(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

April Ross cemented her place in beach volleyball history over the summer, capturing gold along with partner Alix Klineman during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The top of the podium had long eluded the American star, with Ross winning silver and bronze at the 2012 and 2016 Games, respectively. For most athletes, securing the medal trifecta would signal a logical end to a remarkable career. But not for Ross.

At 39 years old, the American superstar says she is not yet ready to step off the sand.

“I considered retiring [after Tokyo],” Ross admits. “I accomplished my biggest goal — all the goals I have in volleyball.”

While the Costa Mesa native says she always thought she would move onto something else, Ross says right now, “I just feel like I’m playing such good volleyball and physically, I feel great.

“I still feel very young and just can’t wrap my head around the idea of walking away while I’m still competitive.”

Ross’ enduring drive means fans may be treated to a fourth Olympic run from the beach volleyball icon, with her sights set on the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

“I’m going to continue playing and Paris is only three years away, so going to give it all I have,” says Ross. “And if it’s in the cards, [I’ll] go to Paris.”

The 2024 Olympics, however, Ross says, will “for sure” mark the end of her career, with the Team USA star already starting to envision her life post-volleyball.

Winning gold in Tokyo

The Tokyo Summer Games marked the apex of Ross’ career, a culmination of two previous Olympic campaigns with two different partners.

Ross entered the 2012 London Olympics as the No. 4 seed alongside partner Jennifer Kessy. The duo pulled off an upset over the No. 1-seeded Brazil team to set up a gold-medal match against Team USA giants Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings. Ross ultimately fell to her American teammates in her Olympic debut, heading home with a still-impressive silver medal.

“My first one, I thought it was a one-time deal,” says Ross, adding that growing up, she never thought the Olympics were an “attainable goal.” After three Olympic appearances, the awe still hasn’t worn off, with Ross calling the tournament both the pinnacle and an honor.

Ross made her second Olympic appearance as Walsh-Jennings’ partner, with the team ultimately capturing bronze in Rio de Janeiro.

“My second one, I was like, ‘OK, this is amazing. Playing with Kerri. We’re going to win gold,’” admits Ross. After falling short of her goal in 2016, Ross says she “didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Regrouping, Ross linked up with a relative beach volleyball newcomer in Klineman at the end of 2017. The unexpected grouping paid off, with the Americans dominating the competition in Tokyo. Ross and Klineman only dropped one set throughout the seven-match 2021 Olympic competition, defeating Australia in the final to clinch gold.

The feat was made even more impressive given the atmosphere surrounding the Tokyo Olympics, with no spectators permitted on the premise amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“The no fans was a little bit weird, visually. Just the fact that we would be in the stadium and the stands were empty,” says Ross. “I think had they put banners up so that you couldn’t see the empty seats or something it wouldn’t be so weird, but literally seeing the empty seats was strange.”

As the competition went on, Ross remembers more media and people from the delegation being allowed into the stands, culminating in a final she describes as “pretty loud” with “a lot of chanting.”

The moment was understandably significant for Ross, who says having one more chance at gold was “so big” for her.

“In the moment, I felt pretty calm, pretty prepared,” recalls Ross. “I had a lot of nerves. But I just wanted it really badly.”

The A-Team origin story

Given Ross and Klineman’s dominance, it’s hard to believe that Tokyo marked the duo’s first major tournament together and that Klineman was only a few years into her beach volleyball career. The 32-year-old only left her indoor volleyball career in 2017 to pursue a run on the sand with Ross. Teaming with Klineman was a decision the veteran Ross did not make lightly.

“For me, playing with Jen Kessy and playing with Kerri Walsh- Jennings, it was kind of a no-brainer,” said Ross. “Playing with Alix Klineman, she was new to the beach. She was very physical, but she had zero experience.

“Obviously it turned out great,” Ross says, “but I was just basing it on intangibles. Her mentality is so strong. Her attitude is so good and her work ethic is awesome.”

The team claimed their first AVP Pro Volleyball Tour win in 2018, kicking off a run of victories leading to the 2020 Summer Games.

Still, it wasn’t all easy. In a sport that is so dependent on communication and trust both on and off the court, Klineman and Ross had to quickly develop their chemistry as partners.

“That’s why it was a little bit risky to pick Alix, because I didn’t know how much time I was going to have with her, to build up those instincts and to know what she’s thinking when she’s on the court. How she’s going to move, how she’s going to react to different plays, so that I can play around her and we can play together as a team.”

Though Ross was aware of the gamble she was making, she could also see Klineman’s incredible potential and raw talent.

“I wanted to pick somebody I thought I could win a gold medal with, and it panned out.”

Growing the game

Ross’ success, along with the careers of Team USA stars May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings, has boosted beach volleyball’s popularity in America and globally.

“People love watching volleyball,” says Ross. “It’s my favorite sport to watch as well as play.”

Along with a growing fanbase, beach volleyball is also enjoying a steady progression in global competition.

“The level keeps getting better, in international beach volleyball for sure,” she says. “People keep putting money into their federations. And so, I think the level has gone up a ton.”

According to AVP, the NCAA saw a 400 percent increase in beach volleyball participation from 2011 to 2019. With excitement around beach volleyball growing, Ross has seen different avenues opening for fan engagement, including sports memorabilia.

“I collect stuff from my journey and the people that I’ve been with. I have autographed stuff of me and Jen and me and Kerri and me and Alix and yeah, I think it’s really cool and the community around women’s sports is growing,” says Ross. “There’s such a market for it, and I think there’s a lot of momentum behind it.”

Partnering with the Collective Marketplace on Athlete Direct, a platform connecting fans directly to items from their favorite sports icons, Ross sees an additional opportunity to engage with supporters. The Olympian has posted for sale, among other valuables, her signed closing ceremony and media jacket.

The burgeoning market for women’s sports memorabilia is something Ross hopes will progress the sport and inspire the next generation of athletes.

“It just creates more inspiration for them to want to reach that level,” says Ross of young athletes, “to pursue their goals and see these female athletes put in a position and a level that’s looked up to as much as some of the top male players.”

While Ross is unsure of what her future holds off the sand, she is committed to developing the game, saying, “I do want to stay in sports and help young people going forward.”

(Editor’s note: The Collective Marketplace on Athlete Direct is a sponsor of Just Women’s Sports.)