Kerri Walsh Jennings

Kerri Walsh Jennings celebrates immediately after winning the women's beach volleyball gold-medal match at the 2012 London Olympics. She's aiming to win a fourth gold medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / August 8, 2012)

Kerri Walsh Jennings made her decision to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics between being dropped off at Heathrow Airport and boarding her flight late last summer.

She had just finished winning an unprecedented third straight Olympic gold medal in beach volleyball with Misty May-Treanor when Walsh Jennings noticed a picture of the Cristo Redentor statue in the Heathrow terminal, the famous landmark in Rio de Janeiro. A landmark she knew she had to see for herself in four years.

At that moment, Walsh Jennings decided her international career would have at least four more years. At 34 years old, with a third kid on the way, she was going to go for gold medal No. 4 at 38.

"People love talking about age, and I guess it's understandable because I'm playing against mostly 20-year-olds," Walsh Jennings said Monday. "But I feel the way I feel. I have a lot of passion in my heart and a lot of room for improvement. That's what I look at.

"I don't ever want to call myself old, because then I'll start feeling old. That's illegal in my sport."

Walsh Jennings is training on the Manhattan Beach courts 11 weeks after giving birth to her third child, Scout. In a black tank top, yoga pants and a pink visor, the 6-foot-3 Walsh Jennings scrimmaged and worked on blocking drills. She is preparing for her return to competition at the ASICS World Series of Beach Volleyball at Long Beach on July 22-28.

She will be paired with fellow American Whitney Pavlik in Long Beach, the first internationally sanctioned competition in the United States in 10 years. She'll also compete in a new four-team tournament, the World Series Cup, featuring the best in the U.S. against the best in the world, with an unannounced partner.

Walsh Jennings originally planned to return for the start of the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals tour in Salt Lake City in August, but with the international tour finally returning to the U.S. in her own backyard, she decided to come back earlier.

"Aug 18, 2016, I want to be winning a gold medal," Walsh Jennings said. "I know the date, I know where I want to be and I know what I want. All these things are leading up to it."

Walsh Jennings, who plays five days a week on the beach against top competition, has been weight training since the pregnancy. That helped her recover more quickly than she did after the births of sons Joseph, 4, and Sundance, 3.

"In some ways I feel way more prepared, but in some ways I feel less prepared because I'm literally getting no sleep and I have three kids to take care of," Walsh Jennings said. "It's a really crazy challenge, a beautiful challenge, but a crazy challenge."

Her husband, AVP pro Casey Jennings, takes care of the boys and Walsh Jennings stays close to Scout all day, so it isn't always easy to find time for working out.

"It's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Casey Jennings said, "but it's the [most fun] thing at the same time."

Walsh Jennings has yet to announce a long-term partner, though two potential candidates are London 2012 silver medalists April Ross and Jennifer Kessy. Former American star Holly McPeak, who trained with Walsh Jennings on Monday, said Ross would be a good fit.

Walsh Jennings is an anxious player on the court, McPeak said, so she needs someone who can keep calm in hectic situations.

"If it is April Ross, I think that's a great matchup," McPeak said. "April Ross is one of the best all-around players, another proven winner on every level."

But whoever she ends up with, Walsh Jennings said it won't change the legacy she left behind with May-Treanor. The new duo will just have to build its own chemistry, its own brand.

And from May-Treanor's perspective, Walsh Jennings is the one to beat in 2016.

"I think whatever she puts her mind to she does, so gold isn't out of the question," May-Treanor said in an email. "I see her as the heavy favorite going into the Games with all that she has accomplished...."

stephen.bailey@latimes.com

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