There were few more shocking upsets at this year’s Olympics than when Kerri Walsh Jennings, a three-time gold medalist, and April Ross, 2012 silver medalist, lost the semifinal match of the women’s beach volleyball competition. Their disappointment about forfeiting their shot at gold cut deep, but the duo made a heart-filled and gritty comeback the following night to take the bronze medal, and they showed everyone what it means to be a world-class competitor. “Having your back against the wall, it’s the only option you have—to play the best that you can play,” says Ross.
While this year’s Olympics are over, the American duo’s season is still in full swing. This week they head to the FIVB Long Beach Grand Slam in California, then the AVP Championships in Chicago, followed by the FIVB World Tour Finals in Toronto. After this season, Walsh Jennings, age 38, is going to take some time to figure out whether or not she’ll continue playing. While Ross may not be certain at this point who will be on the court by her side in the coming years, she is clear about one thing: “This is not my last Olympics.” Read on to hear more about Ross’s experience in Rio and what keeps her calm, focused, and performing at her peak.
What was your take on the semifinal match against Brazil? How could it have gone differently for you?
I haven’t had a ton of time to think about it yet. I haven’t watched it back. I’m not sure how it could have been different … I think we didn’t have the best match. I liked our game plan and attitude coming in. No doubt we were there to win that match. We never gave up. They played really well and it didn’t go our way.
Did you and Kerri feel connected that night?
Yeah, we worked really hard to come together and have that connectedness no matter what’s happening on the court. And we definitely felt connected. It wasn’t a case of bad communication or not being on the same page or not being solid as a team.
When you hugged at the end of that semifinals match, it appeared Kerri was consoling you. Was she?
Not necessarily consoling me, no. We’re both really accountable and hold ourselves to high expectations. So I think the main feeling we had when came together after the match was ‘I’m sorry’ that we let each other down. How did you refocus for the bronze medal match? We wanted to win and believed that we could do it. But then our coach, [Brazilian-born] coach Marcio Sicoli, gave us the most inspirational pep talk ever. His emotions and passion got us ever more riled up and ready to go. Last night [at the semifinal] didn’t even matter. We’re here. We’re 100 percent present, focused, and ready to win. There’s no particular line that he said. It was more his sentiment and the finality of “forget last night” this match being our “gold medal” match.
Do you have a spiritual practice that helps you stay calm?
Yes, I meditate for 20 minutes every night before I go to bed. On match days, I meditate before we go to the venue to start warming up. That involves prayers, visualization, and meditation. We work with sports psychologist Mike Gervais, Ph.D., and he’s really big into meditation. His biggest advice most of the time is to listen to yourself and do what you feel you need to through meditation. He’s guided us through meditation before, but I’ve never done any other kind of guided meditation. I use his advice and little snippets I’ve read about the practice and made it my own.
What does it feel like when everything comes together and you “nail it” for a win?
It’s like a trance state. I don’t think I have ever felt the way that I did in the third game of the bronze medal match. I didn’t even realize it until afterwards because people keep asking you what was going through your head. I was so ridiculously focused. The only things I was thinking about were tactical and positive. Everything just all came together. I feel like I did everything to the best of my ability. It was a combination of being super-focused. Having your back against the wall, it’s the only option you have—to play the best that you can play. It’s a euphoric feeling for sure. The flow I had with Kerri wasn’t unique to that match. We’ve been working on it for three and a half years. That has just gotten better with every tournament we’ve ever played. We’ve worked really hard for that. To me there’s never a doubt in my mind that we’re connecting and flowing.