The Check-In: April Ross won’t let shift from beach to backyard stop Olympic dreams

April Ross leans back in a lawn chair with her feet soaking in a shallow, plastic pool. She grips a blue drink, complete with a decorative umbrella, in her left hand. With her right, she throws a volleyball off a carefully angled cooler, then smacks the rebound over a net in her backyard.

“Guys,” the beach volleyball star writes in a caption, “I think I finally figured out how to do quarantine.”

From backyard workouts to freshly baked bread, the two-time Olympic medalist tries to strike a healthy balance between staying sharp for her goal of Olympic gold and relaxing during the uncertainty of a global pandemic.

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Ross and her partner Alix Klineman were the top American team in the Olympic qualifying rankings as of March 16, when the FIVB began to postpone qualifying events because of the coronavirus outbreak. At first, Ross was panicked. With no events to play and no prize money to win, her income was minimized. But with her sponsors sticking by her, Ross moved toward accepting the abnormal circumstances.

“Once reality set in and I realized that we could be here for a while and I couldn’t waste this time,” Ross said.

The former USC indoor volleyball star studies video of her team and opponents. It’s a time-consuming task that usually gets skipped during full-time training.

With a makeshift gym in her garage, Ross is determined to leave this quarantine period stronger than before, even if that means she’s doing lunges while her dog pokes at her legs for attention. She reads sports psychology articles and practices visualization techniques, picturing pressure-packed matches in her mind and honing how she will react.

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“If you’re playing a really challenging opponent, you want to be focused on each point, you don’t want to be focused on the end of the match. I think this is just another lesson in that,” Ross said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I’m trying to maximize each day.”

Ross estimates she’s locked in on her beach volleyball goals during two-thirds of her time. The remainder is spent on other aspects of her life. She finally found the energy to clean her Costa Mesa house. She feeds old hobbies like wood-working — she’s constructing an outdoor table — and discovers new ones like baking — making quick breads ranging from banana to zucchini walnut.

She reads the news, but seeing the number of COVID-19 cases climb daily started becoming more scary than informative. For her own sanity, she allows herself only a certain amount of time each day to keep up on the recent events.

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When the Olympics were postponed, it was no surprise to Ross, who had been keeping track of developments. But it didn’t lessen the sting. Ross was in denial until the final decision, she said. Then she was “discombobulated.”

April Ross competes in the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour Tokyo on July 27.

(Kiyoshi Ota / Getty Images)

“I didn’t know what to think and it was a little bit frustrating,” Ross said. “I needed something to hold on to.”

During a time that most athletes are hoping to peak physically in time for Olympic trials and qualifications, they’re now shifting focus toward maximizing their mental strength, said Sean McCann, senior sport psychologist at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. The USOPC has worked with athletes, including Ross, to focus on mindfulness, to be present in each moment, and creating a structure for the new reality.

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“What is the new story?” McCann said. “We’ve been encouraging athletes quite a bit to let go of the old story if they can, as quickly as they can, and start up with the new one.”

For Ross, the story has a new target date — July 23 to Aug. 8, 2021 for the rescheduled Olympics — but the same objective. Winning her first Olympic gold is the “goal that keeps me going,” said the 37-year-old who has won gold at the world championships in 2009, silver at the 2012 Games and bronze at the 2016 Games.

“I don’t have any regrets,” Ross said, “but it would just be the cherry on the sundae.”

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