April Ross and Alix Klineman: A powerful mix
Five years later the American duo, partners on the beach since late 2017, are the No.1 U.S. women’s team to qualify for Tokyo 2020, cementing Klineman’s rise in the discipline and setting them up – they hope – for Olympic success.
“Switching to beach was a really interesting experience because on the one hand, I felt very experienced as a player. I played professionally [indoors] and with the national team,” Klineman said in an April interview with reporters. “But then I also felt like a rookie and a beginner at the same time. And so it was like trying to hold on to a lot of the experience and all of the confidence I had gained from indoor, but then also really being a student of the game.”
Having made the switch away from her comfort on the indoor court, Klineman teamed up with the ultra-successful Ross, who had previously won silver at London 2012 with Jennifer Kessy (who in 2018 coached Klineman and Ross) and bronze in Rio, alongside the legendary Kerri Walsh-Jennings.
Their mix of Klineman’s height (she stands 6-foot-5 [195cm]) and at-net prowess mixed in with Ross’ all-court sense and years of experience is a lethal combination.
Klineman, 31, saw the discipline as her better opportunity to win an Olympic medal, but was competing in indoors up until 2017, making her partnership with Ross official in November of that year.
A fast start – and pandemic improvements
After winning their first-ever event together, the team was named the AVP Team of the Year in 2019 thereafter, a year before the scheduled Tokyo 2020 Games. But then, with the Olympic delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Klineman and Ross were served a little extra time to grow stronger as a team.
“We spent a lot of the pandemic actually training. ... we feel like we really got to work on our game, even though there wasn't a lot of competition and we didn't know how our first competition back would be,” said Ross, who would like add a third Olympic medal to her CV in as many appearances.
They captured the first event they entered upon a return to play, in Doha in March of 2021, and are joined on Team USA for Tokyo by Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil, who had a last-dash flurry of success to beat out Walsh-Jennings and Brooke Sweat for the second American spot.
“[The win in Doha] proved how we improved throughout the pandemic and, you know, just work[ed] on our mental game and watching lots of video and just figuring out how we could get better,” Ross added.
A veteran and newcomer: Duo combines different experiences
Some have called Klineman and Ross the favourite for the women’s beach event, which starts on 24 July and continues through to 6 August.
“I kind of looked at the beach as an opportunity to pursue my Olympic dream and kind of have a fresh start at that. And so it was much more challenging than I could have ever even imagined and I knew it was going to be hard,” admitted Klineman.
She continued: “It's been such a learning experience and I've tried to really stay confident, but also keep a really open mind, because I know I have so much to learn. And it was definitely a risk. But I am so happy that I made this choice and I'm happy with how this journey has been so far.”
It was in 2007 that Ross teamed up with Kessy, a partnership that ended with a world title to its name and the silver medal in London, losing to Misty May-Treanor and Walsh-Jennings.
While it might be Klineman who is “new” to the discipline, Ross has watched beach volleyball ebb and flow over the years, different strategies being developed around the world – both on and off of the court. And more high-level athletes being funneled into it.
“A lot of federations started putting a lot more money into beach volleyball,” said the 38 year old. “They got a lot more athletic athletes [into the sport] and the strategy has just evolved a ton. ... I feel like the game has just become a lot more complex and the knowledge of the game is spread out, and the [tournament] fields have just become deeper and deeper internationally.”
Ross: Not ruling out Paris 2024
While Ross no doubt wants success in Tokyo, that hasn’t stopped her mind from floating to Paris 2024, now just a short three years away.
“It seems more attainable to do three more years,” Ross said, referring to the five since she competed in Rio. “There are other things I want to do in life, so I might try to do those and see how things go. But I don't want to retire prematurely. Physically, I feel great. [I] still love competing and I would love to go to Paris for the Olympics.”