How to Be Happy, According to a Beach Volleyball Legend
Kerri Walsh Jennings talks sounding boards, recovery and Olympic blues
Kerri Walsh Jennings became the best beach volleyball player in American history by playing with her heart on her sleeve, and “joy” on her hand — literally.
By her own estimation, the 44-year-old, four-time Olympian has always played her best beach volleyball when happy, loose and unencumbered by the fear of failure. But Walsh Jennings lost sight of that, and her love of the sport, during a rocky stretch after the Rio Games. She was comparing herself to others, replaying mistakes in her head, starting to wonder if her career would end with a humbling hobble off the sand. “It was a nightmare for me,” she says.
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In this column, we ask an interesting person exactly nine questions about their personal pursuit of happiness.
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Her saving grace? Grace itself. Walsh Jennings shifted her perspective, choosing to let old demons go, while learning to cherish her highs and her lows. With an assist from books, ice baths and her beloved sounding boards (she’s been married since 2005 and has three children), she reached an indelible conclusion: “Self-love is an inside job.”
The mindset has her well-primed for one last run at the Olympics, with hopes of qualifying for Paris in 2024. But it also has her looking back with gratitude. We spoke to the one they call “six feet of sunshine” for her unique perspective on happiness, including riffs on motherhood, recovery devices, her favorite beach to play and those notorious post-Olympic blues.
1. Is it possible to replicate the level of happiness you felt when winning your Olympic gold medals?
What a good question. You know…it’s a very unique type of happiness. Each Olympic medal we won left me with a different sense of happiness. Our first medal felt like pure, childlike happiness. The second one felt like relief. The third left my heart and soul feeling satisfied and content. (It was my first medal as a mama, and we did it together as a family!) The bronze made me so proud and yes, happy. I guess it’s a nuanced thing.
2. Some athletes have talked about feeling bizarrely empty once they’ve finally reached their end goal and won a ring, trophy, or medal. Are you able to relate to that at all? How did you process your highs?
I’ve lived six Olympic cycles. I’m currently starting my seventh. So I’ve definitely felt the post-Olympic blues. The sense of purpose and direction and structure that you have in the pursuit is oddly liberating and very inspiring. The journey to the destination is always my favorite part…it lasts longer and you become greater along the way. So it’s a wild thing when it’s over. Thankfully, I processed my highs and lows relatively quickly. The crazy thing about the way my brain and heart operate is once a mission is accomplished, it takes all of a minute for me to be ready for the next dream. This is actually something that I’m working on — it’s important to pause and celebrate the journey we take in life and I feel like I’m always so eager for what’s next that I don’t fully appreciate the adventure or destination.
3. Beyond beach volleyball, what sort of activities/exercise do you turn to for happiness?
Oh, man. Movement certainly makes me happy. I love feeling strong and capable. It brings me a sense of freedom and self-confidence, which brings me inner peace, which brings me happiness. I love lifting weights, Pilates, walking, being in nature. I love being with my babes and my husband doing anything and nothing. I love reading and learning new things. I love finding inspiration in the world around me and then using it to live an empowered and inspired life within. I love watching my babes play and compete. Personal growth and my family bring me the deepest happiness.
4. How have you remained so consistent for so long?
My consistency and longevity come from my sincere love of the game. My whole heart has been in this since I was 10 years old. This makes it feel like a calling and a purpose for me, not a job. I truly love it. The lifestyle is unbeatable. My support system is also another huge reason behind my success, longevity and consistency. My coaches, trainers, family, teammates and partners have loved me and guided me to greatness. My business partners as well. I’ve been able to partner with some world-class brands that have not only allowed me to focus solely on my craft, but have helped me remain steady and strong. My favorite go-to after long days of training or for my long travel days are my Firefly Recovery devices. They’re convenient, effective and very needed these days. I lean on them constantly.
5. Can you talk a bit about your self-care routine, and how that’s evolved throughout your career?
Oh my, how this has evolved over the past 20 years. I’ve learned so much the hard way in my career. Now that I know better, it’s fun to do better for myself. I try to give myself more time for me before the start of my day, in between tasks, or before bed. I’m working on never putting myself in a potion to feel rushed. It means going to bed consistently at a healthy time. Shopping mindfully and curating my home, refrigerator and closet with things that not only support feelings of confidence and inspiration, but my wellness and health as well. And I take my recovery after training very seriously. Along with excellent nutrition and sleep, I consistently commit to using our sauna, cold plunge and my Firefly Recovery devices. These things are staples. I get a power nap in when I can, I meditate, I read books that give grace to myself and the world, yet also empower me to take responsibility for all areas of my life. I talk to my trusted sounding boards, I lean on my people and I fix my mindset to find the good and the opportunity within every single thing in my life — no matter what it might be. Self-love is behind my self-care practices. I’m focusing on self-love because it’s a powerful determinant for success and satisfaction in one’s life and also because I’m a mama to three very special souls and I would like to model for them the things that I pray they hold dear in their lives. Self-love and self-care are inside jobs. I want them to know that.
6. What’s something you changed at some point in your life, and you found you were happier for it, and you’ve never returned to the old way?
I’ve carried around a lot of shame for a lot of my life for a handful of “mistakes” that I’ve made. Or from losses that I felt were my fault…and because of them I felt that I let a lot of people down. This perspective kept me weak and stunted. So after years of thinking I needed to punish myself for my areas of lack, I started to focus on the entire story — the good that I did, the lessons that I learned and the sincere way I have approached my life…no matter the result. I decided to change the way I looked at past mistakes and started to acknowledge that I am a human living in the school of life. Everything that everything I’ve ever said, done or experienced has led me to right where I am. And right where I am is exactly where I want to be, so I now bless my past and the lessons it’s brought me. Shame is the worst and so unnecessary. I wish I would have understood the concept of grace way back when, but I only learned it very recently. Now I know, and I won’t go back to carrying my past with me in any heavy sort of way. I love, I learn, I do better as I go.
7. What do you consider the most challenging period of your career?
The most challenging period of my career was in the years after winning bronze, from 2016 to 2021. I played with a lot of angst and fear. I lost my mojo and my freedom to simply compete, because I was so in my head and so afraid of failure. It was a nightmare for me. My entire life I’ve always competed with such joy and love in my heart. I lost that because I was so afraid that I wasn’t good enough. I started to compare myself to others and I always came up short. Those days are over and now I’m so excited to be back in the court. My intention is to finish as I started — as an athlete who’s there to compete with all my heart and to give it all I’ve got on game day and all the days in between. I’m excited for what’s to come.
8. Where have you most enjoyed playing beach volleyball throughout your life?
Manhattan Beach, California. Every single Olympic venue (Athens, Beijing, London, Rio…Paris will be amazing!) and any time I get to play in Brazil, it’s truly very special. I’ve also loved playing in Quintana Roo, Mexico. Truly amazing fans.
9. What would happiness look like to you, 10 years from today?
I would never want to put a limit on the magic and goodness of where I’ll/we’ll be in the next 10 years. God-willing, life will be full of my healthy, fulfilled family, it’ll feel inspired and I’ll feel empowered within myself and my days. It’ll be full of new “gold medals” to pursue and I’ll be watching my beloveds doing the same in their own ways…that sounds like a recipe for joy and happiness to me.
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