They weren’t the favorites. That’s what the 2021 gold medalists insist, anyway. And to hear April Ross and Alix Klineman say so is genuine, and real, and understandable. Had the Tokyo Olympics taken place in 2020 as scheduled, yes, they admitted, they’d have considered themselves the favorites to win gold in Ross’s third Olympics and Klineman’s first.

“I knew we had a shot and in 2020 I feel like we were — can I be honest?” Ross said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “Alix wasn’t completely healthy in 2020. That was the thing we were nervous about in 2020. We were on track in 2020 to play Canada in the gold medal match.”

But Tokyo wasn’t in 2020 as scheduled. It was 2021, and suddenly, as back-to-back-to-back events in Cancun came and went without a single medal bout between Ross and Klineman and Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan, it became fair to wonder: Who were the new gold medal favorites?

“What were all these teams doing?” Ross said of the jumps made during 2020 from some of the young and up-and-coming teams. “Russia got so much better. Australia got so much better. Swiss were ridiculous. Latvia. Maggie on Germany got so much better. Sponcil-Claes got so much better. All these teams we felt like previously we kind of have a handle on were beating us or we were struggling with. Agatha-Duda medaled three times in Cancun and we just did not feel like we were favorites at all heading into Tokyo.”

Maybe being the unexpected underdog is the magic to this team, then. Four years earlier, when Ross was deciding with whom she would make her run to Tokyo, it wasn’t Klineman who came recommended most. Many, in fact, attempted to sway Ross from Klineman, save for two: Jen Kessy, and Chris Geeter McGee.

“There were a lot of people with some strong opinions,” she said. “There were big names in my ear saying ‘Go in a different direction.’ Geeter knew. Jen was pretty dead set that Alix was the choice.”

So floored was Klineman that she was an option that, when Ross asked her to meet up for a coffee and a chat at the Green Store in Hermosa Beach, Klineman texted a friend: “Oh my God, April wants to talk to me. I’m so nervous.”

Only she texted the wrong person.

She sent that message to April Ross.

“It was the cutest text,” Ross said, laughing.

Those were some of the only nerves Ross would see from Klineman. She wouldn’t see them in their first event together, in The Hague in November of 2018, where they’d win, marching through 10 matches while only dropping a single set. She wouldn’t see them at any point thereafter, either, because at no point has Klineman ever tried to hide any of her deficiencies. She isn’t nervous that her blocking might look awful because, in her mind, her blocking was often quite awful, and she was fine admitting it. She wasn’t nervous about her sets spraying, because she knew she’d spray a few. She wasn’t nervous about her pull digs, or decision-making, because, as she’d readily open up about to Ross and Kessy in practice, she had lots and lots of work to do on both.

“I remember we went out to Gstaad one year, and we had lost World Champs, and it was kind of tense and it was an amazing tournament for us,” Klineman said. “It’s just a weird mix of emotions: Are we proud? Are we pissed? We sat down and we were staying at Jen’s family’s cabin in Gstaad. We pulled up, got to the table, opened the laptop, and watched the match. It was a little harder to watch because we knew we lost, and at one point, April said ‘You could have pulled’ and I’m like ‘I know my pulling sucks’ and she goes ‘You could have set’ and ‘I know my setting sucks.’

“I’m aware of what I’m not good at and it’s very motivating, especially when we’re watching video and I’m like ‘Oh my God, my blocking sucks. That’s embarrassing.’ Then I’d go back to practice and it would be very motivating. I had a lot of those moments where I’m not as good as it felt. It was really motivating because I knew I wasn’t where I needed to be.

“I played indoor for so long, and I know once you get to a super high level, it’s so hard to get better, and you’re making micro changes, and it’s so hard. You have 20 years of muscle memory and now you’re trying to change one thing and it’s so hard. That’s one of the reasons I quit indoor: It was so hard to get better. That’s one of the things about when I switched to beach: It was a whole world of opportunity to get better at something. That’s really exciting and thrilling for me. I know I’m still getting a lot better.”

To some, the admission of deficiencies might be devastating to their confidence. Stunt their growth. For Klineman, it’s exactly why she was able to make the transition from an indoor standout to a gold medalist on the beach in three years — and perhaps a leading factor in how Ross was able to corral the gold medal that had eluded her in the previous two Olympic Games.

“When she came out, she was so honest about her weaknesses. I never really heard anybody be so real about her weaknesses,” Ross said. “For me, I was always trying to convince myself that I was good at this and this, it was hard for me to admit that I was bad at something. There’s real power in recognizing what you need to get better at, and she was so good at it, and I began to accept that I can talk about this to my coaches, I can fail at these things, I can make mistakes and that’s ok so long as we learn about it.

“Most people are going to get defensive about it, but that’s why she’s gotten so good so quickly. Alix’s influence in that way helped me get better. I feel like I have gotten better, I’ve improved more over the last four years than maybe I have in my entire career.”

There is no doubt that Russia and Australia and Switzerland and Latvia and Sponcil and Claes were, indeed, improving at an astonishing clip over quarantine. But who in the world was learning, growing, evolving, faster than Klineman? Who was making the jumps she was as an individual, then translating that into jumps as a team with Ross?

As Tokyo, and then the final two AVPs of the 2021 season, would indicate: Nobody. They won gold in Tokyo, sweeping the Germans who were making strides, sweeping the rising Swiss, sweeping the Australians who had looked so indomitable. Klineman showed more nerves in her initial text to Ross than she did at any point in the Olympic Games. Ross, at 39 years old, was playing the best volleyball of her career.

All of this success has left a beach volleyball audience wondering the same question: What’s next?

They don’t know exactly, nor do they need to just yet. There are the World Tour Finals, in Cagliari, Italy, in a few weeks. Then it’s time for some reading and coffee and the sweet, sweet silence of the mountains for Ross. Then it’s time for a little wedding planning for the recently engaged Klineman.

Next season will come soon enough, as will the qualifying period for Paris. And, indeed, “our intention would be to play Paris together,” Ross said. “But what we have decided at the moment is to continue playing together. We don’t know necessarily what the future is going to hold. We’re waiting to make that decision but we want to continue playing together. Our immediate plan is to continue playing together, and if Paris is in the cards, we will let everybody know when we decide that.”

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