NEW YORK — Two-time Olympic medalist April Ross approached Alix Klineman, a rookie, in summer 2017.
Ross mentioned she would be looking for a new partner after splitting with Kerri Walsh Jennings.
“I said, ‘OK let me know,’” Klineman recalled. “And she said, ‘No, you need to get better first.’”
Additional motivation for Klineman, who had recently transitioned to the sand after a decorated indoor career in which she was named the Volleyball Magazine National Player of the Year for her senior season at Stanford.
Klineman adapted to beach volleyball quickly and was named the top rookie on the domestic AVP Tour.
When the 2017 season ended, Ross invited Klineman to a three-day tryout. After it wrapped, Klineman delivered an impassioned pitch to Ross.
She expressed her desire to go to the Olympics and win a beach volleyball gold medal, after sacrificing a six-figure salary playing indoors in 2016 to make less than 10 percent as much on the sand in 2017.
“It was pretty out of character, because normally I’m more reserved,” Klineman said. “But I didn’t want her to have a reason not to pick me.”
Klineman anxiously waited about a week while Ross traveled abroad. When Ross returned, she asked Klineman to be her partner.
“Our mentalities are so similar,” Ross said about the 6-foot-5 Klineman, the co-tallest woman on the international tour. “That was the deciding factor for me, but it doesn’t hurt that she’s so physical and has so much potential.”
They just needed a team nickname.
“I know it’s super obvious because of April and Alix,” said Ross, who warms up with nunchucks. “But then you think of the correlations with Mr. T and ‘I pity the fool’ and the missions they went on. We liked how that sounded.”
Success came immediately.
They won their first tournament together in the Netherlands in January 2018. Klineman became just the third woman to win her international debut.
“We saw winning the first tournament as a sign,” Ross said. “We can do this, we have that potential, so let’s keep working towards it.”
“The A-Team” is coached by Jen Kessy, Ross’ 2012 Olympic silver medal teammate.
“Jen brings a nice lightness to our team,” Klineman said in an interview at the AVP New York City Open, which she and Ross won for their fifth straight title on the domestic tour. “April and I can be really intense sometimes. So Jen will say, ‘This is getting really heavy. You guys need to chill out and laugh a little bit.’”
Kessy has influenced everything from preparation to celebration.
Players have just 12 seconds to serve after a point is scored on the international tour, but the clock does not start until the players finish celebrating. Kessy therefore instructed Klineman and Ross to hug after points to maximize rest, earning them a second nickname: “Team Hugs.”
“They’ve taken team hugs to a different level,” Kessy said. “I was thinking after long rallies, but they hug after every single play.”
Klineman and Ross are collecting Olympic qualification points. The top two U.S. pairs come June 15, 2020 go to Tokyo, provided they’re ranked high enough internationally.
Fellow Americans Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat have a higher aggregation of Olympic qualification points, but a lower per-tournament average since they have played in three more events than the A-Team. The final standings will only include each pair’s 12 best results together.
“You don’t necessarily need to play in every event because someone else might get ahead,” Kessy said. “We need to look strategically where we can do the best.”
Ross will be 38 years old during the 2020 Games. She will be the third-oldest woman at this summer’s world championships.
“She doesn’t look like she’s slowing down at all,” said the 29-year-old Klineman. “That’s got to be a little scary for the volleyball world and her opponents.”
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