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Other American duo making medal run
When April Ross was growing up in Newport Beach, Calif., she dreaded each time her high-school coach would send the volleyball team a few blocks down to the beach to play on the sand. She couldn’t stand “getting all sandy and gross and sweaty.”
When Ross starred at USC, her teammates would go down to the beach on weekends and play, but she would stay at home.
“I was like, 'No, thank you,' ” Ross said.
These days, Ross does not find the sand so disagreeable, not the way she was salvaging points by diving all over the court Sunday night, and not the way she beamed after she and her teammate, Jennifer Kessy, surged into the semifinals of the beach volleyball tournament at their first Olympics with a 25-23, 21-18 victory over the Czech Republic’s Marketa Slukova and Kristyna Kolocova.
This is Kessy and Ross’ first Olympics, and all the steps they’ve taken to acclimate themselves to an 11,000-seat stadium with an electric atmosphere that sits in front of Buckingham Palace — coming here last year to play in a test-run tournament, Ross staying with her husband and Kessy with her boyfriend — seem to have eased their anxiety.
“It’s way more intense than any tournament we’ve ever played in,” Ross said.
“There’s a wave going on for five minutes,” said Kessy, who took the chill from the 59-degree temperatures by placing her feet in heated slippers. “That’s one of the first times the crowd was hard for me. You’re never going to get that at a regular tournament.”
They handled it better than others. Earlier in the evening, in a quarterfinal victory by Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, one of their opponents, Marta Menegatti, broke down in tears during the break between sets.
Menegatti said that playing a high-stakes match against her idol, May, overwhelmed her.
There is no discounting the fear factor for many teams when they play against May-Treanor and Walsh, who have won the last two gold medals and are playing in their final tournament before May-Treanor retires.
And they did little to downplay the notion. May-Treanor said the tournament is bringing out the lions in her and her partner, and Walsh added: “We want to crush everybody.”
That may not happen from here on out. May-Treanor and Walsh play China’s Xue Chen and Zhang Xi, who have beaten the Americans the last three times they have played. Then there is the possibility of an All-American final, if Ross and Kessy can get past the reigning world champions, Brazil’s Juliana and Larissa.
“That’s our goal,” Kessy said.
For much of this tournament, Kessy and Ross have been reminded that they are the other American team. Much of the United States basketball team has turned out for May-Treanor and Walsh’s matches, as have the snowboarder Shaun White and John McEnroe, who is here to work as a commentator on tennis
They spoke with reporters in a large portable conference room, while Kessy and Ross spoke with four reporters in the mixed zone.
The other Americans?
“We’ve dealt with it now for, what?” Kessy said.
“Twelve years,” Ross said.
“Ever since I was playing,” interjected Kessy, who turned 35 last week.
“Before I started playing,” added Ross, 30.
“Exactly,” Kessy said. “So it doesn’t bother us. They can do all the extra media — that’s totally fine with us. They have two gold medals and have won a million world championships, so what can we say, 'Pay attention to us?' That’s not April and I. We’re our own team.”
Ross and Kessy took great pains to emphasize that they have a good relationship with the standard bearers of beach volleyball. They play practice matches against each other, but they did not go to them and ask for a scouting report on the Czechs, who tested May-Treanor and Walsh in group play. The bond of Americans apparently goes so far.
“They’d look at us like, uh, 'I don’t know if that’s an appropriate question,' '' Kessy said.
The presence of May-Treanor and Walsh is a tremendous motivator, according to Jeff Conover, Kessy and Ross’ coach.
“No matter how well we do, we’ll always be compared to Kerri and Misty,” Conover said. “Even back home, people are like, ‘Oh, you’re a volleyball team? Do you know Kerri and Misty? We’re like, ‘Yeah, actually we’re ranked higher than them in a lot of things.”
Sunday they displayed the type of versatility and grit Sunday that make them formidable. With Ross playing “unreal,” according to Kessy, with a strong serve and diving all over the court, Kessy stayed near the net. A dramatic first-set victory came after each team staved off a pair of set points.
Tied at 23, Ross dove to dig a ball and keep alive a point that ended with Slukova hitting a ball into the net. Then Kolocova’s looping spike was just long.
“We needed to win that game,” Kessy said.
They jumped to a 17-10 lead in the second game, but Kolocova and Slukova came charging back, drawing as close as 20-18. They were disappointed they could not finish off the Czechs earlier, but all in all it wasn’t a bad night.
The sand felt good between their toes — even for Ross. The crowd was lively, the evening breeze was brisk, and Ross and Kessy moved a step closer to making a name for themselves.
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