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TOKYO – As they made their way through the maze of media obligations that come with winning an Olympic gold medal, both members of America’s beach volleyball A-Team said after different points that this was a fairytale.
It wasn’t just that they had dominated Team Australia, 21-15 and 21-16, to close out a tournament in which they’d only lost a single set.
(If you wanted to get melodramatic with the metaphor, you could have said that the sand was like molten lava and the sun’s rays could have been a dragon’s fiery bellows. It was hot, is what I mean. And there’s only so many ways to say that about a sport that spans two weeks of midday matches in the hottest Olympics ever.)
It was each other. Which makes sense, most fairytales are about relationships. This one just happened to be built on grit and shared goals.
For April Ross, it’s her third Olympic medal with three different partners — she won silver in London alongside Jennifer Kessy and bronze in Rio de Janeiro with Kerri Walsh Jennings, who had three straight golds at that point as part of a legendary pair with Misty May-Treanor.
She was proud of those medals. It wasn’t a sense of regret or revenge that drove her back to the Olympics at 39 years old.
“I was so happy with those experiences and I just thought I had it in me to go for another one,” Ross said. “And then I found Alix.”
In Alix Klineman, who had been an indoor volleyball star since her time at Stanford and had less than a year of beach experience at the time, Ross found someone willing to do whatever it took to make the move to the beach for a chance at a medal.
“When you’re working for something like this, you need somebody who’s gonna work their butt off every single day,” she said after they had beaten Switzerland to advance to the gold medal game.
Even as the days of the Olympics grew long, Klineman treated the time before matches not as a warmup, but as a true practice: trying to hone first her serve and then, down the stretch, her blocking ability. Sweating and striving to overcome her late introduction to beach volleyball, one percent improvement at a time.
“I don't think you should look at her story and say, ‘Oh, it's easy to transition to beach volleyball.’” Ross said. “Because it's really hard, and a lot of people have not been able to do it, so the fact that she's been able to succeed at it is just a testament to everything that she’s put in the last couple of years.”
In Ross, Klineman found someone who was willing to stake her own career on Klineman’s potential.
“Ever since becoming her partner there’s been a big feeling of not wanting to let her down. Because she took a huge risk on me,” Klineman said. Her lack of international points meant that by pairing up, Ross was back to playing her way into tournaments like a rookie.
“But she believed in me,” Klineman said. “That’s been a huge motivating factor just to work my hardest every day to not make her regret her decision.”
And in turn, that dedication pushed Ross to redouble her preparation to keep up with her studious partner.
“There’s not really such a thing as watching too much video,” Klineman said.
“I didn’t watch half as much video before I started playing with her, ” Ross said.
The night before their seventh and final match in Tokyo, the pair studied some four hours of video to get ready for Team Australia.
“At least,” according to Ross.
It paid off. They said it wasn’t easy, but it never looked out of control. They entered the day assured that America would medal in every single Olympics so far to feature beach volleyball — seven straight now — and ended up taking home the fourth gold for the program.
They had a little help from the Team USA staffers that braved the weather and mid-day sun to drown out the cheers from a rambunctious Australian contingent. Over two weeks of tournament play, the crowd had grown to a couple dozen (seriously, it was so hot) people from each side who traded chants:
Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi!
U! S! A!
And when they won, Ross and Klineman staggered off the stands to their off-court teammates who hung over the railing to hug them.
Up on the podium, they placed the medals around each other’s necks — a COVID accommodation that forces individual winners to award medals to themselves. But here, among pairs, it was a welcome one, a chance to honor their open, honest, at times difficult but always respectful, communication. So maybe not so magical after all. Isn’t that the key to every successful relationship?
In her head, Ross thanked her partner who had made it possible for her. Just as she had made it possible for Klineman.
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