Is Tokyo when April Ross secures that elusive beach volleyball gold?

Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

While every Olympic story is compelling in its own way, there’s one type of athlete who pulls at the heart strings a bit harder than most. It’s the athlete approaching the end of their career, but who still has one last chance to win that ever-elusive gold.

This summer, a new crop of such athletes is headed to Tokyo and will return home with either a deep sense of peace and relief, or with a lifelong ache for golden glory. While no one knows exactly when beach volleyball superstar April Ross will officially retire, it’s hard to deny that she’ll never have a better chance to finally win gold than this summer in Tokyo. With an Olympic bronze and a silver already in her trophy case, it’s the only color medal missing for Ross.

At 38 years old, Ross would probably be the first to say she has no set plans to hang it up after Tokyo. Her 2016 Rio partner and 3-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh-Jennings was in the midst of the Tokyo hunt herself, still hoping to battle for medals at age 42. But she and teammate Brooke Sweat were eliminated from Olympic contention when Americans Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil took first place at the penultimate Olympic qualifying event, becoming the youngest ever U.S. Olympic beach volleyball duo.

For the first time in almost two decades, Walsh-Jennings won’t be on the court of an Olympic medal match. Instead, Ross will be the most decorated and veteran American on the sand in Tokyo. She’ll have to share her wisdom with teammate Alix Klineman, who has no prior Olympic experience.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this two-on-two sport is the process by which teams are formed and then dissolved and then re-formed with new partners. There is no coach or general manager making these decisions. Two athletes decide to join together in pursuit of excellence and then often break up because one of them has decided there is a better fit out there. It’s a “Bachelor” spin off waiting to happen.

Ross’s path to her current partner had its share of tough conversations with now-former teammates.

“I can picture each conversation I had and how stressed out I was and how nervous I was to have these conversations, but I am also so proud that I embraced the challenge and took it head on,” Ross told Kelley O’Hara on the JWS podcast last fall.

“It’s really easy to get caught up with a friendship, because you do become really close with your partners and you don’t want to hurt your partner… I also view it as a business, and I know I have to make those tough calls.”

In her first Olympic bid in the 2012 London games, Ross and then-partner Jennifer Kessy lost to Walsh-Jennings and Misty May-Treanor in an all-USA gold medal match. In the post-game hand-shake, Walsh-Jennings infamously whispered to Ross, “Now let’s go win gold in Rio,” knowing May-Treanor was retiring and that Ross was her best replacement.

On paper, Ross and Walsh-Jennings were a match made in heaven. They had a great friendship and partnership, but unfortunately fell significantly short of their goals when they took home the bronze in Rio.

The two parted ways the following year when conflict with the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) resulted in Walsh-Jennings on one side of the fence and Ross on the other. Deciding to re-sign with AVP even as Walsh-Jennings did not was a critical juncture in Ross’s career that ultimately led to their break-up.

“It was gut wrenching, and just so stressful… It was the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make,” Ross told O’Hara.

A few seasons later, as the 2020 Olympics came into view, Ross knew she needed to get serious about choosing a partner for Tokyo and she started assessing her options. (As O’Hara described it, “So basically, volleyball is a lot of sliding into DMs when you need a new teammate.”)

Despite being relatively inexperienced, Alix Klineman had what Ross was looking for. She liked Klineman’s indoor experience, her proven performance under pressure, and the depth of untapped potential she sensed.

“The reason I made the decision to go with Alix was based on intangibles.”

So far, the choice appears to be an excellent one. Since joining forces, Ross and Klineman have become the number one ranked U.S. team and were the first to secure a spot in Tokyo. Klineman’s net play paired with Ross’s tenacious defense has also earned them a claim as the top overall seed heading into the games. Their biggest competition prior to the pandemic was Canadian duo Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan, but the Americans have come out on top in all three head-to-heads since tournaments resumed last summer.

Now, we get to see if their magic will be enough to win what would be a career-capping gold medal in Tokyo for Ross. No American athlete may have more to win, given that Ross and Klineman will be gold medal favorites for potentially the first and final time in Ross’ career.