By Karolos Grohmann
BERLIN (Reuters) - Kerri Walsh Jennings is eyeing her fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro next year but the American beach volleyball champion will have to complete this remarkable feat with a new partner.
The 36-year-old mother of three won gold at Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympics alongside Misty Mae-Treanor in a partnership hailed as "the best beach volleyball team of all time."
She is now bidding to join the exclusive club of athletes who have won four consecutive Olympic golds in the same individual event, this time with April Ross who she beat for gold in 2012.
That exclusive club of four straight Olympic golds so far includes just two athletes -- Americans Al Oerter and Carl Lewis -- who achieved this feat in discus and long jump respectively at four consecutive Games.
"I don't like to speculate, because anything can happen, but I will say that April (Ross) and I are going to the Olympics to win and we are doing everything we can to set ourselves up for success," Walsh Jennings told Reuters in an interview.
"The level of play for beach volleyball for men and women is insanely high. There are no easy matches. In order to win this gold medal, April and I need to be extraordinary and that's what we plan to do."
Extraordinary is an apt word used to describe the athlete, who was pregnant during her Olympic gold run at the London 2012 Games.
For Rio she has teamed up with Ross and Walsh Jennings said the change was a "challenge" and they were both working on it every day.
"It can sometimes be a challenge transitioning partners, but April is such a hardworking athlete and overall wonderful person," said Walsh Jennings, who is also a spokesperson for Almond Breeze.
"We definitely have the same mentality and are super focused. No matter how good we each are individually, it takes time to build our morale and rhythm, so that's what we're working on every single day."
Walsh Jennings could have hoped for a better preparation going into her final year before Rio, with a shoulder injury disrupting her training ahead of this month's world championships in the Netherlands.
But the injury, which has forced her to play with shoulder strapping in her first matches in Holland, will not deter her from her goals in Rio, she said.
"It was definitely a rough patch but I'm feeling strong. Fortunately it was just a minor setback and didn't keep me off the sand for too long.
"I'm back to my training routine and just really taking care of myself so that it doesn't affect my progress toward the world championships and beyond."
Following the world championships this year, it will be the Olympics in 2016 and the biggest stage for the sport, at the iconic Copacabana beach venue in Rio.
"Honestly, there isn't a more perfect place to compete in beach volleyball," she said. "Copacabana is where I want to be playing and fighting for a gold medal.
"The love and intensity of the sport is on a completely different level in Brazil, so having the opportunity to play beach volleyball there is an honor."
(Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)