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Some 1,300 days ago, the veteran and the newcomer cemented their fledgling partnership by touching sloshing water bottles together in a toast on a beach.
April Ross and Alix Klineman were an unlikely duo.
Though both had been raised in Southern California, Ross established herself as one of the world’s top beach volleyball players and captured two Olympic medals while the long-armed Klineman pursued the indoor game.
The beach brought them together and, on a steaming afternoon at Shiokaze Park on Friday, the American duo won a gold medal at the Summer Games.
— Team USA (@TeamUSA) August 6, 2021
“I can’t fathom that it worked out the way it did,” Ross said. “It’s kind of a fairy-tale story.”
The victory over Australia’s Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho del Solar 21-15, 21-16, capped an undefeated run through the beach volleyball bracket for the Americans. In match after match at the temporary stadium, empty other than a scattering of officials and media members, the duo showed why the unexpected partnership in the early days has become the best in the world.
“She saw something in me that no one else did,” Klineman said. “She was looking at my potential and took that bet on me.”
Though the Australians cut the Americans’ lead to 16-13 in the second set, her spike seconds later ended the brief comeback. That’s how the 44-minute game played out. Each time the Australians made a push, Ross and Klineman shut them down. The broiling day — with a heat index of 99 degrees when the match started at 11:30 a.m. — didn’t bother the Americans, either. They methodically dismantled their opponents in what has become routine fashion, ending with a long embrace after the gold-medal point.
“When you’re working for something like this, you need somebody who’s going to work their butt off every day and have a fire under their butt,” Ross said a day earlier. “I knew she was coming out to the beach to make the Olympics and to take a risk. ... I knew that was going to be a huge motivating factor.”
Ross, the former USC and Newport Harbor High standout from Costa Mesa, partnered with Jen Kessy to win a silver at the London Games in 2012, then joined Kerri Walsh Jennings to capture bronze in Rio de Janeiro four years later.
For all the accolades — including a world championship and NCAA indoor titles — Ross didn’t have a gold medal. Ross and Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in the sport that had been dominated by Americans, ended their partnership in 2017. The search for a replacement led Ross to a surprising place. With a 6-foot-5 frame and wingspan that seems tailor-made for frustrating opponents at the net, Klineman was the Gatorade national player of the year at Manhattan Beach’s Mira Costa High in 2006 before becoming a four-time All-American at Stanford.
After being left off the U.S. Olympic indoor volleyball roster in 2016, Klineman shifted to the beach in search of a fresh start. Ross floated the idea of teaming up when they attended the Stagecoach country music festival in Indio in April 2017.
“From an outsider’s perspective, some of the things when you’re watching beach volleyball look simple and I think once I got going, I realized how many different parts of beach volleyball are different from indoor,” said Klineman, who had less than a year of experience in the sport at the time. “There were so many days of practices where it just felt impossible to grasp these new concepts.”
The duo won their first tournament in January 2018 — the Dela Beach Open in The Hague, Netherlands — but the transition to the different version of the sport and learning to work together wasn’t easy. Klineman, 31, was an experienced player in the strange position of being a rookie.
“It’s not some magic formula,” the first-time Olympian said. “[Ross] saw a lot of days where things weren’t clicking, and I’m trying to learn how to pull or I’m trying to learn how to block like a beach blocker and things weren’t falling into place. It was frustrating. I would go home, I’d watch video, we’d talk about it, we’d dissect it. And we try again. And I fail again. I think the biggest thing is just sticking with it and being really persistent.”
Klineman didn’t want to let her partner down, cognizant of the risk Ross, 39, took in choosing her. The bond continued to grow for the duo that adopted the “A-Team” moniker, helped by the yearlong postponement of the Olympics because of the pandemic.
“I was committed,” Ross said. “This was going be my partner for the [Olympic] quad and what however we started, that was just going be how we started. We’re going to work through it.”
They entered the Games ranked fifth in the world, then won all six matches — dropping only one set — in an unrelenting march to the final. They still looked at each pregame practice session as an opportunity to improve. They weren’t satisfied with anything other than the gold medals that dangled from their necks after the victory.
They looked as if this is what they had planned all along.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.