April Ross, the dreamcatcher, Alix Klineman take home Tokyo Olympics beach volleyball gold

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April Ross-Alix Klineman
The A Team celebrates the winning gold-medal point/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

In the fall of 2017, after what April Ross describes as one of the more disappointing summers of her career, she took the time for some deep introspection, the type that’s a bit painful, a little scary, the type that could be life-changing as well.

“I kinda had to have some discussions with myself going forward: Am I just trying to be good? Do I want to go internationally and continue my career and do the best that I can? Or am I in this because I want to go to Tokyo and get that gold that’s eluded me for two quads now?” she said in November of 2017.

“What am I in this for? My career? Or is this still a dream? I decided that this is my dream, and I haven’t got it yet. I’m going to be all in so that that standard is still there for me. I know what I need to do.”

Ross isn’t only one of the best beach volleyball players in the world — she has made a firm argument as the unquestioned best this year — but she’s also one of its most studious. She takes the time to study not just the game, but herself. A constant journaler, she’s also, as her partner, Alix Klineman said at the Tokyo Olympics, “always trying to be at her best, whether it’s reading some book about having a better mindset, or listening to some podcast about recovering better. I don’t think it is a coincidence that she’s been here three times.”

By “here,” Klineman means the Olympic Games, where she and Ross on Thursday in Tokyo at Shiokaze Park alas won the elusive gold medal, overpowering Australia’s Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy, 21-15, 21-16 in the finals. The victory for the A Team gave Ross three medals after winning silver in 2012 in London with Jen Kessy and bronze in 2016 in Rio with Kerri Walsh Jennings. She became the first woman in history to win an Olympic medal of all three colors, joining elite company in Brazilians Ricardo Santos and Emanuel Rego as the only players to have the complete set.

Fellow USC Trojan, Tina Graudina and her Latvian partner, Anastasija Kravcenoka, fell in the bronze medal match to Switzerland’s Anouk Verge-Depre and Joana Heidrich, 21-19, 21-15.

April Ross makes the save against the Aussies/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Ross’ gold medal doesn’t happen if she isn’t as mindful as she is.

There is no dearth of talent in the world, but there are few who can make the continual improvements, the microscopic changes, that is required of constant greatness. This gold medal doesn’t happen if the 39-year-old Ross doesn’t take stock of one of the most painful experiences of her career — winning bronze in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 — and dig into it, and learn from it.

“You’re always looking to get a little bit better, get a little bit more disciplined, and you don’t realize how gnarly you’re getting because it’s a daily effort and it starts to build up, and by the time I got to Rio, I was so burned out,” Ross said. “It was a great experience, but so burned out, and I took a year and let loose a little bit because I was so fried. I want to learn from that because I don’t want that to happen again.”

And if you are to rewind through the five years since those Rio Olympics, you’ll notice a constant theme:

April Ross was playing the long game, seeking the daily, infinitesimal improvements that would add up when it mattered most. It was for this reason that she selected a partner, Alix Klineman, with zero international points to her name and only a few years’ of experience on the beach. It would be frustrating and difficult and full of the ups and downs that come with building a new team, one fresh off an entirely different sport — Klineman was making the switch from indoor to beach — but one that could get to the pinnacle that had eluded her since 2012. She wanted to win another Manhattan Beach Open, another Hermosa, another Austin, yes, and she could do that with virtually any blocker she plucked off the AVP Tour.

But that wasn’t the dream.

Tokyo was the dream.

And April Ross is a dreamcatcher.

“There’s going to be hiccups and challenges and it’s going to be starting at square one for me, but at the same time, what is the meaning of what you’re doing if you’re not challenged?” Ross said. “If you don’t have these things that are going to help you grow and help you overcome, what’s the point? It’s not supposed to be easy. That was the choice: It was the safe choice or the choice I thought was challenging but had the most potential.”

When it came to selecting Klineman, Ross didn’t mention the fact that Klineman is 6-foot-5, the tallest blocker in the world. She didn’t mention the angles Klineman could hit or the defense they could run with such a formidable presence at the net. The first thing Ross noticed about Klineman was her mentality: Like Ross, Klineman focused on the one percent, every day, the types of improvements nobody else will notice, but the type that will add up, day after day, month after month, year after year, until there’s a gold medal hanging around your neck, a dream caught.

“It came down to really intangible things, and I decided to go with Alix Klineman to take a shot at Tokyo with her,” Ross said then. “I could just tell from training with her. She comes from an indoor background, which not many players have that indoor background anymore. She just has the really disciplined mentality.

“The way she trains is very focused and intense. She understands the importance of practice and coming to win in practice. I think her mentality in practice and wanting to get better and how she’s going to go about that and always coming with that competitive mentality was a big intangible for me. I feel like in my career, I’ve gotten some victories purely out of my determination to win. You get to this point and it stops being about doing things right or making the perfect shot and more about your determination to win and refusal to lose and I see a lot of that in her.”

Their refusal to lose throughout this Olympic quad was reminiscent of Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor.

They played in 16 AVP tournaments and won 10, competed in another 26 FIVBs and took gold in six.

They overtook Canadians Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan as the No. 1 team in the world, and then confirmed that in Tokyo, where they lost just one set and rolled their way through the semifinals and finals, thumping Switzerland and Australia in such a convincing fashion that, if anybody had any questions over who was truly the best team, they were convincingly silenced, leaving no room for argument or doubt.

“I’m still trying to process it but I’m so in the present moment here with this team and this medal,” Ross said after beating Australia. “I’m so proud of my other ones but just how this worked out, and the risks that Alix took to come out onto the beach and all her hard work. It doesn’t happen without that.

“I can’t fathom that it worked out the way it did. It’s kind of a fairytale story like, ‘oh, I’m going at 39 to try and get my gold medal’, and the fact that it actually happened feels so special and surreal. I’m just so proud of our team and so grateful for everyone who helps us get here.”

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