Beach volleyball star April Ross draws strength from mother’s cancer battle in quest for Olympic gold

For April Ross, perhaps the third time will be the charm.

A two-time Olympian in beach volleyball, Ross has already secured her third appearance at the Summer Games in Tokyo, where she will team with partner Alix Klineman.

“The lure of the gold medal is definitely there. I want to get it,” Ross tells USA TODAY Sports. “But just being able to go to the Olympics and represent your country and qualify and compete at the highest level in your sport is such an honor. It’s such an amazing experience and something I want to experience as many times as I can.

“I’m just addicted to the sport.”

Ross already knows what it’s like to be on the Olympic medal stand. After a successful career indoors, the California native switched to beach volleyball in 2006 and six years later paired with Jennifer Kessy to win silver in London.

The USA's April Ross, left, and Kerri Walsh Jennings won the bronze medal at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo: Jack Gruber, USA TODAY Sports)

In 2016, she and Kerri Walsh Jennings took home the Olympic bronze in Rio de Janeiro.

She’s certainly aware of what’s missing from her collection. At age 38, her quest for that elusive gold medal has been made even longer by the Tokyo Games being delayed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Although beach volleyball is an outdoor sport, she wasn’t able to travel or train with her teammates as much. So Ross had to get creative.

She took two pieces of plywood from her garage, leaned them against a palm tree in her back yard and hooked a makeshift volleyball net to her roof with the boards on either side.

“Put it at the right angle so that it would pop over the net so I could kinda like play volleyball with myself,” she recalls.

Voila! A homemade practice facility and a viral workout video.

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A post shared by April Ross (@aprilrossbeach)

“It caught on like wildfire,” she says. “So many juniors especially who were not able to practice with their teams, they started doing it at their houses. It just made me so happy that I was able to help some girls and boys keep playing in the pandemic.”

That display of resolve and dedication are nothing new. But if not for a dramatic turn of events half a lifetime ago, she might never have risen to the heights she now occupies.

When Ross was a sophomore at the University of Southern California at the age of 19, her mother, Margie, lost her 10-year battle with metastatic breast cancer.

“I don’t think I fully appreciated all the sacrifice my mom went through and everything she did for us as a kid because I was so focused on volleyball,” Ross says.

The effects were devastating.

“I got injured that season, got terrible grades. I just didn’t know how to move through that grief properly,” Ross recalls. “I remember sitting down at the end of the semester, getting my grades, reflecting on everything that had been going on and thinking, ‘Would my mom be proud of me right now?’”

The answer, of course, was yes. But she also knew her mom wouldn’t be pleased. That became a catalyst for change.

“I completely changed my lifestyle – getting enough sleep, going to 8 a.m. classes … I started cooking for myself, taking better care of myself and just recommitting to volleyball,” she says.

Drawing inspiration from her mother, Ross led USC to national championships in her final two seasons. Her grades improved in tandem, as she achieved a 3.9 GPA as a junior and 4.0 as a senior.

“Obviously, I’d rather have her with me, but she really drove me to be my best,” Ross says. “Even after she passed.”

She says that’s one reason she’s joined up with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly to raise awareness of metastatic breast cancer and promote testing and treatment options.

A week after earning the bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, April Ross teamed with Kerri Walsh Jennings to win the ASICS World Series of Beach Volleyball. (Photo: Kelvin Kuo, USA TODAY Sports)

Sharing her story is one way to provide help and comfort to others facing similar circumstances. It can be especially difficult on holidays such as Mother’s Day when loved ones are no longer around.

So now when she faces obstacles in a match, in training or in everyday life, she’s better able to meet the challenge.

“You’re on the court and there’s so many things going through your head and you do need a certain amount of courage to be out there competing,” Ross says, “so just thinking about how much courage she had — and draw on that when I’m out there – is really helpful.”

Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner

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