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For April Ross, Tokyo Olympics are the pinnacle of an enlightened journey

(Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

April Ross fell in love with volleyball twice.

There was the time she first played on a competitive indoor team, before her freshman year of high school, when Ross says she was “for sure the worst person in the gym” but craved the challenge and the thrill of getting better.

Then there was the time volleyball found her, a few years after she had graduated from college and was fed up with the isolation of playing professionally in Puerto Rico. In fact, Ross was intent on giving up the sport entirely. She had plans to go back to school and get a job.

And unexpectedly, she got a call from a former teammate at USC: Would Ross give beach volleyball a shot, partner with her and help her qualify for the AVP Tour?

“I was like, ‘I’ll try it. I’m not very good,’” Ross said.

“And I just loved the culture. I loved the people. I loved the idea that I might get to see the world because that was always my No. 1 goal growing up, to travel and see the world. So I just dove in, like, let’s see where this takes me now.”

For Ross, who’s now a favorite to win gold with partner Alex Klineman in Tokyo, her third Olympic Games in beach volleyball, those memories matter. The successes and the failures, the doubts and the joys over the years have given Ross a unique perspective heading into what could be her final act.

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Ross is playing in her third Olympics, after winning silver and bronze in 2012 and 2016. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

In a way, Ross’ mental preparation for this Olympics run began during her sophomore year of college.

The No. 1 indoor volleyball recruit out of high school in Newport Beach, Calif., Ross chose USC and excelled immediately. She played a key role in the Trojans’ run to the 2001 Final Four and was named the National Freshman of the Year. As Ross’ national profile grew, so too did the expectations.

Soon after Ross began her sophomore year, however, she lost her mother to breast cancer. And suddenly, none of those material achievements mattered.

“I was devastated, but I kept playing and didn’t understand anything about the grieving process and the impact on a psychological level,” she said. “It was just, go through it and deal with it the best that I can.”

Ross started sleeping through her 8 a.m. classes, partying more and paying less attention to her general well-being. Her grades suffered, to the point where she nearly lost her NCAA volleyball eligibility. She mostly kept it together on the court, earning second-team All-American honors that season, but her health eventually caught up to her. Ross sprained her ankle in the Elite Eight and USC missed out on a return trip to the Final Four.

“It really came down to: If my mom was still here, how would she want me to be reacting?” Ross said. “Would she want me to be doing all of this or would she want me to be responsible and uphold the values that she instilled in me, which were taking care of school, giving my all to volleyball and taking care of myself? So it was just a shift in perspective, and it was really powerful for me.

“It definitely changed the trajectory of my college career and played a big part in my future success.”

Ross started keeping a paper schedule, which she still uses to this day. She tracked the times of her classes and workouts, she set a strict lights-out at 11 p.m. and wake-up at 7, and she started cooking healthy foods, just like her mom used to do for her.

The change in routine paid off. In her final two seasons at USC, Ross led the Trojans to back-to-back NCAA championships. Her senior year, she won the Honda Sports Award as the nation’s top collegiate player in volleyball.

The lessons Ross picked up in college kept her grounded during the early years of her professional life, when the uncertainty about her future nearly drove her from the sport altogether. And the experiences Ross had at her first two Olympics, winning silver in London in 2012 and bronze in Rio in 2016, have only clarified her journey at this stage of her career.

“In the first one, I was just super stoked that we were able to qualify. I didn’t have any expectations for us, really, and then we ended up in the gold medal match,” said Ross, who partnered with Jennifer Kessy in London and Kerri Walsh Jennings in Rio. “It was afterwards that I wish I had done things a little bit differently, had higher expectations for myself, prepared a little bit better.

“So going into Rio, I took those lessons to the extreme in a way, over-corrected and had that sole expectation of winning the gold medal. I was hyper-focused and didn’t do anything that was really fun or outside of training and kind of missed the Olympic experience.”

Ross, 39, knows this could be her last Olympics. From years of gaining perspective, she also recognizes she’s more at peace with her career than she’s ever been, and that might be the key to finally winning gold.

“That’s the goal, and the vision of that happening is very motivating and exciting. But at the same time, knowing that sports and life are full of uncertainty,” Ross said.

When she steps onto the sand in Tokyo for her and Klineman’s first match over the weekend, Ross won’t be looking too far ahead. She’ll enjoy every point, every set, every win and every loss, because this is what she loves to do.

“The only things we can control are our attitudes and our preparation,” she said. “The gold medal is not the end all, be all of everything in life, and we’ll be OK no matter what.”

Liberty, Aces Surge Ahead of WNBA All-Star Weekend

NY Liberty's Sabrina Ionescu dribbles up the Chicago Sky court on Saturday.
NY Liberty's Sabrina Ionescu is scoring a career-high 19.4 points per game on the season. (Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty head into the last week of regular play prior to WNBA All-Star Weekend — and the subsequent Olympic break — firmly ahead of the pack with the WNBA's best regular season record, becoming the first team this season to reach 20 wins on Saturday.

With Breanna Stewart briefly sidelined, Sabrina Ionescu led the Liberty to a two-game sweep of the Chicago Sky, topping the score sheet in both games. Ionescu is currently averaging 19.4 points per game, the highest in her career (not including her three-game rookie year).

Las Vegas center A'ja Wilson shoots over Atlanta center Tina Charles on July 12th, 2024.
A'ja Wilson posted her third-straight 25-point, 15-rebound performance last weekend. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Aces excel behind WNBA MVP favorite A'ja Wilson

The Aces continued climbing the table behind A'ja Wilson's record-breaking run, finishing the weekend in third with a record of 16-7. On Sunday, Wilson became the first player in WNBA history to register three consecutive 25-point, 15-rebound performances.

With Sunday's 89-77 victory over the Mystics, Las Vegas has won 10 of their last 11 games following the return of starting point guard Chelsea Gray. The third-place Aces are now nipping at the heels of the Liberty and second-place Connecticut Sun (18-5), with the Minnesota Lynx and Seattle Storm tied for fourth at 16-8.

The push for playoff positioning grows fierce

Amidst the looming Olympic break, further down in the WNBA standings, sixth-place Phoenix dropped to 12-12 on a two-game skid, while Indiana won eight of their last 10 games to capture seventh.

Eighth-place Chicago currently holds onto the final playoff spot, with double-double machine Angel Reese boosting the Sky's stats despite back-to-back losses.

Speaking of double-doubles, Reese's record-breaking double-double streak came to an end after Saturday's loss to the Liberty.

A frontrunner for WNBA Rookie of the Year, Reese finished with eight points and 16 rebounds against New York, falling just a couple points short of what would have been her 16th-straight double-double. The LSU grad's record stands as the longest double-double streak in WNBA history, surpassing previous record-holder Candace Parker by three games.

Phoenix Mercury mascot Scorch waving a 2024 WNBA All-Star flag at a 2023 home game.
Phoenix Mercury will host the 20th-annual All-Star Game on July 20th, 2024. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Next up: WNBA All-Star Weekend

Regular season WNBA play extends through Wednesday, with all eyes turning to the 2024 WNBA All-Star Game this upcoming weekend. The highly anticipated matchup between the US Olympic squad and WNBA All-Stars tips off on Saturday, July 20th in Phoenix.

Barbora Krejcikova, Taylor Townsend Take Home 1st-Ever Wimbledon Titles

Barbora Krejcikova of Czechia celebrates winning the Wimbledon Championship against Jasmine Paolini of Italy
Saturday's Wimbledon win marks Krejcikova's second Grand Slam title. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Czech tennis player Barbora Krejcikova defeated Jasmine Paolini in three sets on Saturday to capture her first Wimbledon championship.

Krejcikova outlasted Italy's Jasmine Paolini 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 to take the championship. The 28-year-old previously won the singles title at the 2021 French Open, as well as doubles titles at all four Grand Slams at least once.

Wimbledon finals players break into WTA top 10

After Saturday's results, Krejcikova moved from No. 32 in the WTA rankings to No. 10, returning to the top 10 for the first time in six months. Wimbledon runner-up Paolini jumped from No. 7 to No. 5, a new career-high ranking.

Paolini also made waves by becoming the first woman since Serena Williams to reach both the Wimbledon and French Open finals in the same year. She lost out to 2024 French Open-winner Iga Swiatek at Roland Garros this past June.

Doubles champ Taylor Townsend won her first Wimbledon honors on Saturday alongside partner Kateřina Siniaková. (Robert Prange/Getty Images)

Taylor Townsend wins doubles at Wimbledon

Former ITF Junior World Champion Taylor Townsend won her first Grand Slam in doubles at Wimbledon this weekend alongside Czechia's Kateřina Siniaková.

The No. 4 seeds beat No. 2-ranked Gabriela Dabrowski and Erin Routliffe 7-6(5), 7-6(1) in a heated final on Wimbledon's Centre Court. The pair came back from two down in the first set before turning the tables on the 2023 US Open champs to secure the win.

This is the 28-year-old American's first win in three Grand Slam doubles finals, having fallen just short of the title at both the 2022 US Open and 2023 French Open. For Siniaková, however, the victory marks her ninth-career Grand Slam doubles championship and her third time taking the doubles title at Wimbledon.

"This is my first one, my first Grand Slam title — I've been close two other times," Townsend told reporters after the match. "To get over the finish line the way that we did, I think we played so well. We were just locked in, in control. We played our way. It felt good the way we did it."

USWNT Tops Mexico in 1st Olympic Send-Off Game

USWNT striker Sophia Smith celebrates her match-winning goal during the Americans' pre-Olympic friendly against Mexico.
Sophia Smith scored the lone goal against Mexico on Saturday. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The USWNT's Olympic send-off series began with a bang this weekend, as the team avenged February's Gold Cup loss to Mexico with Saturday's 1-0 victory in New Jersey.

Sophia Smith registered the contest's lone goal, firing off a strike in the 64th minute that made good on the team's six shots on target.

The 1999 USWNT poses with their World Cup trophy before last weekend's Mexico vs. USWNT friendly.
The match paid tribute to the World Cup champion 1999 USWNT. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

USWNT '99ers take the field before kick-off

While the friendly served a critical purpose in the USWNT's Olympic prep, it also provided the chance to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1999 World Cup-winning USWNT. The entire '99ers roster was in attendance, reuniting 25 years after they changed the future of women's soccer with their penalty kick World Cup win against China at the Rose Bowl.

"I have this really cool picture I use with the team, which is the [1999] team on the podium and that ridiculous crowd, unbelievable. Across it I put, 'People don’t remember time, they remember moments,'" USWNT manager Emma Hayes said in response to the commemoration.

USWNT boss Emma Hayes looks on prior to kickoff against Mexico on Saturday
USWNT boss Emma Hayes has her work cut out for her approaching the Olympics. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Hayes's Olympic lineup still a work in progress

The match itself was an end-to-end, occasionally sloppy affair, with an eye into Hayes's Olympic roster strategy.

Rose Lavelle started at attacking midfielder alongside defensive midfielder Sam Coffey and connecting midfielder Lindsey Horan. Defenders Tierna Davidson and Naomi Girma continued to develop their established center-back pairing, while Jenna Nighswonger earned the start at left back in just her 10th international appearance.

Headlining the USWNT's new-look offense was Mallory Swanson, Trinity Rodman, and Smith, who are continuing to find their flow as the team moves on from the Alex Morgan era.

"There's no denying when the game opens up, we thrive. My goal is to thrive in all moments. So we still have a lot of learning to do with that as a team, as a collective," Hayes said of the team's attacking opportunities in transition.

"When we attack it can be done really quickly, but it can't be just that. There's going to be moments we can't [play quickly], and we have to be a little more indirect, switch the pitch a little more, and recognize the moments when we get locked into one side."

USWNT forward Sophia Smith celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against Mexico
With Olympic football starting on July 25th, USWNT prep time is at a premium. (Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

The Olympic group stage nears for the USWNT

With the Paris-bound USWNT facing their first group stage match against red-hot Barbra Banda's Zambia on July 25th, Hayes has just one more game to work out any offensive kinks.

The US will square off against Costa Rica in their final pre-Olympic friendly on Tuesday in Washington, DC, with live coverage on TNT starting at 7:30 PM ET.

Women’s Sports Win Big at 2024 ESPY Awards

Host Serena Williams speaks on stage during the 2024 ESPY Awards
Tennis icon Serena Williams hosted the 32nd annual ESPY Awards on Thursday night. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for W+P)

Thursday's 2024 ESPYs doubled as a celebration of the rising popularity of women's sports, as retired tennis superstar Serena Williams hosted the proceedings with ease.

"Get up, get off the TikTok, work hard, find out how capable you are. Be great. Be so great they don't want to believe in you and then be even greater," she told the next generation at the end of her opening monologue.

South Carolina Gamecocks accept the Best Team Award onstage during the 2024 ESPY Awards
The 2023-24 South Carolina Gamecocks took home the ESPY for Best Team. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Women's sports take center stage at ESPYs

Athletes in women's sports were big winners throughout last night's ceremony, reflecting a watershed year across the entire sporting landscape.

Indiana Fever rookie Caitlin Clark took home both the Best College Athlete and Best Record Breaking Performance Awards for her historic NCAA career at Iowa.

USC star JuJu Watkins won Best Breakthrough Athlete after an exceptional freshman season with the Trojans.

Gymnast Simone Biles won Best Comeback Athlete, as the two-time Olympian prepares for her third Summer Games later this month.

Las Vegas Aces' all-time leading scorer A'ja Wilson came up big in both the Best Women's Sports Athlete and Best WNBA Player categories.

The undefeated 2023-24 South Carolina Gamecocks won the award for Best Team.

Dawn Staley accepts the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance onstage during the 2024 ESPY Awards
The Jimmy V Award recognizes "a deserving member of the sporting world who has overcome great obstacles through perseverance and determination." (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Dawn Staley honored with individual award

SC coach Staley picked up her own honor, receiving the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance for her continued contributions in the field of cancer research advocacy.

Named after NC State men's basketball coach Jim Valvando, the Jimmy V Award recognizes "a deserving member of the sporting world who has overcome great obstacles through perseverance and determination."

"I must confess, I feel a little undeserving of this recognition," Staley said in her acceptance speech. "Past recipients of the Jimmy V Perseverance Award have faced incredible challenges and proven themselves as true warriors. I have merely been a spectator to such immense courage and resilience."

After opening up about her family's personal connection to the cause, Staley spoke about her greater journey as an advocate, both on and off the court.

"I try my best to do things in the right way, knowing that some little girl is out there watching me... maybe, she's one of the 13 pairs of eyes that see every little thing I do everyday and make sure to comment on it, that's my team," she said, motioning to her undefeated Gamecocks squad seated in the audience.

"How do I not fight pay disparity, when I do the same job and get paid less but win more?" she continued. "I can't ask them to stand up for themselves if I'm sitting down. Nor can I ask them to use their voice for change if I'm only willing to whisper."

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