HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — The young women on the Concordia beach volleyball team knew, in their hearts, there was little to chance of their moonshot request actually landing.

But still: They had to ask.

They had seen the posts on Instagram, that April Ross — the April Ross — was getting her masters in coaching at Concordia, a small, Lutheran university in Irvine, California. There was also, they couldn’t help but notice, an opening for the graduate-assistant coaching position. What if their coach, Jenny Griffith, gave Ross a call. Would the three-time Olympic medalist want to serve as their graduate assistant coach?

“In my mind, I’m thinking there is no way she’s ever going to coach for us,” Griffith said. “I asked her and she was like ‘Yes.’ Before I even told her what she would do, she said she’d love to do it.”

And thus Concordia became home to the most overqualified graduate assistant coach in the country.

On the outside, it would appear that the next chapter of both April Ross’ career and life began there, in Irvine, the moment she accepted that graduate-assistant position in the fall of 2022. She had made no public announcement about a retirement as a player, and she had remained quiet on anything regarding starting a family. But Ross had foreseen the change coming, despite forgetting the fact that she had, years earlier, foreseen it herself, even enlisting others to help her remember doing so.

More than a year before, in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympic Games, Ross had asked her coach, Angie Akers, and partner, Alix Klineman, to remind her to write a letter to herself, one “that convinces me,” Ross said, “not to go to Paris [Olympics in 2024].”

But in the chaos of COVID and bubble events and tests and quarantines and strange travel and three straight fifths leading into Tokyo, Akers and Klineman forgot to remind Ross, and Ross forgot to remind herself.

That letter never did end up getting written.

It’s an amazing thing, the way the human mind can warp or simply forget the most trying times in their lives. After winning gold in Tokyo and becoming the first female beach player to win an Olympic medal of all three colors, Ross felt, she said, “more relief than celebration. At the same time, as it went on, I was very grateful. A lot of peace around my career. As time went on, I think I got kind of confused about what I wanted next.”

A letter, then, could have been useful. A reminder of the obscene commitment required to become not just an Olympian, but a gold medalist. Not just a great, but one of the greatest. Not just a winner, but the third-winningest player of all time. Without that letter to herself, Ross had forgotten the stress that comes with the pursuit of something nobody else in the game had ever done. She had forgotten how skewed her life had become, missing precious time with friends and family in the name of another Olympic medal. And with that forgetfulness, Ross simply resumed the same pattern she had fallen into since beginning her first chase of an Olympic Games in 2007.

“What I knew was playing and going for the Olympics and quad after quad,” she said. “Once I knew Alix was not going to continue for a while and I needed a new partner, that’s what I focused on.

“Once I solidified a new partner for a quad I was like ‘Oh my goodness, what about trying to have a family and other stuff that matters in life?’ I started to have a lot of anxiety about that, what should I do? I did this thing, and I could keep going, but is that what I really want to do? I was at this gnarly crossroads where I had to make a really tough decision and I didn’t know what I wanted.”

So she tried to do both. In the off-season following Tokyo, Ross and Kelly Cheng penciled in a commitment to make a run for Paris. Everything about that team made perfect sense. Here was the best defender on the planet, on the heels of an Olympic gold medal. And here was Cheng, 24 years old and one of the most promising talents in the United States, a blocker who had qualified for Tokyo with Sarah Sponcil, becoming the youngest team in USA history to do so. Cheng was all in.

Was Ross?

For the first time in her career, she didn’t know. There had never been a question mark regarding her commitment to anything, let alone her career as a player. What she did know, however, is that there is no room for doubt on the World Tour. There is no half in, half out in the pursuit of the highest level in the sport. It wouldn’t have been fair to Cheng for Ross to only half commit. So Ross ended the partnership before it began and picked up Emily Day who, like Ross, was pursuing a masters and who, like Ross, had similar desires to start a family (Day is currently pregnant and due this summer).

They played just two tournaments together, Ross and Day, finishing with a pair of fifths in a Challenge and an Elite16 in Mexico.

“It still felt like too much,” Ross said. “As time went on, I was like I really do want to try to have a family, I want to give this a shot, and my shoulder blew up. I couldn’t really play and I wanted to step away and give my body a rest so we could have a family. That period was really tumultuous for me. Once you step away and you’re not 100 percent in it, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?

“I wasn’t ready for it. Now I had to figure it out. What’s going to be meaningful for me to do? What’s going to make me feel fulfilled in life? Having such a strong purpose my entire life is such a blessing and I didn’t realize what a blessing it was and then once you step out of that, what is my purpose? How am I going to fill that void?

“That’s why coaching ended up appealing to me so much because I could have an impact on younger people and help them chase their dreams and to me that’s really meaningful to have a hand in because of all of my experience. That was what my journey was like after the gold medal.”

AVP Manhattan Beach 8/22/2021-April Ross
April Ross digs on her way to her fourth MBO win in 2021/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Finding another excuse to go to the beach

It’s an easy thing, for a world-class athlete to get bored. For nearly two decades, Ross’ days had been full of movement — practice, lift, stretch, massage. The occasional double-day here and there. Beach workouts on Saturdays. Throw in some film and proper nutrition and it’s 10 p.m. Now, with no events on her calendar as a player, she looked at her days and saw an open canvas and no certain way of filling it.

“When you have nothing to do, a lot of things sound appealing,” Ross said. “You’re sitting at home, twiddling your thumbs, and maybe you should give it a shot. I always put it off. I always thought I was going to play forever.”

She debated getting into real estate. Even, heaven forbid, a “real job,” she said with a laugh. “It’s like, ‘No.’

“Finding another excuse to go the beach every day and have something to do — I stepped away from playing to work on this [getting pregnant] and I was like ‘OK, I need to figure out something to do.’ ”

In the fall of 2022, she found that something in the USA Volleyball gym, lifting next to Betsi Flint. Flint had recently split with Cheng after a successful year on both the AVP and Beach Pro Tour and was developing a new partner in Julia Scoles. With only a few weeks to prepare for an Elite16 in Torquay, Australia, and Flint’s usual coach, John Mayer, bogged down in the fall season at LMU, Flint and Scoles were in need of a coach.

“I’m around,” Ross told her. “If you ever need help on the beach, just let me know.”

Flint called Scoles, a 25-year-old who had just won the AVP Rookie of the Year, and asked her what she thought. The answer was exactly as you’d expect.

“Are you kidding me?” Scoles said. “Yes!”

For two weeks, then, Ross coached Flint and Scoles, prepping them for their first tournament as a team. It went well enough: a silver medal at the Elite16, with a semifinal win over Australia’s Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho, the very team Ross beat in the gold-medal match in Tokyo. With Ross still very much available for the 2023 season, it was an easy decision for Flint and Scoles to make when USA Volleyball asked who would be coaching them for the upcoming year: Three-time Olympic medalist April Ross.

Flint was still curious, though, how committed Ross would be. She was new to coaching, and despite her unreserved pedigree as a player, “a lot of times,” Flint said, “players don’t always make the best coaches.”

And then, on the first day of practice, Ross showed up with a whiteboard and a countdown to World Champs and Flint’s and Scoles’ next tournament. She had a practice plan and an open mind.

“She’s 100 percent in everything she does. She doesn’t know how to give less,” Flint said. “That was really cool for us to see.”

Betsi Flint
Betsi Flintl/Will Chu Photography

April Ross: ‘A woman of character’

Griffith can relate. Like Flint, she wasn’t sure how Ross would approach coaching Concordia, a Division II school that few outside the state of California know even exists. As a player, Ross’ credentials have earned her a permanent residence in the GOAT pasture. And here she was, coaching a small school with a number of players who were new to the game. And here she was, showing up exactly how she shows up to everything in life: Completely present, completely bought in.

“I was nervous,” Griffith said. “You have the best player in the world coming and it was super nerve-wracking to start. She’s very humble and very respectful and she was always asking things like ‘I don’t want to overstep my bounds, what do you think of this?’

“Her character is one that she’s going to do everything she does with excellence. When she makes decisions, she’s making it fully or she’s not going to do it at all. She is probably the most professional person, not just because she’s a professional athlete but she’s also that way as a person, a coach, just how she approaches relationships. She’s very intentional, and she doesn’t just say things to say things. She’s super confident and knows who she is and is so good at thinking through something and then speaking. She doesn’t just say things willy nilly. She’s just a strong person with a very sound mind. It blew me away and humbled me.”

Griffith was almost embarrassed when she told Ross the various hoops Ross had to jump through in order to become an NCAA-certified coach. Yes, even Olympic gold medalists have to finish six hours’ worth of modules and various other tasks of mostly paperwork that took around a month.

“I just kept thinking that I was going to say something and she’d say ‘It’s just not worth it.’ But she would do what she had to do and get it done quickly and say ‘What’s next?’ She is a woman of character,” Griffith said.

It is a cliché in life that one should never meet your heroes, for you’re only doomed to be disappointed. So the saying goes, anyway. A good chunk of the Concordia players have April Ross posters on the walls of their childhood homes. It was April Ross they were watching on TV, competing in AVP finals and Olympic Games. It was April Ross who inspired many of them to first pick up a ball and head to the beach.

Two of the players even grew so starstruck in those early days with Ross on staff that “they were just frozen,” Griffith said with a laugh. “We had our banquet at the end of the year, and they were saying it’s a once in a lifetime thing to have someone like April coach them. She was their hero to all of them, and to be able to be coached by your hero, and for her to be that person of character and everything you hope them to be. The girls were blown away because she was everything you would hope someone like that would be.”

Even Scoles, an AVP champion herself who has made three straight semifinals and two finals this season, has to “remind myself every day at practice, ‘Don’t fangirl, she’s your coach!’” Scoles said. “That’s April Ross! On our court! I feel like we have a special relationship as well, she kind of roasts me. I don’t want to say little sister but I feel the love and also she makes fun of me, but it’s OK.

“I feel so honored that she is my coach and I just don’t want to feel a certain level — I think a healthy pressure. Whenever she’s in our box, I want to implement what we’ve been working on. I want to make her proud and I know she gives so much to us and her time and her energy. I want to make sure I’m giving everything back. It’s not an easy feat to be a coach and invest everything. I want to take advantage of it.”

April Ross
April Ross at AVP Huntington Beach/Mark Rigney

The clock is now ticking on Ross’ availability as a coach, at least for now. The day after helping Flint and Scoles to a final at AVP Huntington Beach, Ross made the announcement she had been hoping she’d be able to make for more than a year: She is pregnant, expecting a baby this October.

Five months into her pregnancy, it’s still difficult for Ross to process what her body, which has been so loyal and predictable for the previous 40 years, is going through. As she sat on the couch during a podcast, she checked her watch, which measures her heart rate and heart rate variability.

“My heart rate is 90 right now,” she said, shaking her head in an amused sort of way. “I’m so used to it being in the 40s when I was playing. My resting heart rate when I was in peak shape was low 40s, and now it’s 87. It’s the hardest thing my body has ever gone through. All the training, all the playing, does not compare. I can tell how hard my body’s working right now. It’s kind of blown my mind.”

After simply coaching Flint and Scoles in Huntington Beach, she felt as if she played the entire tournament. Upon returning to her home in Manhattan Beach, she hit the bed and slept for 11 straight hours.

“I felt so crappy in the first trimester I didn’t work out one time. Three months of not working out,” she said. “I just started getting back into the gym and oh my gosh. I’ve never been this weak in my life. I’m so stiff, I’ve always been flexible, and I realized how well I took care of my body and how much rehab and prehab and stretching and I always thought some of it was going to stay. It’s so enlightening. Now I know for the rest of my life, once I get back in shape I can’t let off the gas. Today I did the lightest arms and I was straightening my hair and it felt like my shoulder was going to fall off.”

She won’t need that right shoulder, which has helped her earn more than $2 million in prize money, for anything more than serving and hitting down balls in practice for at least another year. But after a year or so more of coaching, of learning the new rhythms of being mom? Ross plans on returning to the beach as a player. Another Olympic race is unlikely, but the AVP?

“I want to play a couple tournaments at least and if it goes terribly it’s still a good excuse to have a retirement ceremony and say goodbye to everybody and if it goes great then hey, I’ll keep going and maybe have a second wind here,” she said.

“In my head I’m just taking a break. I didn’t want to announce a retirement because I want to keep the door open to coming back.”


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