It wouldn't be fair to say Alix Klineman's Olympic dreams began that April 2017 day in the fields of Indio, Calif.
The longtime volleyball pro would more likely point to when she was training with USA Volleyball's national team as a college freshman and the coach "was saying, 'You know I was in the Olympics when I was 18 and I have a lot of belief in you,'" Klineman recalled to E! News during a June 17 interview.
But the Stagecoach Festival—country's answer to Coachella—is where she and now-teammate April Ross first flirted with the idea of getting their two-person band together.
At the time, beach volleyball player Ross was the veteran of two Olympic Games. And she had two medals—a silver from London, a bronze from Rio—to show for it, but no partner, having recently split with three-time gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings. Klineman was a longtime indoor professional who'd just been left off the Olympics roster for the third time.
"We both have, you know, a drink or two and we're listening to music," Klineman shared, setting the scene. "And she's like, 'By the way, I'm gonna need a partner for the next Olympics.' And she just kind of looks at me."
It wasn't a firm proposal, though Klineman had her yes all prepared ("Of course I'm gonna play with you, like, you're better than me. I was just starting on the beach at the time"), but it was a strong maaaaaaaybe.
"She's like, 'I mean, not right now, like, you need to keep working, keep getting better but maybe eventually we could play together or something,'" noted Klineman. "I remember the next day I was like, 'Did I have too much to drink? Am I imagining this really happened?'"
Four years later, that dream is still very much alive.
"I had a different partner for that summer and I was super motivated just thinking, like, if I get better and if I get good enough, I can play with April," 31-year-old Klineman recalled. And after a three-day "tryout-type situation" that October, she continued, "that's when I realized like, 'OK, I actually have a shot at this.'"
Now, she and the 39-year-old veteran, ranked No. 2 in the world behind Canada's Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes, are just one win away from accepting their gold medals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At worst, they walk away from their Aug. 5 match against Australia's Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho del Solar with silver.
And to think, for Klineman, just getting to the Olympics was "a little bit of a 'pinch me' moment."
Ross cops to the same "jittery excitement," even as she prepped another return trip to the Olympic Village. "I mean, absolutely not," she told E! News June 17 when asked if even her wildest dreams let her imagine the chance to serve, spike and dig her way to a third medal.
An indoor veteran herself, "I didn't think [going to the Olympics] was going to be an option until I got together with Jen Kessy," she said, citing her partner at the 2012 Games. "But then even after we made London, I didn't think that I would be going to two more. Like, it's just crazy to me."
In a world where choosing a partner is akin to Internet dating ("Everybody has each other's phone numbers," Ross joked to KSL Sports of sending out those first tentative texts), the Newport Beach-bred University of Southern California grad seems to have a knack for finding her perfect match.
"I mean, it is impossible to know if you are picking the right person as a partner, and I think everyone feels like it is a little bit of a risk every time you do it," Ross explained. "And I think on paper, Alix was a bigger risk than anyone else."
Klineman was just months into her beach volleyball career when Ross made that first non-committal move in the desert.
A three-sport athlete growing up in Manhattan Beach, Calif. ("Basketball was like my first love, but I was so, like tall and lanky as a kid and I was just growing faster than my body could keep up with and I remember at a certain point basketball started to feel a little bit too physical, little bit too rough for me"), Klineman had gone on to dominate at Stanford, collecting four All-American titles and the honor of being named Volleyball Magazine's national player of the year, before securing a place on the United States women's national team.
Hitting the court in both Italy and Brazil she made bank as a professional player, but one dream proved out of reach.
Not getting a spot on the indoor Olympics roster "made me evaluate everything," she told the Los Angeles Times. "Yeah, I love volleyball, but I love it because I'm chasing the biggest goal. Once you take that away, it took away a little bit of my purpose. I'm too competitive to just be playing."
Deciding to hit the beach kept that dream alive.
"I didn't get the outcome that I wanted for a lot of years and I stuck with it and I kept trying," she explained to E! News. "You know I love competing and I'm very determined and I feel like ultimately my will was stronger than anything else, so that's why I feel like I'm here." (Though she admitted last year's COVID postponement hit hard: "I was like, 'Oh my god, I'm cursed!'")
Ross saw that hunger, the same drive that had prompted her 2006 switch from indoor to the beach after her own national team disappointment and propelled her through two medal-winning Olympics appearances. The same hunger that doesn't let her forget there's still an empty spot in her trophy case.
"I sat down with her, and we had a great conversation and it seemed like her motivation was extremely high and she just had a fire under her and was willing to do what it took to get better," Ross explained, "just in a way that was really believable and spoke to how I have always been about the sport."
And it doesn't hurt that Klineman measures in at 6-foot-5. "I can't ignore her physicality," said Ross. "She has had a lot of success indoors, so I knew that experience would come in handy, and it has."
Nearly four years in, 6-foot-1 Ross has every reason to pat herself on the back about her choice. "I am just so thankful I chose her as a partner when she was brand new," she told FanSided in May. "She was searching for a partner and now I feel like she's one of the best players in the world."
Their relationship is something of an opposites attract situation.
"Our interests are different, she likes to do a lot more stuff when we are on the road," said Ross of Klineman, who loves traveling, chill beach days with friends and any opportunity to cook the cuisine she fell in love with while playing in Italy.
"My dream Friday night is to have a bunch of friends over, cook a big elaborate meal, and kind of just play the host," noted the amateur photographer, newly engaged to retired NHL right winger Teddy Purcell. "That's a lot of fun for me."
And though Ross once lived in a house with two roommates (volleyball players Carson Clark and Kyle Friend) that she's likened to "a real life version" of the New Girl pad ("It was as fun as it sounds," she admitted to E! News), during tournaments she'd just as soon stay in, banking precious sleep courtesy of the foam mattress topper she lugs to each and every site. ("I have to bring an extra bag for it everywhere and I get a little bit of grief sometimes, but it is 100 percent worth it.")
But their differences "give us stuff to talk about," said Ross, who noted her teammate "can get along with anybody."
Plus they're in lock step with the only metrics that truly matter.
"I just think we're very motivated, disciplined people," said Klineman. "I don't know very many people that want to win as bad as I do, but she's one of them, and we're both willing to do whatever it takes to be the best." Anything less than full-go doesn't really happen, she continued. "I never want to slack off because I know that I would be letting her down, and so I think that's where we're really compatible."
Having spent the pandemic months honing in on weight training and getting creative with practice sessions while also having time to connect with family, "kind of filling my cup so that I could draw on it in times like this," noted Ross, they've hit the beach with a new fire.
They notched an impressive streak of victories en route to an early qualification for Tokyo, where they were joined by fellow Americans Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes after Ross' former partner Walsh Jennings and her teammate Brooke Sweat failed to qualify.
Their days involved two-and-a-half-hours of training, two more hours of lifting, plus physical therapy, video sessions and press commitments that left Ross flat-out exhausted by the time she walked into her boyfriend's Manhattan Beach pad. "I don't have energy to make dinner," explained the athlete, noting how grateful she is that he picked up that particular task. "I don't have energy to clean the house. Like, I am sitting on the couch."
Thankfully the housekeeping could wait.
"We need to have a really great Olympics if we want that gold medal," insisted Ross, citing the "crazy" high level of competition. "I understand that, so in a way, that takes a bit of pressure off."
Going into last summer, agreed Klineman, "there was a time where everyone thought it was either going to be the U.S. or Canada at the finals. And since COVID, I feel like a few other teams have really emerged as strong contenders as well. So I think now people are realizing that it's kind of anyone's game."
Like her teammate, she didn't head into Tokyo feeling the pressure that can weight down other frontrunners. "I know that we're capable, and I obviously hope that we can win gold and I hope that we play our best," she said, "but I also have a lot of respect for our opponents. There's definitely a handful of really, really strong teams out there."
Which just added to her first-timers' excitement.
Her Olympic dream deferred for more than a decade, she's thrilled for every part of it. "Just to be in the village, and to be around so many other top athletes I think that will be a really fun experience," she marveled, admitting she's kind of happy their initial plan of booking a hotel burst when the committee announced that all athletes would be in a bubble for the games. "I just think it'll be cool to be around, you know, the best athletes in the world that are all trying to do something really special."
(Originally published July 1, 2021 at 6:00 a.m. PT)