I am already predicting the two biggest breakout stars of this summer's Olympics in London. Their names are Joey and Sundance Jennings.
Joseph and Sundance are 3 and 2 years old. You will find them at the beach volleyball courts. They will be rooting for their mom, Kerri Walsh. She will be trying to win an unprecedented third gold medal with partner Misty May-Treanor. At every match, Joseph and Sundance will be in the bleachers, looking patriotically adorable.
My over-under number on cute NBC television closeups is ... oh, about two million.
"They don't understand much about my job," Walsh said Thursday by phone from her Southern California home. "They know we go on airplanes a lot. They know we go to the beach a lot. That's about it. So the way I'm trying to get the Olympics across to them is, this is something big for our country, all of us are part of it, and they're going to be wearing Olympic diapers, with Team USA and the stars and stripes."
Wait. Check that over-under number. Make it about three million.
Walsh has always had impeccable timing in her volleyball game. By nature, she is also relentlessly cheery. But even she is happily astounded at how the past four years have worked out, ever since she and May-Treanor won their second gold medal at Beijing.
Walsh and her husband, fellow volleyball pro Casey Jennings, always hoped to start a family during the between-Games interlude. But things fell
"My dreams came true," Walsh said of the entire experience. "I feel so blessed. The timing is crucial. It couldn't have worked out any better."
After shoulder surgery to clean up a labrum issue and "some other junk," Walsh says her body is back to Olympic strength. The biggest issue has been the same one as for any toddler parent: Sleep deprivation. She didn't want training time impinging too much on kid time, so it means less sleep time. When the family travels, they are accompanied by Walsh's sister, K.C., as a nanny. But the boys are along for every step of the ride. With their curly blonde hair, they turned Walsh into a secondary attraction at a tournament in China.
"More people took pictures of them than of me," Walsh said. "When we went back the next year, everyone showed me their photos."
Walsh's partnership with May-Treanor is also back in a groove, though not without drama. May-Treanor ruptured her Achilles tendon on "Dancing With The Stars" in 2008 and endured months of rehab. She's announced that the London Games will definitely be her last. Walsh, 33, plans to participate in 2016 with a different partner. As she and May-Treanor make their way around the beach volleyball circuit this spring, they've found it difficult to ignore the heavy "last lap" emotions.
"We hit a road bump and had two terrible finishes," Walsh said, "and we realized we were maybe thinking too much about this being our final run together, holding on too tight to that. We got back to concentrating on fundamentals and it's been better."
Even so, Walsh and May-Treanor currently stand third in the Olympic qualification/seeding rankings. The aim is to be No. 1 by London. Yet given their age and previous achievements, a silver or bronze would hardly be a crushing result. Walsh won't go there.
"I'm planning on winning," she said. "I'm thinking about nothing else."
Walsh was helped by a conversation with former NFL coach Jon Gruden. The two encountered each other randomly at the same New York hotel Walsh -- who didn't know Gruden well -- mentioned that she and May-Treanor were smacking into a confidence wall.
"He said something to me that stuck," Walsh said of Gruden. "He said, 'You know, Kerri, sometimes lack of confidence is an excuse for something else. Just go out and play. Just go out and play.' "
So they did. And they are.
Walsh, a graduate of Archbishop Mitty High and Stanford, still considers herself a Bay Area citizen at heart. She lives in Manhattan Beach because of its beach volleyball nexus. But she and Jennings have tentative plans to return north after they're done competing, likely to pursue coaching careers.
Before leaving for England, in fact, Walsh will be given a "sendoff celebration" by her hometown of Saratoga at 10:30 a.m. on June 19. The ceremony, fittingly, will be held near Wildwood Park's volleyball court. One of Walsh's sponsors, Acer, is supporting the event with a donation to Walsh's charitable foundation.
In London, beach volleyball will again be an Olympic showcase. The venue site is the Horse Guards Parade Ground, bordering the rear garden wall of 10 Downing St. In America, it would be the equivalent of holding a beach volleyball tournament just outside the White House fence. Going by their track record, Walsh and May-Treanor usually respond to the spotlight.
"I swear, we are stronger and better than we were four years ago," Walsh said. "We've just got to get back the mental edge. We'll get there by the time we get to London."
Two kids in star-spangled diapers are counting on it.
Contact Mark Purdy at email@example.com or 408-920-5092.