Three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings, already the most decorated beach volleyball player in history, will pair with defensive star Brooke Sweat in an attempt to make it to the Summer Games for a sixth time.
The decision kicks off a two-year qualification process that would send Walsh Jennings to Tokyo in 2020 a month before she turns 42. Sweat, eight years younger, is a four-time AVP defensive player of the year who competed in Rio de Janeiro in her only Olympics.
"I was so excited that Brooke wanted to play," Walsh Jennings said in an interview with The Associated Press. "She's literally a Jedi on defense. You can tell Brooke was born to play this game. She's elevated every single partnership she's ever had."
A five-time Olympian — she also went to Sydney on the U.S. indoor volleyball team — Walsh Jennings won three gold medals with Misty May-Treanor, who retired after the 2012 Games. Walsh Jennings paired with London silver medalist April Ross in 2016 and earned bronze, but the pair split when Walsh Jennings left the AVP over philosophical differences and formed her own tour, called p1440.
The new partners will compete together for the first time Oct. 18-21 at the p1440 event in Las Vegas.
"I'm so excited to finally be on the same side of the net as Kerri," Sweat told the AP. "I'm excited to play defense behind that block. She's the best blocker, and it makes my job on defense way easier."
Beach volleyball partners can take years to learn each other's strengths and weaknesses, along with the quirks that emerge while traveling on a world tour that bounces among Europe, Asia and North and South America.
Walsh Jennings, nicknamed "Six Feet of Sunshine," is a ruthless competitor, a relentlessly optimistic chatterbox, a Stanford graduate and now a budding mogul who formed her own tour rather than give up on her vision to grow the sport. Sweat grew up in Fort Myers, Florida, and stayed home to attend Florida Gulf Coast University rather than make the usual pilgrimage to the beach volleyball hub in Southern California.
"I probably will do most of the talking," Walsh Jennings said with a laugh. "She's a really grounded, really good human being. If you have a problem with Brooke, you are just not a good human being."
Sweat, who pronounced herself recovered from May rotator cuff surgery, attended the San Jose p1440 event last month as a spectator.
The two practiced together last week for the first time.
"It just confirmed what I've always thought about Kerri: She just raises the level of hard work and professionalism," Sweat said. "I always want to show up for practices wanting to be the hardest worker on the court, and I think Kerri gives me a run for my money."
Two-person teams qualify for the Olympics by earning points on the FIVB world tour over a two-year period that began in the spring. The two are starting at zero and will have to work their way up into the top two dozen — and be one of the top two U.S. teams — to make it to Tokyo.
"I have no points on the qualification," Walsh Jennings said. "It's a new situation for me, which I don't like."
Sweat's Olympic experience will be an advantage, Walsh Jennings said.
Sweat, paired with Lauren Fendrick, arrived in Rio as the No. 13 seed of 24 teams. They were eliminated after going winless in pool play and finished tied for last.
"Rio was devastating, but now I'm in a place where I can look back and learn from everything," Sweat said. "Mostly, I'm learning from the journey to Rio, not being so stressed out about everything."