TOKYO – For finals-bound U.S. beach volleyball duo April Ross and Alix Klineman, the dream of an Olympic gold medal started with a risk.
In 2017, 31-year-old Klineman abandoned a lifetime of playing indoor volleyball and switched her focus exclusively to beach. The 6-foot-5 Stanford alumna had her sights set on the Olympics despite having no international beach volleyball experience.
Ross, 39, had a legacy on the sand. After winning silver at the 2012 London Olympics with Jennifer Kessy and taking bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics with Kerri Walsh Jennings, Ross sought a new partner. Then after parting ways with Lauren Fendrick, her teammate in 2017, Ross took the plunge and joined up with Klineman later that year.
“When you're working for something like this, you need somebody who's gonna work their butt off every day and have a fire under their butt,” Ross said. “I knew her story and I knew that she was coming out to the beach to make the Olympics. To take such a risk for herself, I knew that was gonna be a huge motivating factor.”
While Klineman didn’t have an FIVB point to her name, Ross recognized her potential early on. The newcomer’s physicality, work ethic, intelligence and intensity impressed Ross. When it came to breaking old habits and techniques better suited for the indoor game, Klineman tried, failed, dissected film and tried again the next day.
“I think the biggest thing was just sticking with it and being really persistent and going every day with all of the effort and intensity that I had and believing that I could eventually make the changes I was trying to make,” Klineman said.
Wins pile up quickly for new partners
Klineman didn’t want to let her tenured partner down. Ross said Klineman’s tireless effort made her work even harder.
“Alix did study the game more than anyone else I've ever known,” Ross said. “She'd go home and watch a ton of video and I'd be like, well, I better go home and watch video, too.”
Though the transition took time, the international success came quickly. The duo won their first tournament – the FIVB Dela Beach Open in The Hague, Netherlands in January 2018.
Ross never doubted her pairing with Klineman, but starting their career together off strong solidified their decision.
“It was just kind of like, 'Well, duh,'” Ross said.
“Like, OK,” Klineman added. “We made the right choice.”
The wins kept piling up. During the 2018 AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour, Klineman and Ross won four tournaments. Later that year, they took gold at the Yangzhou Open, their second- FIVB tournament event. In 2019, they won silver at the world championships.
Then 2020 saw three more AVP tournament wins, and during the abbreviated 2021 season, Klineman and Ross won once and took third twice. The foundation they’ve established on the international stage as the No. 2 pair in the world translated in their dominant play at the Tokyo Olympics.
Ross and Klineman won six straight sets through three elimination matches to guarantee themselves an Olympic silver or gold.
“It's the most amazing feeling and we dreamed of this,” Klineman said. “This is what we worked for every single day. But just cause you work for it and just cause you do everything you can doesn't mean that it happens. So the fact that everything is falling into place, it feels so magical.”
Getting in their faces with big blocks
In their 2-0 semifinal victory over the Swiss pair of Anouk Verge-Depre and Joana Heidric, Ross and Klineman showed what makes their partnership special. Both displayed their offensive prowess, as Ross finished with 15 attack points and Klineman added nine. Klineman, who was named AVP’s best blocker in 2018 and 2019, contributed four block points.
“I think Alix really took over with her blocking and that was a huge key to our game plan,” Ross said. “So she really got in their face and affected them a lot.”
Although Ross knew what to expect heading into her third Olympics, she admitted the tournament doesn’t get any easier with time. That’s why the prospect of earning a medal is still just as exciting as it was when Ross first set out on her Olympic journey. They’ll have that opportunity in the final on Friday when they play Australia’s Mariafe Artacho del Solar and Taliqua Clancy.
To win gold with Klineman would be the perfect payoff on a major investment.
“She has worked so hard to get where she is,” Ross said. “I didn't want to let her down. I think the fact that we're in the gold medal match is just what we both wanted for each other.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: April Ross, Alix Klineman guaranteed Olympic medal at 2021 Summer Games