September 29, 2014

Game Changers

By Eric Van Dril

Amid a busy tournament schedule and helping his wife prepare for her fourth Olympic Games, Casey Jennings tried to find time in the six months leading up to the Olympics to bring his family to the place that helped him keep his marriage together and achieve sobriety.

On Aug. 10, 2009, Jennings, then 34, decided it was time seek treatment. He rode with his wife and four friends to Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center in San Pedro, Calif., and says he saw his life drastically altered during the second half of his stay.

The couple—Casey Jennings and Kerri Walsh-Jennings, one half of arguably the greatest female beach volleyball tandem in history—has been back to show their appreciation several times since Casey was admitted to the facility. Each time he visits San Pedro, he moves further and further from his nightmarish past.

“I woke up from the bad dream,” Casey says. “It was so scary, and now when I wake up in the morning, I’m just so thankful. I was lucky enough to have a wife that was strong enough to stick around and hold on and realize who I was as a person, rather than [focus on] what I was doing.”

The day Kerri Walsh-Jennings, 34, convinced her husband to go to rehab began with Casey in a hotel room four blocks away from their home. He had developed a habit in the previous months of staying out all night and using alcohol to cope with marital problems.

“When I would go out drinking, it wasn’t just for fun anymore,” says Casey, who dated his wife for four years before they married Dec. 4, 2005. “It was a hideout and I started to take it further than ever. I didn’t pass out or black out. I never got into fights. I just didn’t know how to turn it off.”

Kerri noticed her husband’s drinking becoming problematic in June 2009 when Casey started drinking during his volleyball tournaments. One of the worst instances was on July 10, 2009, when he stayed out until 6 a.m., lost a match three hours later and then started drinking again. Mentioning rehab soon became one of the few viable options remaining for Kerri because of the effect alcohol was having on her husband’s career and the shift in his rhetoric.

 “He was like, ‘We’re not meant to be together, we’ve grown apart’ and all of these things,” Kerri says. “He just started talking like a man I didn’t know. I thought it was coming from the drinking. I didn’t think he was an alcoholic, I didn’t think he had a problem, I just wanted him to have clarity.”

After Casey elected to stay in a hotel Aug. 10, 2009, Kerri wasn’t sure where her husband was or what kind of people he was hanging out with. She called him that morning and asked him to go to rehab, as she had one week earlier. He finally agreed, but remained prideful and thirsty.

Casey told his wife: “I’ll go, but nothing’s going to change with us.” After he hung up, he called four buddies and asked them to join him in his hotel room. Nick Schneider, Lee LeGrande, Scott Lane and Chris McGee arrived and Casey started drinking. As his morning drinking session stretched into the afternoon four hours later, Casey looked around the room and sought honest feedback from his friends.

“I sat there and finally I asked each of them, ‘Do you guys think I need [treatment]?’” Jennings says. “They all looked at me in a somber way and said, ‘Yeah, Case, it’s time. You need some help, brother.’”

He drank for another four hours until he sighed deeply and said, “All right, let’s go.” Casey, his four friends and his wife piled into Schneider’s car and made the 30-minute drive to San Pedro. Casey says he sobbed on the ride to rehab after asking Schneider to play James Blunt’s song, “Same Mistake,” on repeat.

 As her husband dealt with his unhappiness, Kerri felt fear and anxiety, but remained hopeful that rehab would allow them to grow as individuals and pull their marriage away from the dangerous territory where it resided in that moment.

“It was a big unknown,” Kerri says. “My husband is going to leave us—we had a three-month-old baby—and he’s just going to go for 30 days by himself. And what’s he going to do when he gets back? He’s going to hopefully have his clarity, but is he still going to want to leave? That was scary, but at the same time it was really an exciting thing because there was so much opportunity there to grow and to learn. I thought it was the biggest blessing ever if we did it right.”

After saying goodbye to her husband in San Pedro, Kerri returned home and started to cope with the role she had in Casey being admitted to rehab. She wasn’t sure how he would feel once she picked him up in San Pedro, but her competitive instincts quickly kicked in. She says she accepted the challenge of improving herself and doing everything it took to get what and where she desired.

“I thought it was all my fault and I definitely know I helped Casey end up in rehab, but I just tried to think about things that were on my end,” says Kerri, who won gold medals with Misty May-Treanor at the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympics. “I wanted to better myself while he was bettering himself. I worked really hard and I let go and cried my eyes out and just worked through all of my crap that was weighing me down and closing me off from my husband. I wasn’t a happy person. On paper, for sure, but I wasn’t living the life that I wanted to live.”

As Kerri did what she could to make her relationship healthier, Casey did everything the rehab facility asked, including going to 5 a.m. meetings and writing letters to his wife. He also continued working out with the same intensity that helped Casey and Matt Fuerbringer finish as the United States’ third-best beach volley- ball team in 2008.

On his fifth day of sobriety, Casey says he still “didn’t really believe [in his] relationship because [he] was just so far gone.”

But 10 days later, Casey felt rejuvenated. Instead of being uncertain about the future of his marriage, his heart opened up and he could feel the love he had for his wife blossoming.

“After 15 days, the sincerity of [rehab] really started to sink in and the numbness started to fade away,” he says. “I started to lose the numbness every day after that. It turned from working on me, me, me and it evolved to where that seed of love I had for my wife began to grow again like it had at the time when we got married … I fell in love with myself again, my wife, and I wanted to be a great dad for my child.”

Newly invested in the rehabilitation process, Casey put his complete focus into every hour of his final two weeks in San Pedro. Kerri picked him up on the final day of rehab and the couple took what they learned about themselves during their time apart and immediately started working through their problems.

“He had to answer if I still love you and if this is worth fighting for,” Kerri says. “I was hoping that he would use rehab and it would be back to normal, but it took some time. And he was really open about that. He was like, ‘Don’t take this personally, I’m just trying to get my footing again.’”

“Our relationship didn’t just mesh together right away,” Casey says. “But it was 75 percent better after rehab and the other 25 percent came within the next month.”

Casey Jennings has been sober for more than three years and he’s a changed man.

Instead of partying until 6 a.m., he regularly wakes up at 5 a.m. to paddle surf. Instead of retreating from his family on a Friday night, he happily watches Disney movies with his wife and two young sons. Instead of calling friends in search of a party, he now serves as a pillar of strength for friends who are newly sober or considering giving up drinking or using drugs.

Professionally, Casey’s sobriety has allowed him to be constantly present. He continues to train with the same passion he had prior to treatment. Although rehab cost him his seven-year partnership with Fuerbringer, sobriety has helped make him faster and smarter on the court. He says he’s in the best form of his career and plans on trying to make the 2016 Olympics.

The Olympics are a professional goal Casey says he will continue to strive toward, but once his hectic professional vol- leyball schedule calms, he plans on pursuing a more personal goal. He still doesn’t have a sponsor, but he plans to find one and go through a Twelve Step program later this year. “I want to do this right,” says Casey. “I want to do this 100 percent.”

As Casey prepares to go through the Twelve Steps, his marriage continues to flourish. He’s says he found happiness in sobriety and comfort knowing that he and his wife can work through anything.

“I got hit really hard and my best friend stayed next to me,” Casey says. “She helped me up and I helped her up and now we get to enjoy that perseverance.”

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