The story of Olympic silver medalist and beach volleyball star April Ross is not the Southern California cliché one might assume. She did not have her diapers changed on a blanket on the sands of Newport Beach. Nor did she sneak out of Newport Harbor High School on sunny days and dash to the beach to find a game.
“It was dirty, sweaty,” she says. “It wasn’t the least bit fun. Plus, I was clueless out there.”
She is clueless no more. Ross and partner Kerri Walsh Jennings likely will be among the top U.S. stories in Rio. They are that good, and any U.S. Olympic success, especially the golden kind, brings well-deserved media gushing. Plus, if Walsh Jennings wins the gold with Ross, she will become the third U.S. athlete, male or female, to win four gold medals in a team sport, matching basketball players Teresa Edwards and Lisa Leslie.
So how did this woman who disliked the beach game become its royalty?
Ross is 6-foot -1, the same height as her dad, a chiropractor. Her mom, who died of breast cancer in 2001, was 6 feet.
In high school, Ross was a star athlete at Newport Harbor, excelling in volleyball as well as track and field. She competed in the long jump, the triple jump, and the high jump, once clearing 5 feet 6 inches. But volleyball was her best sport, and she was among the top recruits in the country. She chose USC, set several individual records, and led the Trojans to NCAA titles in 2002 and ’03. She was named All-American both seasons.
Sports went more smoothly than school for a while. She didn’t think she could get into USC’s photojournalism program, so she majored in international marketing. Her mother died during her sophomore year, and she drifted in her school work.
“I finally had to sit down and have a talk with myself,” she says.
As successful as college volleyball had been for her, its aftermath was less so. She trained with the U.S. women’s national indoor team but found it tricky.
“I really didn’t feel welcome,” she says. “I thought we worked out too much, much more than was necessary. I didn’t feel like I really got a chance. So I quit.”
She went to Puerto Rico to play indoor volleyball and was further disillusioned.
“I came home from there, tired and beaten up,” she says. She then spent time as a hostess at the House of Blues in Anaheim as she pondered what to do next. “I wasn’t married, I was wasting my life, and I felt like I’d never play volleyball again.”
Then a friend and former USC teammate, Keao Burdine, asked Ross to team with her on the beach in some Association of Volleyball Professionals beach tournaments in 2006. That’s where the sport became more than a labor of hate.
Ross and Burdine were not an immediate success. For Ross, the beach game felt like trying to move through mud—lots of dirt and sweat with no payoff. The first year, she didn’t win back any of her $13,000 in expenses.
But eventually, the dirt and sweat became tolerable, almost celebrated. Ross earned a Rookie of the Year award and teamed with a new partner, Jen Kessy, in 2007. The pairing worked. They beat Walsh Jennings and her star partner, Misty May- Treanor, in one tournament and won the world title in Norway in 2009. Everything was falling into place. Ross shared a background with May-Treanor, long established as the best female player in the sport, who also came from Newport Harbor High and had won state titles there in 1992 and ’94.
The silver medal Ross won in London hinted at future stardom.
Despite being a relative newcomer to this Olympic media circus, Ross had a long time to prepare. Exactly four years.
She and Kessy lost that 2012 Olympics final to Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor in a memorable setting. The Brits put the sand down at Horse Guards Parade, the entryway for Buckingham Palace and St. James where men on horses have ceremoniously guarded the royalty since 1660.
For Ross, it was a silver-medal achievement and a gold-medal memory.
“We went to the net after match point,” she says, “and when Kerri hugged me, she said, ‘Let’s go win the gold in Rio.’ ”
It was well-known that May-Treanor was retiring from Olympic competition after London. It was also known that Walsh Jennings would play on. It wasn’t generally known with whom. Then, just seconds after Ross had lost the battle, she was chosen as Walsh Jennings’ next partner.
It might have been the most valuable Olympic runner-up finish since Carl Lewis ran second to Ben Johnson in the 100 meters in 1988.
Kessy had made it clear she wanted to take time off to have a family and didn’t stand in Ross’ way. “Usually, these team breakups are contentious,” Ross says. “This one wasn’t.”
Nor was it immediate. Walsh Jennings was five weeks pregnant with her third child then, so Ross and Kessy played on for a while. But the commitment made at the net was a serious one. The Games in which Walsh Jennings has excelled are Olympian in importance to her.
“I thought when she said that to me, right after the match,” Ross says, “that it showed Kerri’s drive.”
After winning a Cincinnati World Tour tournament in May with Ross, Walsh Jennings was asked if all the winning sometimes gets to be old hat.
“I’m hungry, always hungry,” she said.
Walsh Jennings will turn 38 two days before the Rio final, and there is an assumption, but no offi cial announcement, that this will be her last Olympics. As for
Ross, she has just begun.
“I’ll definitely try again in Tokyo (2020),” she says, “and if Los Angeles gets the next games, well, I’ll be in my 40s, but…”
This volleyball pairing was made in heaven. But it came with no guarantees; instead, there was uncertainty and frustration.
Walsh Jennings had her baby and returned to the beach. She separated her right shoulder twice, in May and July of 2015—the fourth and fifth times in her career that she had injured the shoulder.
Finally, after trying to play left-handed and serving underhand, she opted for surgery last September. Suddenly a sure thing—the Olympic qualification of a team the caliber of Walsh Jennings and Ross—was no longer a lock. International qualifying took place in 2015 and 2016, and points from 12 events established the top teams. They had to be one of the top two U.S. teams and one of the top 15 teams in the world to make it.
After seven events in 2015, they stood No. 22, seven spots out of the running. USA Volleyball, the national governing body for the sport, was seriously concerned.
Would there be enough events left, and could they do well enough in them for the needed points?
Even as they flew to international events to get it done, the haunting thought was there. Would Walsh Jennings’ shoulder hold up?
“For a while there,” Ross says, “every time she’d go up at the net, I winced.”
Ross found a way to keep things in perspective. She talks about learning to stay detached from the noise that comes with her stature. She remembered her partner Kessy crying after the loss in London, and Ross thought, “It’s OK, we’re still alive.”
Life had become more than just Rio de Janeiro. She was married now, and her husband, beach volleyball player Brad Keenan, had taken a job as beach volleyball
coach at Arizona State University. Life could move on without Olympic volleyball. Preparing for the worst can feel even better when things turn out for the best.
And so they have.
Flash forward to a cold day in May at a volleyball stadium in Cincinnati. Ross and Walsh Jennings had just won the title, beating a top team from China. They
were giddy, not so much over the victory, but the realization that this had been their 12th qualifier, that they now had the standing to get to Rio. Two weeks later they won a title in a Moscow event, and they were ranked third when qualifying ended June 12.
That quiet hope at the net was no longer just a wish. It had become a mandate.