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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

Danell Leyva makes incredible save on ‘American Ninja Warrior’

Danell Leyva
NBC
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Danell Leyva, a three-time Olympic gymnastics medalist, put those skills to the test in the “American Ninja Warrior” finals, saving himself from splashing out of the course.

In one obstacle, Leyva slipped and fell off one of four flexible boards positioned above water.

He faceplanted onto the last board, his lower body falling off. But Leyva held on with his arms and pulled himself back onto the apparatus and to the next obstacle.

The full Las Vegas Finals episode airs Monday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

Leyva previously splashed out of the “Leaps of Faith” obstacle in the Los Angeles City Finals episode that aired last month.

Leyva, a 27-year-old who took all-around bronze at the 2012 London Games, retired with parallel bars and high bar silvers in Rio.

Other Olympic gymnasts have tackled ANW, including gold medalists Nastia Liukin and Paul Hamm.

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VIDEO: U.S. gymnast catches high bar with one hand at nationals

Kim Rhode triumphs over theft on road to record-breaking Olympic bid

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Kim Rhode arrived at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, missing a few things.

The six-time Olympic shooting medalist had nearly all her equipment stolen prior to her trip earlier this month after her bag was nabbed from her father’s car.

“I lost everything but my vest and my gun,” Rhode said in Lima (noting with a smile she has seen worse: her gun was stolen a few years ago, though it was later returned). This time, “we’re all frantically trying to piece it back together, somewhat. … At the end of the day, you just have to kinda roll with it.”

It would take more than theft to rattle Rhode, who remains one of her sport’s top athletes 23 years after her first Olympic gold medal at the Atlanta Games.

The continental skeet title she won at Pan Ams (new equipment in tow) built upon a string of strong results since the last Olympics, including a world silver medal in 2018. Earlier this year, she became the first woman to win four straight World Cups in shooting.

At the Tokyo Olympics, Rhode could do something unprecedented: win seven medals in as many consecutive Olympics.

Rhode remembered a lot from her first trip to the Games as a 17-year-old carrying a pager. She described the volume of the crowd chanting “U-S-A” at the Opening Ceremony and the hum of the audience watching her compete, “almost like they were helping us to pull the trigger each and every time.” She recalled the athlete bowling alley, where both the balls and shoes were adorned with an Olympic flame symbol.

After winning gold in double trap, Rhode went back to high school life in El Monte, Calif. She couldn’t have known then that five more Olympics would follow. That one day, she’d have an Olympic medal from every continent in which the Games have been contested. That at 40, she’d still be at the top of her sport.

“I don’t think you ever get over the Olympics,” she said. “I don’t think you ever get used to it. It really takes on a life of its own.”

Rhode has been a constant in a sport that continues to evolve and change, and noted the technological advances that pushed it forward in the last several years: “you are seeing a lot more on the technical side of the stocks, more of these specialized grips,” she said, and “more people going with multiple lenses.”

Her competitors changed, too. Rhode described younger teammates showing her how to take a live photo and set up an Instagram account. “I’m kind of archaic in that sense,” she said with a laugh.

Her competitive spirit remains unchanged. While Tokyo would mark a milestone, Rhode has no plans of slowing down.

“I think I still have a few more in me,” she said, noting she’d like to compete in front of a home crowd again when the Olympics return to Los Angeles in 2028. “I definitely don’t see a need to stop. … Some of the shooters tend to be a lot older than most of the other Olympians because we have no shelf life. That’s the great thing about us.”

Rhode competed at the London Olympics not knowing she was pregnant with son Carter.

What followed was what she described as a difficult pregnancy and recovery. Her bones separated during the pregnancy, and she had her gall bladder removed after the birth.

The complications affected her ability to walk and complete endurance-related activities, which she continues to face. These days, Rhode said she still can’t run a mile, but in preparation for Tokyo, she is working with a physical therapist and nutritionist.

After Pan Ams, Rhode planned to add more strength training. “At the end of the day, I’m slowly but surely making small strides to get back to where I’m at,” she said.

Carter, now 6, speaks three languages and sometimes helps Rhode during practice, pulling for her before she shoots and collecting shells. He was on hand when Rhode earned a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics, but he isn’t overly impressed (yet) by his mom’s long list of accomplishments.

“I don’t think he grasps the whole picture of what it is that I’m doing,” she said. “I think that’ll come a little bit later.”

She stores Olympic mementos at her parents’ home, a collection of bags from each Games stuffed with clothing, pins and other paraphernalia, and vacuum-sealed.

“My family is running out of room with all the bags,” she said, noting she isn’t sure when she’ll open them up and go through what’s inside.

Maybe after she collects a few more.

“To have had that opportunity so many times is amazing,” she said of her Olympic career so far. “I feel very, very fortunate.”

MORE: Georgian shooter qualifies for 9th Olympics

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