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TOKYO — U.S. beach volleyball duo of three-time Olympic medalist April Ross and Alix Klineman took a gamble and became partners in late 2017 despite Klineman having less than a year of experience on the beach. In the end, the payout was Olympic gold.
Ross and Klineman’s campaign in Tokyo appeared effortless – they defeated Australia’s Mariafe Artacho del Solar and Taliqua Clancy 2-0 (21-15, 21-16) in the final match and never dropped a set through four elimination games. A successful bet typically takes a little luck, but for Ross and Klineman, a whole lot of effort controlled their fate.
“I think sometimes people want to feel confident going into the match and feel like it's just going to go smoothly,” Klineman said. “But we kind of went in with the opposite mentality and just having that much respect for that team because they are so good, expecting a battle, expecting points to be really tough, I think that helped us prepare for this match. Just helped us kind of come in playing our best.”
Despite their success mowing through the Olympic bracket, Ross and Klineman refused to underestimate Artacho del Solar and Clancy. According to volleyballmag.com, the teams played against each other five times before meeting at the Olympics with the Australians holding a 3-2 edge. Artacho del Solar and Clancy won the most recent match on May 1 in the semifinals of the FIVB Cancun four-star tournament.
Between their Olympic semifinal match on Thursday and their final match on Friday, Ross and Klineman tore through at least four hours of video to study themselves and their opponent. Klineman developed a penchant for crunching film while she transitioned from indoor to beach volleyball.
“I feel like there's so much to learn and so when I'm preparing for a match, there was not really such a thing as watching too much video,” Klineman said. “I feel like picking apart little tendencies can't hurt.”
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What looked like perfection on the sand took years of preparation, including the moments leading up to the start of each match. Ross and Klineman “warm up” for an hour, which Klineman said feels more like a true practice than a brief acclimation period.
Together, they take advantage of every opportunity to get even a little bit better before the whistle blows and the match begins.
“Funny story is when we were practicing before the tournament started, Alix was extremely frustrated with her serve and felt like she couldn't get it in,” Ross said. “Down the stretch, she kept with it and kept believing and her serving, especially in the last two matches, was huge. Not everything was seamless and went according to plan.”
The grind set the U.S. team up for success against Australia. In the first set, Klineman and Ross went on an early 5-0 run to go up 7-2 in the first set and Australia was never able to take a lead through 20 minutes of playtime.
After going down two points to start the second set, Ross and Klineman went on a resurgent 10-0 run. Martacho del Solar and Clancy tried to overtake the lead, closing the gap to 16-13, but the U.S. team prevailed. In total, Ross contributed nine attack points and Klineman finished with ten attack points and two block points.
“It didn't feel dominant,” Klineman said. “We have to work so hard to win points against the Australian team. I'm just so proud that we believed that we could do it. That's the team that's given us a lot of trouble in the past. We went out there and just put it all out there. We trusted our ability.”
A 2012 London silver medalist and 2016 Rio bronze medalist, Ross gave newcomer Klineman a chance. Klineman gave Ross her best effort in transitioning from indoor to outdoor. At the end of the prolonged quadrennial, they gave each other the storybook ending they set out to accomplish.
COVID-19 protocols made their moment atop the podium unique from other Games – they got to hang their gold medals around each other’s necks instead of an Olympics official doing it for them.
“I was really excited when I got to realize that I got to put it on her and she got to put it on me. I feel like we've both tried to support each other in this partnership as much as we have,” Klineman said. “It was a really special moment.”
Now, the U.S. has won gold in four of the last five Olympic women’s beach volleyball tournaments. Ross adds to her collection and cements her place in U.S. beach history as one of just four players regardless of gender with multiple Olympic medals (Kerri Walsh Jennings, Misty May-Treanor and Karch Kiraly are the others). Klineman brings home her gold after her first Olympics.
Those accolades didn’t come accidentally. With tireless preparation, Ross and Klineman made each risk at the beginning of their journey worth taking.
“I'm just so grateful that things worked out,” Klineman said. “We put it all out there and it's been just such a fairytale ending and dream experience for us.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: April Ross and Alix Klineman win beach volleyball gold at Olympics