Every four years she resurfaces. Magically it seems. Not a sighting for months and months, then “bang,” there she is on our TV screens. Surprising us with her raw power, her vertical jump, her quick reflexes. Suddenly we are rooting and cheering as if she’d never left. Our long lost daughter returning, like four-year cicadas, after doing whatever it is she and they do in their off years. Drinking cappuccinos and having pleasant conversation is always my hope.
So the timing caught me by surprise.
In the center of a large office complex on the south side of Amsterdam, where you could feel the vibration of young professionals buzzing with their busy lives, I was hopelessly lost. All I could see were ties and jackets and pressed women’s suites scurrying with serious intent between the high buildings. Clearly, they had important places to go and important things to do on this warm workday in July.
The strength coach for the Dutch beach volleyball women players, Rik Priester, had me in tow. A fierce, large, block of a man, he parted the crowd. Suddenly, out we came into a cleared square — converted into a sandy beach — volleyball net up, music blaring, and a sprinkling of business people taking lunch in the newly-created arena. A game was in play.
The Dutch women looked strong, but who was that woman on the other side of the net — dominating, controlling, a force?
Kerri Walsh Jennings! 2004. 2008. 2012. Three-time Olympic gold medalist for the U.S. A superstar we’ve all watched with awe. And on this day, she lived up to her billing. Effectively shutting down entire portions of the court. And at the net? She was almost playful in her swats, smashes, and gentle plants. Although there to see the young Dutch women trained by Priester, it was hard not to smile and cheer her mastery and studied casualness. Olympic champion indeed.
With a little digging, I come to find out that the retirement of her old partner, Misty May-Treanor, apparently has not slowed her winning ways. She joined up with April Ross, her opponent in the 2012 Olympic finals, and they’ve made a stir in the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour, winning multiple tournaments in 2013 and 2014. Amsterdam was no exception, as they beat the Dutch team in two sets to move up the bracket to the next match.
So, there I was at the next match, this time in Scheveningen. Walsh Jennings and Ross were the top seed and were facing a good German team. The German’s were rattled. The Americans quickly dispatched them in the first set. No sweat. Ah, but then life got a little complicated. Trouble serving, trouble at the net, a few bad bounces, and, when the sand settled, the Germans advanced to the finals. The American team went home. The end.
Of course, that isn’t what I wanted to talk to you about.
Did you know Walsh Jennings is the mother of three kids? The last one born a little over a year ago. In fact, she was pregnant with her second kid at the time of the 2012 Olympics. At 36 years old, she is a grand dame on the beach volleyball circuit. When she won her first Olympic gold medal, most of the present crop of volleyball players were just finishing 8th grade. Yup. And she continues to play and continues to win. Truly an accomplishment. An inspiration to “leaned in” women everywhere — not by transforming from a caterpillar to a butterfly, by the way, but by transforming from a butterfly to a rock. She isn’t about beautiful flight, she’s about stolid immutability. Look at her picture. She wants to be the last person standing at the age of 36 and 56 and 86. It doesn’t matter to her. Pay your money and slap on your bikini.
But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about either.
In this age where 298 people are shot out of the sky with a shrug, where 65 Palestinians and 12 Israelis died in the Gaza rubble the other day, where it is reported that the three-year death toll in Syria has now exceeded 160,000, and where 57,000 unaccompanied kids are detained at our borders, I saw something weird on the volleyball court. As Walsh Jennings was struggling with her game, and the Americans were clearly going to lose, Walsh Jennings successfully smashed a ball so hard down the inside net into the chest of the German woman that the German was driven to her knees. Literally. The force made the back of my eyes sting. Walsh Jennings’ response to this successful score? Well, before her feet returned to earth from delivering the spike, her head swiveled in concern for the downed German player. She landed and immediately reached out under the net to the woman, touched her gently, and asked, “Are you all right?”
I’m not kidding. In a loss that was going to cost her $72,000 (you heard me correctly), there was no anger, no yelling, no blaming the refs, and no sniping at her partner. Instead, a little kindness — “Are you all right?”
And with the game lost, the crowd gone, the players in their enclosed tents out of the sun, I was nearly alone in the stands, thinking about what I’d seen, as Walsh Jennings, the loser, returned to the court and jogged over to each of the refs in the far corners, shook their hands, and thanked them for their time. No TV cameras, no applause, no audience. The refs stood humbled. As did I.
“Are you all right?” Not a bad question for this day and age.