Olympians Hit The Beach: U.S.-CHINA BEACH VOLLEYBALL

Hilton Hawaiian Village general manager Tracy Walker with beach volleyball Olympian Kevin Wong Nathalie Walker photo

Hilton Hawaiian Village general manager Tracy Walker with beach volleyball Olympian Kevin Wong Nathalie Walker photo

Fresh from the London Olympics, U.S. and China beach volleyball stars meet Saturday at the Hilton Hawaiian Village for a ‘friendly’ on the site where Duke Kahanamoku helped invent beach volleyball

United States Olympic beach volleyball medalists have landed on Oahu to play in a friendly match against Team China in the Hilton HHonors Beach Volleyball Challenge this Saturday at Duke Kahanamoku Beach fronting the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort.

Scheduled to participate are Team USA – April Ross and Jen Kessy (silver medalists at the recent London Olympics) and Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser (gold medalists at the Beijing 2008 Olympics).

Playing for Team China are Chen Xue and Xi Zhang (fourth in London) and Penggen Wu and Linyin Xu.

Three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings also will be in attendance, but with a baby due in April, she won’t be digging for balls. Instead, fans can catch her working the sidelines.

As for her Olympic gold partner Misty May-Treanor, who is part-Hawaiian (her father Butch May was born in Hawaii), she’s retired from playing and will not be participating in this event. She was, however, seen in Hawaii last week with husband Matt Treanor, a catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

MidWeek caught up last week with Ross, Kessy and Walsh Jennings. We also met with local boy Kevin Wong (see page 74), a Punahou graduate, Olympian and professional beach volleyball player, who has been instrumental in helping Hilton HHonors (the guest loyalty program for Hilton Worldwide’s 10 distinct hotel brands) and USA Volleyball put on this event. He also worked the London Games as an analyst for NBC.

The last time Walsh Jennings was in Hawaii was for her honeymoon on Kauai in December 2005, and then again shortly after for a friend’s wedding.

“The people in Hawaii are so sweet and kind; they love volleyball and I love that,” says Walsh Jennings. “The natural beauty also is a favorite, and one of my best friends is from the Big Island which makes me love the Islands even more.

“Also, my senior year in college (at Stanford) I got to go there for the Final Four and even though we got our butt kicked in the finals, everyone was such gracious hosts, and it was a good place to lose if there is such a thing. And Dave Shoji is one of my favorites in the volleyball world. His sons played at Stanford, and he’s done so much for volleyball. I’m really just appreciative of him.”

Walsh Jennings and husband Casey Jennings, who also plays beach volleyball, live in Manhattan Beach with their two young sons, Sundance and Joseph.

While she’s not teamed up with May-Treanor anymore, Jennings has her eye set on a fourth Olympic gold.

“I absolutely want to qualify for Rio and win a gold medal,” she says. “I feel that would top off an already amazing and blessed beach volleyball career. So that is my next goal, and along the way I’ll have a lot of goals that remain to be seen.

“Casey and I are going to welcome this beautiful baby in the spring, and we want to keep growing our roots at home. And I’d love to do a lot of things in my career as far as writing books, children’s books, and create lifestyle workout DVDs. And I want to keep giving back to my sport.”

Three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings will be at Saturday’s Hilton HHonors Beach Volleyball Challenge in Waikiki Sherry Harper Wong photo

Three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings will be at Saturday’s Hilton HHonors Beach Volleyball Challenge in Waikiki Sherry Harper Wong photo

One way of giving back is by volunteering at events, such as this weekend’s one in Waikiki. “I’m so excited to get back to Hawaii,” she says. “I’m hoping all the locals will come in droves because it’s going to be a lot of fun. The Chinese team, they’re amazing, and for most of the year they’re the best team in the world. And Jen and April are obviously a very good team, so they’re going to put on a great show.”

Some fun facts about Walsh Jennings:

* Her celebrity crush always has been Leonardo DiCaprio (even before Titanic). “I’ve been such a groupie for so long, it’s almost embarrassing,” she laughs. “And my Olympic crush is my husband. He’s my ultimate crush, so as far as athletes, that’s where it goes.”

* Her pet peeves are arrogant people and when people snap their food when they chew.

* From her many travels, she likes to buy ornaments. “My family, we love Christmas more than anything, and my mom kind of taught me that tradition and I’m carrying it on.”

* When you call her cell phone, the song Good Feeling by Flo Rider comes on. “Misty and I, that was our song for our journey to London,” she explains. “My husband created this amazingly inspiring video that we had watched before every single match, and that was the song throughout the video. It was something that inspired me and put a smile on my face.”

* Her hobbies are sleeping, eating, reading and listening to good music.

When asked if her former partner, May-Treanor, ever talked about her Hawaiian heritage, Walsh Jennings says, “It’s definitely something she’s so proud of. She’s there (in Hawaii) somewhere, and I know she’s really happy to be around family. She loves going there to decompress, and I know she really appreciates the food and obviously the lifestyle. She could live in that weather all year round.”

Like Walsh Jennings, April Ross also had her honeymoon in Hawaii (with fellow beach volleyball player Brad Keenan) in the winter of 2010.

“Hawaii is gorgeous, the ocean is amazing and we went on one really cool hike up to a waterfall and we jumped off some cliffs,” recalls Ross about her time in Hawaii. “I think it’s very outdoorsy, and there’s so much to do. It’s just an amazing place.

“(For this trip) we’ll have some time to relax before (the event) and I really want to go stand-up paddle boarding.”

Since the recent Olympic Games, Ross has been busy with interviews and appearances while trying to “integrate back into normal life” at home in Costa Mesa, Calif. She also played in two AVP tournaments in Santa Barbara, which they won, and visited with children at her elementary school and with students at her alma mater, USC.

“The Olympics was just amazing,” she says. “I didn’t know what to expect. I had never been to the Olympics before. It was overwhelming. I’ve never cried so many times for a sport.”

After Hawaii, Ross and Kessy will head off to Thailand for the last event of their season. “We also are going to visit this village where some of the orphans from the tsunami live,” she says. “We’ll go down there and play with them a little bit and see what we can help them with through our sponsor 4Point4. We’re hoping we can have an impact there.

“After that we’re off for the holidays. I’m excited to eat a lot of food and hang out with my family.”

Some fun facts about Ross:

* She earned her degree in international marketing. “In college, my ideal job was to be on the international marketing side of a sport company, like Gatorade or Nike or Mizuno.”

* Her hobby is sewing and snowboarding. “My favorite thing to do is make skirts and dresses for myself. I’m not very good and I like to just experiment. It’s a creative outlet for me.”

* She’s obsessed with the TV show Glee.

* She collects mugs from the places she travels to.

* Her biggest pet peeve is when people chew with their mouth open and talk with their mouth full. “I can’t handle it, and I’ve gotten into fights with my family members.”

* Her Olympic crush was LeBron James but is now Kobe Bryant. “I really wanted to meet Lebron James and get a picture with him,” she explains. “One day we were eating in the cafeteria, and the basketball team came in and they were being swarmed. I wasn’t going to hound him for a picture at that point, but then LeBron broke away and was walking over to my area. I had my phone with me, so I thought I’m going take a picture with him right now. I make eye contact with him and I’m like, hey, Lebron, and he just turns around and walks away from me. I was so devastated. I had my USA gear on, and he really just ignored me, so after that I was over trying to get a picture with him. But then, I ended up next to Kobe Bryant walking over to opening ceremonies and I was super star-struck. He talked to me for a good 10 minutes, and I got my picture with him. So it was LeBron at first and it ended up being Kobe.”

* During matches, she taps her chest twice, one for her mom (who passed away in 2001) and one for God, and points to the sky. “Most of the time after an ace or a crazy play that goes our way, I’ll do it,” she says. “I believe she had her hand in getting the point.”

London 2012 Olympic beach volleyball silver medalists Jen Kessy and April Ross team up to play China in Waikiki on Saturday Sherry Harper Wong photos

London 2012 Olympic beach volleyball silver medalists Jen Kessy and April Ross team up to play China in Waikiki on Saturday Sherry Harper Wong photos

For Ross, playing professional beach volleyball and winning an Olympic silver medal is a dream come true, however, she still wants gold at the next Olympics. Until then, she’s looking forward to her time in Hawaii and to promote the sport that she is so passionate about.

“I think especially after the Olympics and having beach volleyball be so big in the Olympics, we’re trying to keep the momentum going in the U.S.,” she says. “We don’t have any real international events in the U.S. yet, and to go to Hawaii and play China, I think is a great exhibition of high-level international volleyball.

“I can’t tell you how excited we are to go to Hawaii, relax, hike around, float around and have some drinks. It’s going to be amazing. My husband is coming also, so it’ll be like a second honeymoon.”

Kessy also has been to Hawaii a few times before, with her last visit about four years ago. Among her favorite things to do is to visit good friend Stein Metzger (a Punahou graduate and pro beach volleyball player) and his wife at their home. “We would have nice dinners out on their lanai and watch their view,and soak in the beautiful landscape,” she remembers. “Also, I get to surf. I’m not a great surfer, but the waves are so much kinder to me than in California. And I love going to Duke’s.

“I haven’t been to Hawaii in so long. I’m really looking forward to being in the water for an extended period of time and to go snorkeling. Just to do things out in the water is something I don’t get to do as much as I’d like here.”

Since returning home from the Olympics, Kessy has been busy renovating her house, which she recently purchased in Orange County. As for her favorite memory of the London Olympics, she says it was beating Brazil in the semifinal match and realizing that they were going to medal.

“We hadn’t beaten them in nine times, so to beat them one out of 10 times on the biggest stage ever was a really big deal. It was huge for us,” she says. “The whole goal was to have all four U.S. teams in the final against each other. We wanted four medals, and for the girls it came true.”

At age 35, Kessy plans to continue playing next year, but after that her future is unclear. “I don’t have any kids yet,” she says. “It’s hard for me to pick career over family. I’ve been doing it for awhile. I’m not closing any doors and I’m not saying no to anything. I’m just kind of playing and seeing how it goes.

“We’ll see if I’m the best partner for April in the next four years. I don’t know, but I want to make sure she makes that next Olympics.

“And I really don’t want to travel internationally anymore. I’m never home and it takes a lot out of me, my friends and family. But, I’m healthy, my body feels good, so we’ll see.”

Some fun facts about Kessy:

* She travels with her pillow everywhere, and sleeps with an eye mask and ear plugs when she’s on the road.

* She loves art, particularly colorful art. “I walk in to my house and I know each place I’ve been to when I look at each art piece,” she says. “I have some from Thailand, France and Germany. It’s paintings and I have two beautiful yarn art pieces, one from Madagascar and one from Mexico, but it looks like a painting from far away.”

* She loves to watch Modern Family and New Girl. “I think they’re the funniest shows on TV right now. Other than that I love watching HGTV.”

* She enjoys hiking, playing tennis and stand-up paddle boarding. She also does yoga twice a week in the off-season.

* She’s been dating French volleyball player Andy Ces for the last three years.

Waikiki may be the perfect setting for Saturday’s Hilton HHonors Beach Volleyball Challenge, but having it take place on the sands of Duke Kahanamoku Beach is even more significant.

Beijing 2008 Olympic beach volleyball gold medalists Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser will take on China this Saturday at the Hilton HHonors Beach Volleyball Challenge in Waikiki Sherry Harper Wong photo

Beijing 2008 Olympic beach volleyball gold medalists Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser will take on China this Saturday at the Hilton HHonors Beach Volleyball Challenge in Waikiki Sherry Harper Wong photo

“This is where the sport was invented,” notes Kevin Wong. “The first people who played beach volleyball were right on this beach, Duke Kahanamoku (himself an Olympian) and friends. There’s a great picture of them in 1915, and Duke is in the photo.”

Add an attractive destination and the Hilton Hawaiian Village, one of the company’s flagship properties, and it all makes sense. The beach where the court will be located also was named the No. 2 beach in America for 2012 by Stephen Leatherman (aka Dr. Beach, an internationally known coastal scientist). The beach, which is maintained by the Hilton, made his list for the third consecutive year.

“We’re really excited to be part of this, and we think it’ll be great exposure for us and for Waikiki,” says Hilton Hawaiian Village general manager Tracy Walker. “It’ll also be a lot of fun to see them compete, especially just coming out of the Olympics.”

The event also will be taped and aired on NBC Sports with the men’s match Nov. 3 at 5 p.m. (ET) and the women’s Nov. 24 at 3:30 p.m. (ET). It’ll also be rebroadcast on an NBC cable affiliate, and broadcast on CCTV in China, as well as distributed throughout Asia.

Walker, a 24-year industry veteran who has been with Hilton Worldwide since 2002, joined HHV in June. She previously served as general manager of the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, and before that was GM for Hilton Newark Airport and worked for the Fontainebleau on Miami Beach and Hilton Chicago.

“So far it’s been a lot of fun and very, very busy as well,” says Walker of her first four months in Hawaii. “We have a lot going on at the Village with regards to some of our renovations.

“We just finished our $7.6 million renovation of the Coral Ballroom. It’s absolutely stunning and gorgeous. The Tapa pool is under construction and when it’s done there will be 20 percent more pool deck space, and chairs and cabanas. And our Tapa concourse retail is being redone for a fresh, new, chic look.”

Walker began her career with Hilton at the Burbank Airport Hilton and Convention Center about 25 years ago where she was named Employee of the Year and won a trip to Hawaii with a stay at the Hilton Hawaiian Village for one week. “I was there with my mother and son, but hadn’t been back since,” she says.

While the Hilton Hawaiian Village, which encompasses 22 beachfront acres and more than 3,500 guest rooms and timeshare units, has become a true destination resort, it also is a popular staycation spot for locals. The resort also features more than 90 shops and services, and 16 restaurants, lounges and bars; and every Friday evening showcases Hawaiian culture and entertainment ending with a spectacular fireworks show.

And if you’re a Hawaii Five-0 fan, there’s a good chance you might run into one of the show’s stars as they often film on property.

“I’m an absolute water person,” adds Walker, a graduate of University of Utah. “And I have a passion for resorts and being a part of a guest’s journey. People want to come here and they want memories. They want to have things to remember, and I’m absolutely passionate about being a part of that.

Hilton HHonors

Beach Volleyball Challenge

Event: Team USA and Team China meet on Duke Kahanamoku Beach (fronting the Hilton Hawaiian Village) for a friendly beach volleyball match

When: Oct. 20

Time: Pre-show at noon

* Men’s competition at 1 p.m. * Women’s competition at 2 p.m.

Cost: Free, limited space available

Public parking is available at Ala Wai Harbor, or dine at one of the restaurants at the Hilton, such as the beachfront Tropics Bar & Grill, and they can validate.

*Event times are subject to change