Team USA's April Ross on competing at the Olympics without crowds: 'Health is most important'

·6 min read
Olympian April Ross on grief, staying motivated and competing in Tokyo. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Olympian April Ross on grief, staying motivated and competing in Tokyo. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

All eyes will be on Team USA beach volleyball star April Ross on Friday as the Summer Olympics opening ceremony gets underway in Tokyo. In addition to making her third Olympics appearance, the two-time medalist will be appearing in Eli Lilly and Company's "Our Collective Health" commercial — launching during the opening ceremony and running throughout the Olympic and Paralympic Games — in a call for health care equity. Ross is one of seven athletes featured due to a health issue that either they or a loved one have faced; in her case, it's losing her mother 20 years ago after a 10-year battle with metastatic breast cancer. The experience left the volleyball champ eager to "use my platform to drive awareness and promote health."

"Going to my third Games, I'm obviously chasing a gold medal, but this partnership with Lilly is really meaningful for me," Ross tells Yahoo Life. "I think just with the current situation and the Olympic spirit, it's really important to remember the importance of health above all."

Read on as the 39-year-old opens up about grief, diving into self-help tools and competing in Tokyo without fans. 

How do you prioritize your mental health?

Journaling is huge for me. I often think to myself that my journal is my most precious possession, and I don't know what I'd do if I lost it. I journal all the time. I read a lot of self-help books and I feel like that really gets me to kind of think a little bit deeper about what's going on in my mind and why I think certain things. I meditate a lot. I visualize a lot. I use apps: I use Unwinding Anxiety and Headspace and I find those helpful. And working out is great for my mental health, but it's so intense for my sport that sometimes it's more of a stressor. I really enjoy yoga, actually, for my mental health. 

In terms of self-care that feels like a treat, is there anything you particularly enjoy?

I love spa massages, so I get those every now and again. They can be expensive though, so I feel like it's a huge treat, but that's my go-to for sure.

It's been announced that events in Tokyo won't have spectators. Are you concerned that the lack of a cheering crowd will affect your game?

I think I'll miss it. It's part of the Olympics to have a huge stadium filled with cheering people. But for the most part, I'm trying to tune out the crowd; I'm trying not to get distracted by anything. So the fact that there won't be fans maybe will help with that. I won't have to try so hard to tune them out because they're not going to be there. I still think it would be better if we could have fans because it is the Olympics. It's such a big event, but health is most important and I fully support it. We've been playing with no fans at tournaments for this whole past year, so I think we're kind of used to it at this point. 

Do you have any tips for motivating yourself on those days when you just don't want to get off the couch but you need to work out?

I think it's all about routine and it's all about a plan and scheduling. I'm a big scheduler and I like to write things down in a paper schedule. It's just committing to being there for yourself, understanding that you might not want to get up off the couch because it feels good to sit on the couch, but in the long-term, you're going to be so much happier with yourself for putting in that effort and finding the motivation to go and do something that's really good for you. I think it's a decision — like, sometimes being confident is just a decision. Getting up off the couch and going to exercise is just a decision. Just make yourself do it. I know it sounds really simple and kind of harder to do than it sounds, but I feel like it can be that simple. Just get up and do it. 

Can you speak about how your mother's experience with breast cancer has shaped you?

I think I've gained a lot of perspective as the years have gone on of how hard that must have been for her, battling metastatic breast cancer for so long and having two kids that she had to take care of. Looking back, it must've taken so much courage and bravery for her to be so selfless while going through all of that to provide for me and my sister — support us and give us the opportunities to succeed. I just draw on that courage that she showed when I'm on the court. Obviously, it's not the same, but if she can do that in that situation, I feel like on the court I can really show up and give my all to honor her memory. That really inspires me when I'm out there.   

Grief can be one of the most devastating things that can happen to your mental health. What has helped bring you peace?

I think time is the number one healer. I was so young when she passed away that I didn't know how to really handle it, and I didn't handle it well. Luckily I had my volleyball team that really supported me and kind of helped me through that initial phase. But I think I've been dealing with it for a long time. I've gone to professional therapy during different periods of my life, and it's always kind of come back to that experience [of losing her]; that's really helped me work through it. Honestly, diving into the cause of promoting awareness and promoting different treatment options and being able to talk about my mom through the partnership with Lilly has been really helpful for me. I feel like that's helped me keep her memory alive, and feel like I'm doing something positive with her memory. That's helped me deal with some of the grief as well.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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