Rio-bound April Ross on body image and training for the Olympics

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"I mainly wanted to celebrate all that my body has done for me in my career, flaws and all. And I wanted it to be a statement of freedom."

This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2016. Subscribe today! And for more from the 2016 Body Issue, check out espn.com/bodyissue, and pick up a copy on newsstands starting July 8.

Pressure? Please. April Ross took home silver at the 2012 Olympics in London, and now she and Kerri Walsh Jennings have partnered to create a dream team heading into Rio. In an interview with the Body Issue's Morty Ain, Ross dishes on working with Walsh Jennings, why beach volleyball doesn't necessarily mean "bikini body" and the many months she spent thinking she'd given up the sport for good.


Sometimes the idea of a beach volleyball body gets mixed up with the casual beachgoer, lay-out-in-a-bikini type. For me, I value the power of my body, and I think I'm a little more muscular than you might expect. I don't consider myself thin, and I'm not trying to look great in a bikini -- I'm trying to be as strong as possible and as powerful as possible for my sport.

I don't look at my partnership with Kerri as replacing her previous partner [Misty May-Treanor]. I don't think I've ever really looked at it like that. In beach volleyball, you change partners, it's inevitable. Very few teams have ever stuck together for the entirety of their careers. This was just a partner change for me. I'm not trying to replace anybody. We created a new team; it's not Misty and Kerri's team that I'm subbing into. Kerri and I are a new team and we're going to have different ups and different downs than they did.

I do a lot of cardio on the sand or beach volleyball movements with a weighted vest, so I get plenty of funny looks. If I go out on the weekends, I can tell I'm getting looks like, "What is this chick doing?" But I've accepted this is what I need to do, and I'm not going to be embarrassed by it.

Even if you are just on the beach all day doing nothing, you feel exhausted by the end of the day. It sucks energy out of you, for sure. It's tough to deal with sometimes. At a tournament, I'm in the sun for probably five to seven, maybe even eight hours a day. During the week, I'm in the sun for two and a half to three hours for practice. My first two seasons, I didn't wear a visor or a hat and I got sunburned quite a bit, even though I used sunscreen. It's damaged my skin, for sure.

I played every single sport I could growing up. I think my very first sport was gymnastics, and I loved it. I played soccer, basketball, baseball, softball. In high school, I lettered in basketball, track and field and volleyball. When I started volleyball, I wasn't very good at it. I just loved the sport and I worked really hard. But I do think my body is suited for volleyball, and beach volleyball specifically. Maybe it was fate!

It might sound corny, but I love the way my body feels. One of the reasons I work so hard in the gym is because I believe, knock on wood, that it's kept me healthy up until this point in my career. I've played volleyball since I was 13 -- more than 20 years. And I feel better right now than I have ever felt.

My favorite body part is my quads. Before I even really lifted [heavy weights], everyone was always like, "Oh my gosh! Your quad muscles are so big!" As a female, you can go either way with that -- "Oh, you're calling my legs big?" But I always took it as a huge compliment, like, "I'm strong, I can jump -- thank you!"

I don't feel like you should ever sacrifice strong for skinny. Strong is just as beautiful, and especially in sports, it's essential. I just never want to see any athlete sacrifice sustenance and fuel and taking care of their body in order to try and achieve this kind of skinny body type.

In college, I had the highest body fat percentage of anyone on the team. It wasn't the best news I've ever gotten [laughs]. But it taught me that it doesn't necessarily matter. Everyone's body type is different, and even if you carry around a little extra body fat, you can still perform at a super high level. It's just something to not get too hung up on.

Williams + Hirakawa for ESPN

"It really felt like we were trying to accomplish something out there. Not just get some 'pretty' shot but create an image that really showcases the gnarliness, the grittiness of an athlete's body."

I straight up felt fat a lot of the time. Especially in high school and in college. The feeling dissipated little by little, but I was still definitely self-conscious about my body for the first couple of seasons out on the beach. I always focused on positive self-talk for myself -- I would combat the negative self-talk with, "But look at what your body is doing for you!" I swear it seems futile most of the time -- you're like, "This isn't doing anything" -- but if you stick with it, it really does sink in and infiltrates your subconscious and stays there.

But with that self-talk, you have to do the hard work along with it. If I was content having the positive self-talk but just eating pizza and drinking soda all day, that's obviously not going to be as effective as me sacrificing eating that crap and trying to eat healthier year after year. Feeling the difference and even seeing the difference, that's going to work a lot more.

The worst thing I ever did to my body was playing indoor in Puerto Rico. They have a professional league down there, so after college I went and played for three seasons. I had always been in a college program and a high school program where a weightlifting routine was made for me, I warmed up with the team, I had physical therapy with the trainers afterward. So in Puerto Rico I was kind of on my own, and I just wasn't taking care of my body the right way. By the end of the third season, I couldn't raise my arm above my shoulder and my knee was in so much pain that I came home. I actually ended up not being able to finish the season. It was a really tough time for my body.

I quit volleyball after that. In season, we played matchups basically every other day. We had three-hour intense practices in between matches every other day. I wasn't strong, I wasn't lifting, so the repetitive motion with my shoulder and then the landing on the hard surface indoor over and over for four months just crushed me. My body felt terrible, and I wasn't willing to spend that much time away from my friends and family anymore. I was pretty miserable.

I'm not trying to look great in a bikini -- I'm trying to be as strong and as powerful as possible for my sport.
April Ross

I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was contemplating going back to school. I called up my stepsister, who was working as a manager at the House of Blues in Anaheim, and she gave me a job hostessing. Then came beach season the following April, and my college teammate called me up and asked me to play with her on the beach for a couple of tournaments. I was just doing it for fun. In the end, it was about a nine-month break from beach volleyball.

I can do the worm. My legs have always been strong, my core has always been pretty strong, but especially compared to other athletes my arm strength is just ... a little bit less than average. So to be able to do the worm, I'm pretty proud of myself for that.

I don't view myself as competitive outside of volleyball, but my family and friends tell me all the time that I'm the most competitive person they know. They always think that I have to win at everything we do. I don't feel that way, but I guess that's how I come off to people. I think I just enjoy playing games so much that I'm vocal about it. I show my emotions; I think people see that as I really want to win, and that might come off as competitive. Yeah, I might give you a hard time if you win, but I'm just having fun with it.

I do a lot of visualization, and I'm also practicing "detachment." I've learned to take a step back, to put things in perspective, and it's totally counterintuitive, but to maybe care a little bit less. I just have to take a breath and think about the things that truly matter; I go back to who I am as a person at my core.

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