In a sport traditionally been dominated by Team USA veterans, April Ross, 41, now remains the only player with an Olympic medal left in contention.
The 2012 silver and 2016 bronze medalist is heading to the beach volleyball semifinals with partner Alix Klineman, 31. The tandem defeated defending champion Laura Ludwig and partner Maggie Kozuch of Germany 21-19, 21-19 on Tuesday in the quarterfinals.
“It’s not like: ‘Oh, I have a medal. So, you know, I know how to do it,’” Ross told reporters after the match. “We just have to fight really, really hard. … So we’re stoked to still be in, and to be in the semis is amazing.”
The Germans led the Americans by three points early before Ross and Klineman rallied to take the first set. For the straight-set victory, the Americans broke out of a 16-all tie and did not lose the lead.
The pair will face Switzerland in the semifinals Thursday. If they win, they are guaranteed at least a silver medal, if not they will still have the chance for bronze.
“Staying motivated is really easy at this point, at this stage of the game,” Klineman said. “I mean, we can pretty much taste a medal.”
Klineman is Ross’ third partner in as many Games, and the first that is younger than the veteran. Klineman said she believes training with Ross has taught her what it means to have sustained success in a sport in which careers can last well through one’s 40s. Not only does Ross focus heavily on her volleyball training, but she also constantly consumes media about the mental and physical aspects of training such as recovery and the proper mindset to train and compete in.
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“I’m not surprised at her success,” Klineman said. “I train with her every day, and I’m around her all the time. And I just see how motivated and driven she is in all aspects of her life.”
Ross has now assumed the role as the most senior member of the U.S. beach volleyball squad as four-time Olympians Phil Dalhausser and Jake Gibb both retired after being eliminated from the tournament. Ross has no plans to do the same intends on competing in the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Sarah Sponcil, 24, and Kelly Claes, 25, the other US pair competing in the women’s tournament were knocked out in the Round of 16 in a controversial 2-1 loss against Heather Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson of Canada.
Sponcil hit a hard serve in the third set, which neither Canadian went for, believing it to be out of bounds. NBC commentator Dain Blanton said it was “the closest play we’ve ever seen,” but replay declared the ball as out.
The US pair that represent a new generation of beach volleyball players as they competed in the NCAA protested the replay, but the line judge agreed with the replay and gave the point to the Canadians. Sponcil received a yellow card for continually protesting the call.
Things went into uncharted territory when the video screen said that the ball was out, but also that the challenge was successful — meaning that it found the ball to not be out. Both cannot be true.
The Americans — who overtook three-time gold medallist Kerri Walsh Jennings’ ranking to earn their spot in Tokyo — once again asked for the play to be reviewed, but once again the point was awarded to Canada for a 13-11 lead.