April Ross on Klineman, Akers, Tokyo Olympics, Rooney the dog, cancer drug Verzenio

Alix Klineman-April Ross
April Ross and Alix Klineman celebrating winning the 2019 FIVB four-star event Sunday in Itapema, Brazil/FIVB photo

Getting a spot in the Tokyo Olympics came down to the wire for the other three USA beach volleyball teams, but April Ross and Alix Klineman had a bid sewn up early.

“For a few minutes there we were thinking, ‘OK, we’re qualified, now let’s look at the Olympics, what do we have to get better at, how can we use this time to work on those things?’ ” Ross said.

“But pretty quickly after that I kind of realized there was a trap in that. Or could be a trap in that. When you feel all this pressure to qualify and there’s so much weight on it, that really pushes you to perform and bring everything you have and you can’t really replicate that.

“We didn’t take our foot off the gas pedal, but we were being more analytical about everything, and then we were like, screw it, we’ve got to go into every tournament and pretend like we need to win this tournament to qualify for the Olympics, because that’s how we’re going to get better.”

Ross admitted that having the “A Team” qualify early worked both ways.

“It definitely let us breathe a little bit, and we needed to pull out of Ostrava, because of health reasons, we were able to do that, which was huge. So there are positives, and I don’t want to say negatives because qualifying is amazing, and I’m so glad that we did it, but we had to be really strategic about how we were going to go about it.”

The next strategy starts Saturday in Tokyo where Ross and Klineman are in Pool B with Xue Chen and Xinxin Wang of China, Liliana Fernandez and Elsa Baquerizo of Spain, and Sanne Keizer and Madelin Meppelink of the Netherlands.

Presumably Ross and Klineman are both healthy, because that obviously wasn’t the case in the FIVB four-star Ostrava event June 5 when they forfeited a quarterfinal match against Switzerland’s Anouk Verge-Depre and Joana Heidrich. Verge-Depre and Heidrich ultimately lost to Americans Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil in the gold-medal match. Earlier in the tournament, Claes and Sponcil clinched the other USA women’s beach spot.

And those health issues? Ross was transparently opaque.

“Everybody wants to know but we made a team decision to be really vague about it,” Ross told us two weeks later. “Everything’s going to be fine, it was just precautionary, but sorry, I can’t give any more details than that.”

Speaking of that team, it consists, of course, of Ross and Klineman, but also Dutch coach Angie Akers. She replaced Jen Kessy last year when Kessy, now living on a trout farm, moved to Maine. We documented her journey last week.

Kessy, of course, was Ross’s partner when they won silver in the 2012 London Olympics. Ross then won bronze with Kerri Walsh Jennings in Rio in 2016.

The next year she hired Kessy as her coach and brought on the 6-foot-5 Klineman as her partner to get to exactly where they are now, certainly medal favorites in Tokyo. Ross was already one of the world’s best. Klineman, also featured on our site last week, was coming from the indoor game.

What’s more, Ross, the former USC star, turned 39 on June 20. Klineman, the former Stanford star, is 31 and had played professionally indoors in Italy and Brazil and was new to the beach and all that entails.

Whereas previously Ross had Kessy and then Walsh Jennings leading the way, “It’s a little bit of a role reversal for me,” she said. “It took a little bit of learning where I had to figure out how much do I try to help, how much is too much, how much is overwhelming, just trying to figure out how to help her learn the ropes as fast as possible and I sympathize with Kerri and Jen, because it’s not easy.”

Few players have gotten better faster than Klineman.

“I think Alix has worked really, really hard on her blocking, because it’s significantly different from indoor, she’s had to play around a lot with her approach,” Ross said. “And her direction, because as a right-sider, which I don’t think she had ever played — she was always an outside hitter not an opposite — so is she going to get wide or she is going to stay with me as I’m setting. And pulling, her hand shape, she needed to work on that, she’s gotten so much better at that. Her attacking has never been an issue.”

Also, “nuance things like defense and strategy and things like that. Just normal stuff.”

Kessy would have stayed on as their coach, but had already committed to move, so when the 2020 Olympics were postponed a year and Kessy moved, the A Team added another A in Akers.

That appears to have been a seamless transition.

“Yeah, it’s kind of crazy how things aligned with Angie. We didn’t know she was going to be leaving the Netherlands and we jumped on it. She has a much different coaching style than Jen and that took a while to get used to. She’s much more analytical and stats driven and kind of system driven, where Jen was more skill based and drew a lot on her experience as a player to help us learn. Angie made our minds work in a different way and it took a little bit of adjusting for sure and we’re still adjusting to it. 

“After Jen helped us progress as much as she did it was like, ‘Hey, let’s think about the game in a different way and have that push us to get better.’ It hasn’t let us off the hook in any way. There have been more growing pains and more being uncomfortable and we’re hoping that leads to the kind of growth that’s gonna help us win a gold medal. It’s been really frustrating at times because she’s pushed us in ways we’re not used to, but she’s an amazing person, also … She’s great to have her on our team.”

Ross and Klineman open play Saturday morning against the Chinese pair, play the Spaniards on Monday, and then have two days off before playing the Dutch on Thursday, July 29.

Ross said they’re ready.

“We’re peaking at the right time,” Ross said. 

***

A little of this and a little of that about April Ross.

She has a dog, Rooney, who will be 4 in December. Ross was on a volleyball trip when her boyfried surprised her with a 3-month-old puppy. Recently, while shooting a commercial for Mizuno, Rooney, a big ol’ girl, stole the show. While sitting on her dog with her two Olympic medals, she decided to put them on Rooney.

“She gets excited when other people are around. I was kind of shocked. She was a complete angel. She listened to all of my commands with so many people there filming. She sat right next to me and I had my medals on and I know she likes to get dressed up. So I put the medals on her and she seemed so proud to be wearing the medals and it was so cute. I had to post about it.”

And you can see that here:

Ross and Klineman plan to play all three AVP events after the Olympics and also hope to play the FIVB World Tour Finals in Italy in September.

After that?  

“Montana for Thanksgiving with my sister,” and she laughed, “and drinking a lot of wine.”

***

Half of the women’s beach contingent is from USC.

Ross went there before there was NCAA beach volleyball, but won the NCAA indoor championship in 2002 and 2003. Kelly Claes, teamed in these Olympics with Sarah Sponcil, won four national championships on the beach at USC, including the first two NCAA titles. What’s more, USC won the most recent NCAA beach championship.

“It makes me really proud,” Ross said. “When I went to USC I didn’t know about their tradition of Olympians and the medal and all that. But since becoming an Olympian, I’ve become much more aware and I want to continue to contribute to that legacy.”

According to USC, it “has produced more Olympians, overall medalists and gold medalists than any other university in the United States.

“USC’s star-studded Olympic roster includes 472 Trojans who attended the university before, during or after their Summer or Winter Olympic appearances.”

In addition to Ross and Claes, USC will also have Micah Christenson on the men’s indoor roster.

“It’s a pretty big testament to what goes on at USC,” Ross said.

There may be others, but the USC Olympics roster is pretty stout. The Games will also include Trojans Allyson Felix, Anna Cockrell, Isiah Jewett, Dalilah Muhammed, Michael Norman, and Nicole Yeargin in track; swimmers Katinka Hosszu, Ous Mellouli, and Alexei Sancov; women’s water polo players Kalieigh Gilchrist, Stephania Haralabidis, Paige Hauschild, and Amanda Longan; men’s water polo players Hannes Daube and Marko Vavic; and USC golfers Sophia Popov of Germany and Tiffany Chan of Hong Kong.

***

Thanks to Eli Lilly and Company for setting up this interview. It’s not coincidental that earlier this spring you saw — it would have been hard to miss it — a TV commercial for a drug called Verzenio. Lilly promotes it as “The first and only CDK4 & 6 inhibitor that can be taken every day for women newly diagnosed with HR+, HER2– metastatic breast cancer. A link to watch the commercial follows.

Ross was 19 when her mother, Margie, died from metastatic breast cancer, an incurable form of breast cancer that kills more than 40,000 women in America every year.

“My mom’s always been a big inspiration for me, on the court and off the court, and I’ve always wanted to honor her memory and legacy by trying to drive awareness and trying to give back with those other organizations. But I’ve never talked about her like I have now through my partnership with Eli Lilly,” Ross said.

“The platform is so big at the Olympics and being able to drive awareness about things like Verzenio, which is their treatment option for people living with certain types of metastatic breast cancer, it just makes it a more fulfilling journey and makes it more than just chasing a dream for myself.”

Normally, such commercials are, simply put, really cheesy. This one is extremely well done.

“I’ve been so happy with the response to it,” Ross said. “Everyone who knew my mom, they’re all texting me telling me this is such an amazing commercial and people are getting teary. Everyone thinks it was done so well, which it was. 

“And that’s one thing I really wanted to accomplish through my partnership with Eli Lilly was keeping my mom’s memory alive and I feel like it’s really done and I’m just so excited about it.”

There are shots with Ross and photos of her mother and they look incredibly alike.

Ross was at home when she saw it the first time.

“I was really nervous to watch it,” she admitted, “just because I didn’t know what kind of emotions it was going to bring up. It was emotional, but I was so pleased with how positive it was and to see how they used the photos and my mom’s likeness. I loved it.”

This is April’s Instagram post from when she watched the video the first time:

Click here to see the Verzenio spot.

***
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