COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (April 18, 2018)
– U.S. beach volleyball Olympians Nicole Branagh and Kerri Walsh Jennings return to the sand this week at the FIVB World Tour four-star event in Xiamen, China.

The team opens main draw pool play on Wednesday night in the United States (10:10 p.m. PT) against Germany’s Kim Behrens and Sandra Ittlinger. Behrens and Ittlinger are seeded 16th while Branagh and Walsh Jennings are seeded 17th.

Also in their pool are Canada’s top-seeded Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes and China’s No. 32 Shuting Cao and Jinjin Zeng.

Interviewed before the tournament, Branagh and Walsh Jennings knew that the comeback would be challenging. But after training hard for six weeks with Coach Marcio Sicoli, they wanted to compete again.

“I’m pretty nervous,” said Walsh Branagh, 39, who stopped competing in July of 2017 after dislocating her shoulder during a semifinal match with Branagh in Poland. Coincidentally, the semifinal was against Pavan and Humana-Paredes.

Since then, Walsh Jennings has had surgeries on both her shoulder and her ankle, which had never fully recovered from an injury she suffered before the 2000 Olympic Games.

“I dislocated my shoulder because my ankle was so bad. When I would dive, all the pressure would go to my shoulder.

“I feel like a newborn fawn coming back from the surgeries. My mindset is to go have fun and use it as a stepping stone.”

Branagh, 39, added, “I think we’re progressing well and getting lots of reps. Marcio is the best coach. We’re working hard on training and progressing as we go along.

“I think we’re both very competitive and want to win. This tournament is about going out there and seeing where you are at with everything.”

Neither athlete has taken much time off during their “break.” Branagh played on the AVP Tour and spent time with her family, including wife Jenn, son Will and daughter Tegan.

In fact, Branagh wasn’t sure she would return to international competition after the birth of Will in 2016. But a call from Sicoli solidified her plans to go for the

“I love being with my kids,” she said. “I didn’t have (the 2020 Olympic Games) on my radar.

After playing with Walsh Jennings during a practice, Sicoli contacted Branagh to ask her “level of commitment.”

“I said, ‘Well, I could practice with her at these times,’ and he said, ‘No, to play with Kerri.’”

Walsh Jennings also kept busy with family, including husband Casey, sons Joey and Sundance and daughter Scout. She also got to work on p1440, a planned beach volleyball, wellness and music festival series.

“Largely, it’s going awesome,” Walsh Jennings said. “The demand for the game is there. The trouble in paradise is the financial level. I hope to come in and do a service to the sport.”

Meanwhile, there have been changes on the tour, including several new U.S. women’s beach teams. Branagh and Walsh Jennings have been around long enough to know to expect change and how to deal with it.

“It usually happens around the two-year-out mark (from the Olympic),” Branagh said. “It might be happening earlier this time.”

“It’s so fun. I love people making moves and creating their best situation,” Walsh Jennings said. “I just keep my focus on my team and myself.”