By Peggy Shinn | Aug. 20, 2019, 12:01 a.m. (ET)

 

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At the AVP Gold Series Manhattan Beach Open on Sunday, April Ross and Alix Klineman fell to reigning beach volleyball world champions Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes in a tight three-set match. But it’s the only loss so far for the pair dubbed the “A Team” (based on their first names) in AVP beach volleyball tournaments this season.

Ross and Klineman are also leading the world ranking (120 points ahead of Pavan and Humana-Paredes). And they are also atop the U.S. qualification ranking for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

They had one of their biggest wins yet in July — claiming the FIVB World Tour 5-star title in Gstaad, Switzerland. This win came on the heels of a silver-medal performance at the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Hamburg, Germany, a week earlier, where they fell in the final to Pavan and Humana-Paredes in two sets.

These results are not surprising for Ross, a 37-year-old two-time Olympic medalist and three-time world medalist. But it’s a breakout season for Klineman, 29, who is in the midst of only her third full season of beach volleyball.

“There’s still room for improvement for both of us,” Klineman said by phone, after being inducted into the Manhattan Beach Volleyball Walk of Fame. “That’s an exciting thing. We’ve already had some success, but we feel like we can be even better.”

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So where did this beach volleyball “A-lister” come from?

Klineman likes to joke that she is a product of her environment. She grew up in the beach volleyball hub of Manhattan Beach, California — less than 40 miles up the coast from Ross’ hometown of Newport Beach. But she only became involved in the sport by chance.

Her parents, Mike and Kathie Klineman, were dropping off her older brother Max at a beach volleyball camp one day in the mid-1990s. Alix had tagged along, and the camp organizers said to the Klinemans, “OK, we’re ready for her.”

“No, no,” replied the Klinemans. “She’s only 6.”

It was a camp for kids ages 8 and older, but young Alix was tall for her age (she’s now 6-foot-5).

They ended up leaving both Alix and Max at the camp. When they picked them up at the end of the day, the Klinemans asked the camp directors how Alix had done.

“Good,” they replied, “except we need more orange slices for tomorrow.”

“I guess I had eaten all of their snacks,” Klineman said wryly. 

 

(L-R) Alix Klineman and April Ross competing in the women's gold medal match between at the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour on July 28, 2019 in Tokyo.

 

A couple years later, local legendary football coach John Featherstone (who also loves volleyball) suggested Klineman try out for the Hot Waves, a club that introduced her to indoor volleyball and groomed her for high school. She helped Mira Costa High School win three state titles in indoor volleyball. She was named the Gatorade National Volleyball Player of the year for 2006-07. Incidentally, Ross won the same title during her high school volleyball career.

From Mira Costa, Klineman enrolled at Stanford University. In her four years playing indoor volleyball for the Cardinal, and despite having shoulder surgery before her sophomore year, she became only the second player ever to record over 2,000 kills, and she was named an NCAA All-American four times.

After graduating from Stanford with a degree in art studio in June 2011, Klineman wanted to continue her volleyball career. The only option for a professional career was to play overseas. She played in Italy for three years and Brazil for two, returning each summer to play for the indoor national team. Her goal: to compete at an Olympic Games.

While Klineman would make the U.S. team for training, she always missed making the crucial rosters. When she didn’t make the 2016 U.S. Olympic Volleyball Team she began considering her options.

“I looked at the beach as a new opportunity and a chance to chase my dreams without anybody having to give me approval or put me on a roster,” she said.

Her body was also taking a toll playing on a hard court. The sand, she hoped, would be more forgiving. She also liked the idea of living at home in Manhattan Beach. No more living abroad every winter.

“But the biggest thing was pursuing the Olympics and getting a new shot at that,” Klineman said.

Although many indoor volleyball players have transitioned to the beach (Ross and four-time Olympic medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings among them), the two disciplines are very different. Notably, in beach volleyball, only two players (not six) are on the court, with no substitutions. It takes explosive power as well as endurance.

Beach volleyball is also less regimented than its indoor sibling. There are no rosters, no coaches, no pre-determined practice schedules. Beach volleyball players must find their own partners and coaches and set their own training and travel schedules.

In late April 2017, Klineman was attending the Stagecoach country music festival held at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California, every year and ran into Ross. The festival often attracts celebrities. Ross had recently split from her partnership with Walsh Jennings, with whom she won an Olympic bronze medal in Rio. (Ross won an Olympic silver medal with Jennifer Kessy in 2012.)

Ross and Klineman were chatting at a music festival party and, as they recounted in a sit-down interview with a California CBS affiliate, Klineman told the Olympic medalist of her recent switch to beach volleyball and how she needed a partner.

Ross casually replied, “Maybe down the road we’ll play together,” then added that Klineman needed to get better first.

The next day, Klineman wondered if she had imagined the conversation. Then the realization hit her: “If I train really hard and get better, I can play with somebody like April.”

By the end of 2017, Klineman was named the AVP Rookie of the Year, and Ross saw potential.

“I could tell she had a little ways to go skill-wise, but it was evident to me that she would make a good transition to the beach,” said Ross. “She wouldn’t be where she is right now, though, if she didn’t work as hard as she does. I think she outworks almost everybody.”

Asked what she did to improve, Klineman confessed, “I don’t know if I got that much better until I joined forces with April and [coach] Jen [Kessy], having their experience and leadership.”

In early January 2018, they headed to The Hague in the Netherlands for their first tournament. It was an FIVB World Tour 4-star event. They shocked everyone by winning. To reach the final, they had to win nine straight matches (two country quota matches, two qualifying matches, then six to win the tournament).

It was Ross’ first FIVB World Tour win since 2016. And Klineman’s first ever.

Two months later, they dropped to last (25th) in their next FIVB tournament. But since then, they have established more consistency. In 15 FIVB World Tour events, they have made the quarterfinals or better in 13. And they have won four.

So how has Klineman shot so quickly to the top of the beach volleyball rankings?

For one, she is tall. But she is also well-rounded. In indoor volleyball, she was an outside hitter and had to develop both offensive and defensive skills. Also, after she had shoulder surgery in college, it took her months to regain power. In its place, she developed a wide variety of volleyball shots.

“I think some of the taller players who come to the beach tend to be really dominant in one or two skills and not as developed in other skills,” Klineman explained.

Ross and Klineman also have similar work ethics.

“[Alix] is 100-percent dedicated, and I can be kind of intense, so I definitely need a partner who can be just as intense as I am,” explained Ross. “Alix definitely fits the bill there.”

“We’re both motivated and willing to put in the time on the court, in the gym, watching video, and in the PT room getting healthy,” added Klineman. “We both trust and respect that the other person is going to do what they need to do to take care of their end.”

The Olympic qualification period lasts 10 more months. While Ross and Klineman currently lead the world rankings, they are third in the Olympic ranking and two spots above the next-highest American team (Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat in eighth), with up to two teams qualifying per country.

“We’re in a good spot right now,” said Ross. “But we have to keep charging it to stay in a good spot.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.