Olympians April Ross and Alix Klineman hope their return to AVP inspires moms

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April Ross’ mind suddenly goes blank. The thought she wanted to share has blown through her consciousness like the fleeting breeze on a cloudy morning on the beach volleyball courts near Hermosa Beach Pier.

“Mom brain!” Ross says, covering her face with her hands.

The three-time Olympic medalist has a lot more than volleyball on her mind these days. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

Two years since her last tournament, Ross has earned a master’s degree, started her coaching career and become a mother. Now with 6-month-old son Ross at home, the former USC star is preparing for her competitive return to the sand with former Olympic partner Alix Klineman at the AVP Huntington Beach Open, which begins Thursday at Huntington Beach Pier.

The reigning Olympic champions will play together for the first time since October 2021 on Friday. But they insist they’re not back for unfinished business. Ross, who has Olympic medals of every color, has “been there, done that,” she wrote on Instagram. With her own firstborn at home, Klineman admits the pressure is off for “The A-Team.”

These new mothers are playing on their own terms.

“It’s something that we’re consciously choosing to do; it’s not out of this desperation to accomplish something,” said Klineman, who gave birth to her son Theo last June. “I still enjoyed it a lot before, but this is kind of a different way of playing. … Just doing it for the love of the game.”

The 41-year-old Ross says her return is “just gravy” on the top of her illustrious career. But it hasn’t been demoted to just a hobby.

At a recent practice at Hermosa Beach, Ross and Klineman were breathing hard after an hourlong session in the sand. They dove for balls and hit creative shots over the net into strategically marked areas in the corners of the court. When Ross pushed a seemingly simple shot wide, she lamented she was trying too hard.

Ross admits she’s not yet who she was on the sand before having a baby, but she’s still happy with who she is.

When she began training in February, Ross could barely last 45 minutes. She struggled to even shuffle a few steps in the sand. She was 30 pounds heavier than when she last played in 2022 and had almost no muscle.

“I just felt so slow and so heavy,” Ross said.

Three months later, Ross no longer feels limited. It feels like she shed a 20-pound weight vest. A five-time best server in the world, Ross can jump serve again and dive for digs behind Klineman’s intimidating 6-foot-5 block.

The 34-year-old Mira Costa alumna who also starred for Stanford’s indoor team sympathizes with Ross’ quick comeback. Klineman was back in the sand six weeks after she gave birth to her son. She remembers how drained she felt when she was breastfeeding while trying to train for the 2023 world championships, which took place four months after Theo was born. Ross is still nursing and getting up multiple times each night with the baby.

“I don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, we’re back to Olympic form.’ No,” Klineman said, “we’re doing the best we can with the timeline we were given. We just want to be out here, have fun and hopefully challenge some of the top teams.”

Ross and Klineman are seeded second in the Huntington Beach Open main draw, which begins play Friday after Thursday’s qualification rounds. Taryn Kloth and Kristen Nuss, the second-ranked team in the world, are the top-seeded pair, while Paris-bound Sara Hughes and Kelly Cheng are seeded third. Hughes and Cheng clinched their trip to the Olympics by winning the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championship in October.

A potential Olympic berth was in Klineman’s mind when she started training last year. She paired with 26-year-old Hailey Harward, who won two national championships at USC, for two international tournaments. But with an almost impossible rankings mountain in such a short window, Klineman stepped away. She understood that returning would require sacrificing time with her son, and she wasn’t going to give up precious moments with the baby for anything insignificant.

Then Ross reached out.

Ross last played in a tournament in March 2022 with Emily Capers while Klineman was recovering from shoulder surgery. Ross then had to withdraw from world championships in June because of a shoulder injury.

Then 40 years old, Ross finally had to confront the potential end of her playing career. Volleyball had been her whole life until that point. She felt lost without it.

Ross started piecing together a life outside the court by enrolling in Concordia’s master’s program for coaching and athletics administration. She started coaching as a grad assistant for the Golden Eagles. Then she became a mom.

“Now that I have a son, it almost feels like I have a new life,” said Ross, who graduated with her master’s this spring. “He has his whole life in front of him, and it’s just really, really reenergized me.”

Before playing with Klineman in Tokyo, Ross won Olympic bronze with Kerri Walsh Jennings in the 2016 games and took silver in London with Jen Kessy. Walsh Jennings and Kessy both continued playing after having children. Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and mother of three, won gold in 2012 while five weeks pregnant.

But even playing with partners who were mothers and seeing other players have children on tour didn’t prepare Ross for just how difficult the task was, she said. She leans on Klineman for advice. Nearly every day, Klineman wonders how people pull this off.

“I look at Kerri and I’m like, why didn’t she make a bigger deal of this? She went to three Olympics with kids. That’s insane,” Klineman said. “I feel like until recently, it’s just something that you try to almost act like it’s not an issue for you. … I feel like the bigger deal of it you made, it was like a sign of weakness or something in a way. And now I feel like the place that women’s sports is in, there’s nothing that shouldn’t be talked about.”

Already adept at using social media to pursue endorsement deals that are vital in beach volleyball, Ross has taken to the internet to share candid truths about being a mother in sports. The breast-feeding mother joked about needing the support of two sports bras while running on the sand. She advocated for paid parental leave by sharing her recovery from an unplanned C-section. While holding her smiling son in a pool on vacation, Ross pointed out that the social media photos are curated highlights of the baby’s first trip, which was equal parts bliss and stress.

Last month, Ross reposted a reel of their gold medal match in Tokyo, writing in the caption: “Relishing the last few months of being the REIGNING Olympic Champions!” With the next AVP Heritage Event — the Manhattan Beach Open on Aug. 16-18 — taking place after the Paris Olympics, the Huntington Beach Open is the last time Ross and Klineman will take the sand as the current gold medalists.

But they are ready to carry another torch for working mothers in sports.

“I don’t know that we’re going to necessarily go to another Olympics,” Klineman said, “but if we can help forage the path forward, it would be really rewarding for us.”

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