April Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings: How We're Fighting To Make The Olympic Team

April Ross has been partners with Kerri Walsh Jennings since 2013, after Walsh Jennings won her third Olympic gold medal in London and Ross earned the silver with Jen Kessy. Robert Laberge/Getty Images

On Sept. 10 of last year, Kerri Walsh Jennings underwent her fifth shoulder surgery. Her fourth one came almost exactly four years earlier, heading into the London Olympics, where she eventually won her third consecutive gold medal in beach volleyball with Misty May-Treanor.

Now Walsh Jennings, 37, is playing with April Ross. And even though Walsh Jennings had regained her winning form before, the injury presented Ross, 33, with a real dilemma. Ross had earned a silver medal in 2012, but she had just lost half of her 2016 team -- and the best player in the world -- when it seemed to matter the most.

Ross stayed sharp by competing with new partners at the end of last season, then took October and November off as she normally would during the offseason. And this past week, she finally resumed training with Walsh Jennings in Los Angeles. "It doesn't even feel like we've taken that much time off," Ross said Friday. "The only thing that we are trying to be smart about is the number of swings that [Kerri's] taking. She's still working on her left hand a bit to give her right arm some rest during some reps. But otherwise, we're doing everything full speed

"At this point, I feel really good about us," she added. "I don't really have a concern right now. If none of this had happened last year with Kerri getting hurt, I think I'd feel the same way."

To qualify for the Rio Olympics, the pair must play at least five more tournaments before June 12 (there are 11 to choose from). They also must be one of the top two ranked U.S. teams on June 13 and rank high enough internationally to make the cut. So the points race is on, and the pair will return to the FIVB tour March 8-13, at the Grand Slam event in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It's a stressful time, but Olympic qualifying seems doable, though not necessarily easy.

In the meantime, Ross took a moment to explain how she copes with the uncertainty, and deals with a setback that threatens her athletic dreams.

Did you and Kerri talk daily during her recovery? How did you keep tabs on her progress?

No, I don't talk to anybody every day except my husband. If she had a milestone in her recovery, she would let us know. And I'd check in with her periodically to see how she was doing. I think it served to motivate me in the offseason, to be even more prepared and stay on it because I didn't know how much load I was going to have to carry this year. Knock on wood, I feel healthier than I ever have.

How do you stay focused when all your plans take a detour?

It's hard. Because you're getting challenged. Every time I am in a situation like that, I try to channel all my energy toward what positive can come out of this. I immediately start looking for the lessons I can learn. I look for opportunities to grow and get better. I feel there's always a silver lining. Stay in the present and be mindful of what you can do right now to make yourself or your future situation better.

Another thing I subscribe to -- and it's really a hard concept for some people -- is the idea of detachment. You can want something really, really badly and be really motivated and determined to get it, but you can't hang on too tight because it can create problems. So the idea of creating detachment, even from the stuff you want so bad, is healthy. It allows you to take a step back and keep things in perspective.

You know, the Olympics are huge, and this opportunity with Kerri is huge, but at the end of the day, it's not the end of the world if it doesn't go exactly how you want it to. You have to be OK with that. When things get kind of rough, you're still working your butt off to achieve your goals, but you have to have in the back of your mind that things are going to be OK, regardless.

How do you create detachment?

It's a lot of self-reflection. I've had some life experiences that helped me realize all this on a deep level, like losing my mom in 2001, right before my sophomore year at USC. She had breast cancer. It really hammered home to maximize life, live in the present. To get hung up on things that aren't life and death is kind of pointless.

Also, I think meditation is huge. Just stop for a second and recognize thoughts and fears and learn to be OK with all that. Realize the things you're stressing about, and not judge yourself for it. Let them go.

Think about what really matters in life. Anyone can do that. Maybe it does seem like the end of the world sometimes if you don't win a match, but if you see that happening with a player, you can always remind them, "You gave it 100 percent; you trained really hard; you did everything you could; it didn't go your way. That's OK. You have people who love you and food to eat, so everything's going to be fine." That's literally what I think, all the time: I have shelter, I have food, I have clothes on my back. I'm good. For me, it's as basic as that.

When you have ups and downs, what brings you back to that happy place?

Say we're at a tournament -- it's really fun to go out to a group dinner, enjoy wherever we are, hang out and have a good time. That helps. And then, I love watching movies; movies and music are my outlets. Otherwise, the biggest solution for me is getting back on the court and training and trying to fix the things that went wrong. I feel like I'm being productive. It makes me feel better.

What about making contingency plans, especially in a team sport like beach volleyball? Were you ever thinking of plan B, C and D?

The farthest I got along that train of thought was: Should I look at other options? I was never like: I need to look at other options. Or: How would I feel playing with this person? I was just: Is that something I should do? Or not?

When I played a couple of tournaments with other people to stay in competitive shape, Kerri mentioned, "Make sure you pick someone that you can see yourself going to the Olympics with." It kind of caught me off guard. After that, I was just like: Either I'm going with Kerri or I'm not going at all. That was it. In the whole kerfuffle of uncertainty, [the key] was just figuring out which way I wanted to go and felt best going. I had faith in Kerri that she was going to do what she needed to do and heal. So it was her or nobody. Ride or die.