Sponsors, athletes work together on beach bikini design
RIO DE JANEIRO -- The collaboration between April Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings goes beyond the Copacabana beach volleyball venue, beyond the California beaches where they trained for the Olympics and beyond the far-flung airports and hotel rooms they visited to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro Games.
The Americans also worked together with pen and paper to design their Olympic uniforms - sewing for gold even while they were going for gold.
"It was Kerri's idea originally to design our own suits," Ross said this week on an off-day from the beach volleyball competition. "She brought it up, and I liked the idea a lot. It's so cool. It just gives you more ownership of the whole thing."
With its two-person partnerships, beach volleyball is more similar to an individual pursuit like tennis or golf than a team sport like basketball, where the players are picked by a federation. So instead of a team sponsor that dictates the look and logo of the uniform, players can sign their own deals and choose their own gear.
But Walsh Jennings and Ross didn't want to thumb through a catalog and buy off the rack. They came up with an idea for a uniform top, and Ross sketched out an initial design. She sent it off to her sponsor to see what they could do.
"Know that it might not pan out, but it'd be cool to have something kind of unique," she said in an email to Mizuno, attaching "rough drawings" of a top with a higher neck and a longer front.
The date was Feb. 11.
"We also all sort of lost our minds for a minute," said Emily Adams Knight, the head of volleyball product at Mizuno, who played with Ross at Southern California and roomed with her on the road. "We realized that we had less than six months to execute a very high-performing garment, a task that would normally take 18 months or longer."
Knight said the plan had been to pick existing gear and stamp "USA" on it. "But April and Kerri had a specific design concept that they wanted us to try," she said.
Complicating matters was the fact that Walsh Jennings is signed by Asics. Even when players have different sponsors, the Olympics require the uniforms to be uniform.
That led to a compromise: Asics and Mizuno would send each other its version of the uniform, and the competing sponsor would affix its own logo. The players have alternated matches - Mizuno the first day, Asics the second, back to Mizuno for Wednesday night's pool play finale against Switzerland.
"As far as I know, it's been a really cooperative process," Ross said.
By early May, there was a prototype ready for a fitting. Mizuno representatives met the players in California, then did another fitting at the world tour event outside Cincinnati a few weeks later.
The final versions were delivered one day before the players left for U.S. team processing in Houston.
"It came out exactly how I envisioned it," Ross said. "It's amazing how perfect they came out."
Ross, who learned to sew with her mother, has made herself some simple clothes - a couple of dresses, some T-shirts. She said she has thought about creating a beach line with her sister.
But nothing will be as high-profile as playing in the Olympics on Copacabana beach. Wearing their self-designed uniforms over long sleeves to deal with temperatures that dipped into the low 60s, the Americans beat Switzerland in three sets on Wednesday to finish the pool stage unbeaten.
Walsh Jennings has worked with Asics on her own line of swimsuits and athletic wear, called the "Kerri Collection." Next time, she said, she hopes to be even more involved in the process - perhaps an entire shoe or uniform line.
"We get a lot of flak about our bathing suits," Walsh Jennings said. "But we work really hard to make sure that they fit and they're sport-appropriate and performance-enhancing."
Jimmy Golen has covered beach volleyball for The Associated Press at the last three Olympics. Follow him at http://www.twitter.com/jgolen and read more AP Olympic coverage at http://www.summergames.ap.org .