinking anything remotely close to that right now. I'm so into it. I love the qualifying process. It makes me better in so many ways. I have no idea. We shall see. This will be my fifth [Olympics]. It almost seems greedy to a certain point, but I'll be greedy here because I love it so much. I don't know. I'll get back to you.
TPG: How do you think you'll be a role model to younger athletes outside of beach volleyball in Rio?
WALSH JENNINGS: My goal is to be a role model to young kids, Mommies, Daddies, anyone who's driving to be their best selves. I work really hard to better myself on the inside and out. I want to play with joy and gratitude and grace and integrity and represent our country to the best of our ability because I'm so proud to be an American. I want to show what true teamwork looks like with my partnership with April and then my partnership with my husband because I would not still be doing this if I didn't have my families. My priorities are straight because I have the perspective of my family. I don't care if you're 5 or 2, I don't care if you're 37 or 97, it is a worthwhile thing to surround yourself with amazing people and chase a dream until it's time to go upstairs.
TPG: Is your husband still competing?
WALSH JENNINGS: He is. This will be his last full season. He's a star. It makes me tear up every time I think about it because he's so damn good and he's my favorite player to watch, but he's ready. When I retire, I pray that it's black and white and an easy choice.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.