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How April Ross, Alix Klineman became beach volleyball’s A-Team

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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.

Ross solicited ideas from her fans on social media. After combing through hundreds of submissions, she awarded Instagram user tammyjzhao a signed volleyball for suggesting “The A-Team.”

“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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VIDEO: Beach volleyball Olympian surprises her team with baby announcement

Adeline Gray breaks U.S. record with fifth world wrestling title

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U.S. wrestlers have won more than 60 gold medals in the history of the world championships. Adeline Gray is at the top of that list.

Gray earned her American record-breaking fifth world title in Kazakhstan on Thursday, taking the 76kg final 4-2 over Japanese Hiroe Suzuki.

She broke her tie of four world titles with Olympic gold medalists John Smith and Jordan Burroughs and Tricia Saunders, who earned her crowns in the 1990s before women’s wrestling was added to the Olympics in 2004. Burroughs can match Gray later this week.

“I’ve got to mark that off my bucket list,” said Gray, who earned her seventh medal Thursday, six weeks after right hand surgery. “Kristie Davis was a nine-time world medalist, and I’m still chasing that.”

Gray, 28, earned her fourth straight world title and continued an impressive rebound. She had a two-year win streak before being upset in the Rio Olympic quarterfinals, missing the chance to become the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion.

Though Gray keeps a pyramid with goals — including five-time world champion, Olympic champion and to “be exciting” — she purposely grounds herself with acronyms and conversations with friends to lessen the hype.

“I had a lot of those thoughts before 2016, and I think that let it creep up to me a little bit in a negative way,” Gray said in June. “Just the fact that some people were saying, like, hey, you’ve had a great career. It’s awesome what you’ve done. You’re already written in the history books kind of thing.”

Gray revealed six months after that Rio disappointment that she wrestled in Brazil with a shoulder injury. She underwent surgeries on that shoulder and to repair a torn meniscus in her knee in January 2017 and went 11 months between matches, missing that year’s world championships.

During that break, she married U.S. Army Capt. Damaris Sanders. She scaled 14,000-foot mountains. Gray wasn’t sure about returning. She thought about trying to have a baby instead. Even when she did get back on the mat, she considered phasing out if she started losing matches.

“It took a little bit of figuring out what I wanted and figuring out why I wanted to come back,” she said Wednesday, after reaching the final. “Really, the reason I’ve been sticking around is because coach Terry [Steiner]‘s been whispering in my ear, making sure I know that I’m good enough to be winning at this level. And there’s something more than that. There’s this huge wave of women’s sports, and I’m part of that. It’s something special.”

Earlier Thursday, American Tamyra Mensah-Stock reached Friday’s 68kg final, one year after taking bronze in the division. Mensah-Stock routed Japan’s Olympic champion Sara Dosho 10-1 in the quarterfinals.

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MORE: World Wrestling Championships TV Schedule

Genzebe Dibaba, 1500m world record holder, to miss world championships

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Genzebe Dibaba, the 1500m world record holder, will miss the world track and field championships that start next week due to a right foot injury, according to her agency.

The Ethiopian Dibaba lowered the 1500m world record to 3:50.07 in 2015, then won the world title a month later. Kenyan Faith Kipyegon relegated her to silver at the Rio Olympics. Dibaba was last in the 12-woman final at the 2017 Worlds, then withdrew from the 5000m at that meet, citing illness.

Dibaba’s absence further opens the door for Americans Shelby Houlihan (second-fastest in the world last year) and Jenny Simpson, the Olympic bronze medalist and 2017 World silver medalist.

Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan is fastest in the world this year and broke the mile world record on July 12. Hassan has range from 800m through 10,000m, and it’s not guaranteed she will contest the 1500m in Doha starting with the first round Oct. 2.

The event is already lacking Caster Semenya, the two-time Olympic 800m champion who took bronze in her world 1500m debut in 2017. Semenya is excluded from races from 400m through the mile under the IAAF’s new rule capping testosterone in those events.

MORE: U.S. roster for track and field worlds

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