Three-time Olympic medalist April Ross is mixing things up at the peak of her career.
Ross is just a year-and-a-half removed from winning gold in beach volleyball at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. While she mulls over her career options going forward, the 40-year-old is taking the opportunity to share how she’s continued to elevate her game over the past decade and hopefully inspire a new generation of athletes and leaders along the way.
Like many beach volleyball players who came before her, Ross fell in love with the game growing up in Southern California and playing indoors. She then went on to USC where she won back-to-back NCAA Championships and eventually converted that success to a professional career on the sand.
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Despite enjoying a decorated high school and college career, she said the possibility of the Olympics was never something she personally considered until several years after graduating.
“I was in college, I was in the gym with the national team, with a bunch of Olympians and, you know, saw what the life was like, saw how hard they worked.” Ross said. “… So in a way, I did have that kind of inspiration, mentorship, but I kind of had to seek it out and, you know, find it through experience rather than having anybody kind of come talk to us as a team or me as an athlete.”
Ross made her Olympic debut in 2012, losing to American legends Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings and leaving London with a silver medal. Four years later, she teamed up with Walsh Jennings in Brazil and added a bronze medal to her collection. In the summer of 2021, Ross finally captured that elusive gold medal in dominant fashion. She and teammate Alix Klinesman only lost one set the entire Games.
While Ross’s international career seems to have calmed down a bit since returning from Tokyo, she has no shortage of adventures and opportunities on her horizon.
The first major change came in April when she got engaged to Josh Riley. Four months later, she started classes for her Masters in Coaching and Athletic Administration at Concordia University in Irvine, Calif.
Beyond the classroom, Ross said she’s enjoyed the chance to work with the Concordia beach team. She described it as a learning experience and said the challenge is communicating what she knows about the game effectively.
“I can, you know, feel how badly I want to convey everything I've learned to them, but how tough it is sometimes to articulate it in a way that they can understand,” Ross said. “You know, they're just kind of getting started on their journey and I've been at mine for a very long time. So, you know, figuring out the best way to package that messaging, I'm getting better at it.”
For Ross, so much of her journey has been about mental toughness and an eagerness to constantly improve. She’s particularly taken to the philosophy of growth mindset, describing it as one of the most important aspects of her mentality.
“It can be really frustrating at times. You feel like you've worked so hard and you hit a plateau and once you get to the elite level,” Ross said. “… You're fighting for just minuscule improvements daily. But believing that that can still happen at any age.”
She credited this perspective for her success over the last couple years and said she’s improved more -- or at least faster -- in this last stretch heading into the Olympics. But it’s more than just believing for Ross. It’s the commitment to trying new things -- like going back to school at 40.
“Being willing to change and being willing to try new things and even if I was bad at those new things at first, sticking with them and giving it a shot,” she said. “And I really think that was a big key to winning the gold medal in Tokyo.”
Mind over matter on the road
Ross is used to doing it her own way.
When asked about how she balances the busy travel schedule of a professional athlete, she settled on naps, even eschewing the advice of experts.
“I'm a huge advocate for whenever you can get away from the court, get to your bedroom, and at least lay down and close your eyes and kind of shut it all down. I think it's really helpful,” she said.
While hacks like naps and coffee help carry her through international travel and grueling tournament stretches, she said it sometimes boils down to a matter of will.
“I've played plenty of matches after sleepless nights on the road because of the time zone change. And honestly, I just stopped listening to the experts,” she said. “You know, I felt like the less I paid attention to the sleep studies and the sleep science, the better. Because it's going to happen. You know, you're going to be tired. … I would go out there and I would just have to continually convince myself, like play like you got a good night's sleep.”
“It's a little bit of mind over matter in my opinion,” she continued “… I know that's probably counter intuitive to a lot of people and maybe not the right thing to say. You should try to get enough sleep for sure, you know. But if you don't. Just go about your business and do what you need to do anyway.”
All of these lessons and experiences continue to shape her teaching philosophy.
In October, she was announced as one of the headlining athletes for Ready, Set, Gold!, a California-based non-profit that has aimed to “fulfill the vital need for social and emotional learning (SEL) and physical fitness for students across the country” since 2006.
Ready, Set, Gold! offers students programming through eight 30-minute sessions that discuss mental and physical topics that impact personal growth. The program is free to any interested students, with a virtual option around the country and an in-person option for 30 schools and seven Special Education Centers in Southern California.
The sessions are led by former Olympians and Paralympians including Prince Mumba (Zambia), Jonathan Jones (Mexico) and of course, Ross, who will commemorate National Girls and Women in Sports Day in February with a lesson on growth mindset. Registration for Ready, Set, Gold! is available at readysetgold.net.
Ross said it’s a “great way to give back to the community, help out the next generation of kids who are. Yeah, just help them get involved in sports, mentor them a little bit in, you know, not just getting into sports, but in life in general.”
In an effort to promote Ready, Set, Gold!, Ross took a trip back down memory lane to the Coliseum where USC plays all its football games.
“I showed up at like 7:30 in the morning, got there before the security guards even. And it was a little bit eerie, but it kind of made you appreciate, like the majesty of the Coliseum and just how cool of a facility it is and all the history that's there and without, you know, all the screaming USC fans,” she said.
Chasing new heights
Between her classes at Concordia, her involvement with Ready, Set, Gold! and her wealth of experience after over nearly two decades of beach volleyball, Ross continues to find new career opportunities piquing her interests.
“I never saw myself as a coach earlier in my career, but now, for whatever reason, I'm loving it,” she said. “... I could also see myself starting a club in Orange County, but my long term goals are to be involved in athletic administration at the college level.”
While she sets her sights on new challenges and opportunities, she’s yet to close the door on her playing career. She’s notably private about her future plans on the sand, but hasn’t ruled out a return.
“I'm weighing a lot of factors, a lot of life factors, a lot of, you know, opportunity factors,” she said. “There's a lot of things that are appealing to me at the moment, and I just have to decide which direction I want to go. But yeah, I still feel like I have a lot of good years of volleyball left in me.”
She joked that the Olympics being held in Paris are a compelling part of her desire to keep competing.
By 2024 -- when the Paris Olympics kick off -- Ross would be 42, making her the oldest female Olympian to compete in beach volleyball. She could also become the oldest beach volleyball player -- man or woman -- to win a medal at the Olympics and join Walsh Jennings as the only four-time medalists in the sport.
While Ross has a lot of decisions to weigh, she’s proven time and time again that she’s equipped to tackle whatever next opportunity comes along.