Kerri Walsh Jennings knows what's at stake for the ASICS World Series of Beach Volleyball in Long Beach, and she's eager to prove that she'll be in the running for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Since mid-July, Walsh Jennings has been out of action after suffering a dislocated shoulder. She targeted the ASICS World Series of Beach Volleyball — part of the Federation of International Volleyball's World Tour — for her return.
From Wednesday until Sunday, the best men's and women's players in the world will compete both for prize money (a total of $800,000) and for points that go toward qualifying for the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The ASICS World Series of Beach Volleyball is the fourth of five Grand Slams, which offer more qualifying points than other tour stops.
"We're taking on the world here," Walsh Jennings said. "That's a very big deal. This has very huge Olympic implications. This is a Grand Slam, it's on NBC. All of those things combine to make this a hugely prestigious event. It's so important to us."
In response to questions about her shoulder, Walsh Jennings said Tuesday that she's "feeling ready" and that she and partner April Ross "wouldn't be competing if I didn't think we could win this thing."
In Walsh Jennings' absence, Ross won the Manhattan Beach Open last weekend with Jennifer Fopma.
"I really enjoyed watching her," Walsh Jennings said of Ross. "It's always hard watching. It's a little bit bittersweet, because I want to be there, but the fact that she is improving every single week, working so hard, it's really fun to see her shine."
Walsh Jennings and Ross, who won at Long Beach in 2014, are no longer the undisputed favorites on the women's side. Brazilian duo Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas de Freitas are the top-ranked team in 2015, and have some experience against the Americans.
"I think it would be great to play against them in this tournament," Seixas de Freitas said. "Last year, we played against them and got the silver in the finals. We hope that we can do better this time and have a great match for everybody."
Other U.S. duos in the main draw include Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Sweat, Emily Day and Jennifer Kessy, along with Fopma and Brittany Hochevar.
Meanwhile, Phil Dalhausser arrives at Long Beach as the defending men's champion. He and new partner Nick Lucena won at Manhattan Beach, but they face a much more difficult list of opponents.
"The World Tour is a different story," Lucena said at Manhattan Beach. "Every game is a tough game. I'm confident in us as a team, but it's not going to be easy."
Brazil's Alison Cerutti and Bruno Oscar Schmidt are the No. 1 men's team on the World Tour this season, and Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson are the highest-ranked U.S. team, rated sixth. Manhattan Beach runners-up Tri Bourne and John Hyden will also be at Long Beach, as will Theo Brunner and Sean Rosenthal, who was Dalhausser's partner at Long Beach in 2014.
The main draw begins Wednesday morning with pool play, which lasts through Thursday. After that, it's on to the elimination rounds, culminating in the gold medal matches Sunday.