The match ended as April Ross and Lauren Fendrick celebrated with high fives and hugs. The beach volleyball duo were onto the next round of the 2017 AVP New York City Open. They dried off with a towel, rehydrated with some water and did some interviews. All standard fare.
After signing a few autographs Fendrick retired to the locker room, while hordes of people surrounded her two-time Olympic medalist teammate. A seemingly endless line of giddy girls volleyball players from Calhoun School (NYC) and Pascack Hills High School (N.J.) approached Ross, who shook hands with each of them and introduced herself as if they didn’t know who she was — they certainly did. Ross held a Q&A session on the sand court overlooking the Hudson River then signed autographs and took photos without ever appearing anxious to hit the showers, grab a bite to eat and head home. She could have stayed there all night.
“I want to give any kind of reward to these girls who put so much effort into fundraising for such a good cause,” Ross said. “If they enjoy doing this I want to do it for them. I want to encourage them to keep fundraising because I’ve seen the fruits of their labor. I know it’s for a really good cause and I want to reward them if I can.”
The volleyball programs are fundraising for breast cancer awareness and research in conjunction with the Side-Out Foundation. The Virginia-based organization was founded by volleyball coach Rick Dunetz—he created it to honor his mother, Gloria, who passed away from breast cancer.
The cause is near and dear to Ross’ heart. Her mother, Margie, battled breast cancer for 15 years before passing away in 2001.
“My mom is one of my biggest inspirations for sure,” Ross said. “I’ve seen how hard it is to fight that battle and she fought it for a long time. I go back and remember her battle and anything I’m confronted with—whether it’s volleyball or life—a lot of it pales in comparison and I realize it’s not that bad because I’ve seen what she went through. I think, ‘I can handle this, I can be brave and not give up because that’s what she did.’
“She was just very inspiring, especially in hindsight. I was pretty young when she had (cancer) and passed away, but the more time goes on the more I realize how strong she was as a person.”
Ross channeled that strength, playing through a toe injury suffered earlier in the day in the semifinals en route to the NYC Open women’s championship on June 11.
“During the national anthem, I thought about my mom who battled breast cancer with such courage,” Ross said after winning the title. “Then I thought, ‘it’s just a toe.’ Lauren played so amazing. She put me on her back and carried me through.”
Add that to the lengthy list of Ross’s accolades, including: two Olympic medals (silver at London 2012, bronze at Rio 2016), a World Championship, four AVP MVP awards, being named USA Beach Volleyball Player of the Year five times, and two NCAA Championships. Not too shabby for a player who started out playing indoor volleyball and actually quit the sport all together because she couldn’t raise her arm above her shoulder or jump off her left knee.
Ross got a waitressing job at the House of Blues while contemplating her next life decision away from volleyball. After getting knee surgery and months of rehab, a friend of hers from the University of Southern California asked her to play in a beach volleyball tournament.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Yet, Ross somehow knew it’s exactly what she would end up doing. She’s quoted in the Newport Harbor High School (Calif.) yearbook freshman year saying her dream was to “be a famous pro volleyball player and earn my living that way.”
“I don’t remember having that as a dream when I was that young,” Ross said with a laugh. “I think that’s really ambitious of me because my freshman year I honestly wasn’t very good at volleyball and to have a dream of being a professional volleyball player and make a living doing it, I don’t know where that came from.
“I threw it out into the universe and can’t believe it actually happened. The other night (my husband and I) were laying around and I was like: ‘We’ve had a great life.’ Everyone does appreciate it, but to stop every now and again and think that ‘wow, this is so rad what we get to do’. I do appreciate it.”
And so do all of the girls who look up to her.