April Ross and Alix Klineman celebrate after winning gold at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 Aug. 6, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
TOKYO — For April Ross and Alix Klineman, the 2020 Olympic Games Tokyo are like a fairy tale.
In women’s beach volleyball, the two Americans known as “The A Team” dominated Australia’s Mariafe Artacho del Solar and Taliqua Clancy, winning in two sets (21-15, 21-16). The match took 44 minutes.
With the win, Ross and Klineman bring the Olympic gold medal back to U.S. soil, er, sand. The U.S. has won four of the past five Olympic women’s beach volleyball gold medals.
Ross, 39, is a three-time Olympian but this is her first gold medal. She also won a silver medal with Jennifer Kessey at the 2012 Olympic Games and bronze with Kerri Walsh Jennings in 2016.
It’s Klineman’s first Olympic Games and first medal. Ross partnered with Klineman, 31, in 2017 after splitting with Walsh Jennings. Klineman — a physically gifted volleyball player at 6’5” — had switched to beach volleyball just a few months earlier.
“I can't fathom that it worked out the way it did,” said Ross as she held her gold medal. “It's kind of a fairy tale story, like, oh, you know, I'm going on 39 to try and get my gold medal, and the fact that it actually happened feels so special and surreal. I'm just so proud of our team and so grateful for everyone who helped us get here.”
Even the entertainer and professional wrestler known as Mr. T, of the 1980s TV show “The A-Team,” chimed in.
“Wow! You did it Ladies, Congratulations!” he tweeted. “You Deserve the Gold! You Brought your ‘A’ Game to the A-team!”
For Ross, a beach volleyball veteran, the gold medal didn’t happen with Klineman, an indoor volleyball player in her youth and through college at Stanford (where she became the second player ever to record over 2,000 kills).
After graduating from Stanford in 2011, Klineman wanted to continue her volleyball career, with the goal of competing for Team USA at the Olympic Games. But she always missed making crucial national team rosters. When she didn’t make the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team, she considered switching to the beach. Maybe the sand held a viable path to the Olympic Games.
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. With no substitutions and only two people on the court, beach takes explosive power and endurance.
In late April 2017, Klineman ran into Ross at a music festival. Ross had just split from her partnership with Walsh Jennings, and Klineman mentioned that she had switched to beach volleyball.
“Maybe down the road we’ll play together,” Ross mentioned, but added that Klineman needed to improve first.
And improve she did. By the end of 2017, Klineman was named the AVP rookie of the year, and Ross saw potential, along with a strong work ethic. She also saw someone who was willing to work as a true team, respecting what they each bring to the game and with the constant desire to improve.
“Our communication and respect for each other is really honestly off the charts,” said Ross, who has had several beach volleyball partners in her long career, including Kessey and Walsh Jennings.
The Ross/Klineman match-up proved solid from their first FIVB World Tour event in January 2018, which they won. It was Ross’s first FIVB World Tour win since 2016. And Klineman’s first ever.
Since then, they have developed consistency. They climbed from seventh in world rankings in 2018 to second place in 2019 and 2020 (behind Canadians Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan, who were knocked out in the 2020 Olympic quarterfinals by the Australians).
In 2019, Ross and Klineman finished second at the world championships, just ahead of Artacho del Solar and Clancy who were third.
Ross called her decision to pair with Klineman one of the best she has ever made.
For Klineman, she is grateful that Ross had faith in her.
“People should realize what a risk April took to take me on as a partner because when we joined together I had less than a year of experience on the beach and was not playing at a high level,” said Klineman. “She took my indoor experience into account and my goals and my motivation and how badly I wanted this.”
But an Olympic gold medal was far from a given for The A Team. They had slipped to third in the world rankings in 2021 and had not won an FIVB world tour match since March. In April, Artacho del Solar and Clancy beat “The A Team” twice.
But once the 2020 Olympic beach volleyball tournament started, The A Team was back on their game. Ross and Klineman only dropped one set during pool play, then won in straight sets through the elimination rounds.
Klineman credited their constant desire to improve, even working on their game during warmup. It was, she said, “just not accepting where we were, just trying to get 1 percent better until the whistle blows.”
“Funny story,” said Ross. “When we were practicing before the tournament started, Alex was extremely frustrated with her serve and felt like she couldn't get it in. Then down the stretch, she kept with it and kept believing and her serving, especially in the last few matches, was huge.”
They also brought respect for their opponents to the tournament. The top women’s beach volleyball teams are very competitive, and in every match, Ross and Klineman expected a battle.
“Sometimes people want to feel confident going into [a match], to feel like it's just all going to go smoothly,” said Klineman. “But we came in with the opposite mentality.”
And they walked away with the Olympic gold medal.
Ross declined to say which of her three Olympic medals means the most. She is, of course, proud of all of them.
As for Klineman, who’s goal was to just make it to an Olympics, her fairy tale came true too.
“We knew that anything could happen,” she said. “I'm just so grateful that things worked out. It's been just such a fairytale ending and dream experience for us.”
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo2020 to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.