It seems fast, to an outsider, a normal human being observing the ascent of Alix Klineman.
And, to be sure, it is.
But there is a reason that nearly two billion people will tune into the Olympic Games this month. There is a reason that NBC paid an obscene $1.45 billion for the rights to televise those Games: There is an ineluctable draw to watching the Olympic athletes do what only Olympic athletes can do, performing feats of athleticism normal folk simply cannot.
And normal folk simply cannot improve at their craft at the rate of 6-foot-5 Alix Klineman. Even the most gifted of individuals cannot do so at the rate of Klineman.
Klineman, as the rest of the world not ensconced in the beach volleyball bubble will alas get to see in Tokyo, is in a class of her own.
What would you do, if you were a mere fraction away from achieving the goal you set for yourself as a little girl? If you knew that just a tweak on your blocking here, a minor improvement on your hitting there, one more quad, was all it would take to make the roster for the 2020 Olympic team?
Yet how long had Klineman been nudging up against that ceiling, as she felt she had for some time now? Indoor had been good to her. Incredible to her. Indoor volleyball is what twice earned her the California Gatorade State Player of the Year, and the 2006 Gatorade National Player of the Year, one of the most coveted recruits in the nation coming out of Mira Costa High School. Indoor is what took her to Stanford. It helped her pile up accolades by the half-dozen: All-America, Pac-10 Conference Player of the Year, All-Conference four years running, NCAA All-Tournament, NCAA finalist. Indoor took her to Brazil. It put her on the United States national team roster.
Yet here is where the story zigs, where, in 99 percent of cases, it might zag. Here, in 2016, for the first time of her career, Klineman was left off the roster of the United States national team. Here, Klineman, then just 26 years old, could have resumed what was still a lucrative and, by any measure, successful indoor career overseas.
Yet here is where Klineman, suddenly, without much of a second thought, changed course, because “my personality is if I don’t think I can be the best at it, it almost becomes a bit meaningless to me,” Klineman said in a previous interview.
“There always has to be a bigger goal and it has to be something really lofty that I’m fighting for and that I believe in and I kind of thought I was just playing. I started reevaluating ‘Am I OK with just playing and not having something bigger?’ The timing of it worked out, ‘You know what, I want to give this a chance.’ Something in my gut wanted to see this through.”
She had initially planned to take a month off after finishing that 2017 season in Brazil. Instead, within days, she was training in Huntington Beach. Instead, Klineman had found a different lofty goal to fight for.
She was still striving for the Olympics.
She was just going to do so on the beach.
To get the slightest modicum of understanding of Klineman, and how she has managed to rise from a rookie to an Olympian in the span of four years, you must listen to her speak about her father.
“My dad turns everything into a debate or argument and doesn’t stop until you say ‘OK, you’re right’ and I don’t mean that in a negative way, he’s just very persistent,” Klineman said. “Sometimes when I’m bugging people they’ll say ‘Oh you’re just like your dad!’ But when he really believes in something he wants to see it through and I think some of my drive comes from that.”
She is a voracious learner, Klineman, driven to master every nuance of her craft. It’s why she became so frustrated with the indoor game. Getting left off the roster was stinging enough, but worse yet was that she could feel herself pressing closer and closer to her ceiling as a player.
“I had gotten to this level and I was having a really hard time getting better than I was,” Klineman said. “Obviously the better you are, the harder it is to get better, but on the beach, I feel like I’m still learning so much, and even though we are at a high level, I feel like I haven’t tapped into a large portion of my potential. That’s really motivating that, yeah, I am pretty good, but there’s so much more I can get better at.”
That concept is a frightening one if you’re one of the other 23 teams in this Olympic Games. For not only is Klineman a voracious learner, she is a remarkably fast one, too. In just her second full season on the AVP Tour, after being picked up by April Ross, Klineman made five of seven finals, winning four. They won their first FIVB tournament, at The Hague in 2018, coming out of the country quota to do so. In 10 matches, they lost only a single set.
“I take pride in being curious and learning and wanting to understand why I do something and not just doing it mindlessly,” Klineman said. “When I’m learning, I think about why is this the best way to learn something or why should I be doing what you’re telling me? Then I can sink my teeth into it and really believe in it. Just in general, I always want to understand why I’m doing something or what I have to do to surpass other people.”
Helping to expedite the process, of course, was having Ross, arguably one of the best players of all-time, and Jen Kessy, a 2012 silver medalist, in her corner for the first three years of her beach career. Klineman would stay after practices for half an hour, going over the subtle nuances of blocking, pulling, setting. She’d watch film until she fell asleep, growing disgusted over the gap in what she felt she was doing and what she saw she was doing. Then she’d fix it the next day.
“For me, giving up indoor wasn’t just so I could go out on the beach and fool around and have fun. I’ve had a mission since I started,” Klineman said. “There’s no ‘Oh it’s just practice.’ It’s ‘I have to be as good as I could possibly be.’ We’re kind of similar in that. There’s no practice where it’s ‘Oh we’re tired, it’s OK.’ Every practice we’re frustrated if we’re not doing well. We’re trying to win every drill and trying to win every scrimmage.
“Sometimes Jen will be like ‘It’s OK I can make it easier’ and me and April are like ‘No we’ll beat it this way!’ It’s kinda funny because it starts out with her making this gnarly drill and then us refusing to change it because we need to beat it.”
Whether they beat the drills or not, it didn’t take long before they were beating every other team in the world.
They began the Olympic qualifying process with a gold medal in Yangzhou, China, adding another three events later in Itapema, Brazil. They’d finish second at the World Championships and follow it up with a gold medal at the Gstaad Major. They were doing all of this by beating teams who had been playing together for years, who had been practicing on the beach for the better part of a decade, if not more.
Meanwhile, the end of 2019 marked Klineman’s third professional year on the beach.
“I could tell that she had a lot to learn on the beach,” Ross said of Klineman when they initially partnered. “But I figured she went to Stanford, so it wouldn’t take that long.”
It certainly has not. Their torrid 2019 season all but assured them an Olympic berth, one they officially locked up in the first event of the 2021 season, when they won six straight matches to claim gold in Doha, Qatar.
“To be able to say it when people asked if we were going to be in the Olympics, it’s such a cool feeling and I’ve dreamed of being able to go for so long,” Klineman said. “I’m trying to enjoy this whole process. It’s been fun, but at the same time, I feel like there’s more teams playing really good right now, so we’re going to keep getting better until the last possible hour.”
And they are, too. Ross and Klineman are cut from a similar cloth, neither satisfied with simply qualifying for the Olympic Games. That was only step one. There is still much for Klineman to learn, aspects of the game that are indiscernible to the casual viewer’s eye but are quite glaring to someone as sharp and driven as Klineman.
“I know it seems fast to an outsider, but there were so many practices in the beginning, where Jen or April would be trying to get me to do something and I just couldn’t,” Klineman said. “It was just not really clicking. It was just repetitive: going back the next day and trying again, and eventually certain things just started to click after hours and days on the beach.
“I do think it wasn’t quite as quick and natural as people would make it. There were periods when I struggled and there were periods where April and Jen were like ‘Oh my gosh we gotta pick this up.’ I was just like ‘OK, I’m going to keep practicing, I’m going to keep watching video, I’m going to keep doing everything they’re telling me.’ ”
“She brings a lot of intensity on the court which I find to be valuable. I think you need to get fired up and not everybody does that,” Ross said. “She’s got a lot of fire on the court. Off the court she’s got a really good demeanor. She never gets too upset and tries to be transparent about what’s going on and tries to communicate and I think that helps our partnership a lot. She likes to have fun and likes to have dinner parties, and she’s great to have as a partner.”
“Lately, (with new coach Angie Akers) we’ve put a big emphasis on defense, just block and D,” Klineman said. “Even that’s evolved in the last few weeks. Feeling us making these changes this close to the Olympics is exciting for us because maybe some teams are used to us defending them a certain way and we’ll be a little more evolved. I’m hoping that we’ll have a little more tools that will surprise some people or maybe they won’t be used to.”
So she’ll continue learning, evolving, improving, tweaking, finetuning a game that hardly seems in need of it. Because that is what’s required of being an Olympian.
That is what’s required of being Alix Klineman.