U.S. beach volleyball star April Ross had the memory of her mother close to her heart as she and teammate Alix Klineman brought home the gold in Tokyo on Thursday.
Ross wore a special necklace that belonged to her late mother during the gold medal match, clutching it for good luck and talking to her mom as she and Klineman dominated the Australian team of Mariafe Artacho del Solar and Taliqua Clancy, 21-15, 21-16, to wrap up the gold in 43 minutes.
"I wear this necklace, she gave it to me in high school, and she passed away when I was in college," Ross told Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb on TODAY Friday.
"I wear it for every Olympics, only for special occasions," she said. "I talk to her beforehand, and when I'm out there I ask her to help me get things to maybe go our way, and I just feel like she's watching down and helping us every step of the way. I have her with me."
Ross, 39, was a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Southern California when her mother, Margie, died after 10 years of being treated for metastatic breast cancer.
Her memory has become a driving force for Ross, who completed her set of Olympic medals when she paired with Klineman to take home the gold. Ross won silver with partner Jennifer Kessy in the 2012 Olympics, followed by winning bronze with beach volleyball legend Kerri Walsh Jennings in 2016 before reaching the top of the podium with Klineman on Thursday.
The duo are the first Americans to win gold in women's beach volleyball since 2012. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, they did not have Olympic officials draping the gold medals around their necks at the ceremony, which meant they had a special moment where they were able to each give each other their medals.
"Alix said it best — we prefer gold jewelry — so we're very happy with the gold," Ross said.
Klineman, 31, completed her own impressive journey considering she played indoor volleyball her entire career before transitioning to beach volleyball only four years ago. Now she's half of the best team in the world.
"It's just been such a fairy tale, and it feels like a dream I'm going to wake up from tomorrow, but I'm thrilled it's not," Klineman said. "It's been a crash course in (beach) volleyball. I'm so lucky to have been paired up with April and have been on this journey with her. And I'm so grateful and proud and thankful for everybody who's helped us along."
The tandem also overcame brutal conditions to bring home the victory. The temperature hit 92 degrees at the Shiokaze Park beach volleyball venue in the finals, with the NBC broadcasters noting that it felt like 129 degrees on the sand. Ross said they were wearing ice vests to cool down ahead of competing, and officials were regularly watering the sand so it wouldn't be scorching hot.
"It was brutal, but it was so worth it," Klineman said.
Known as the "A Team" because of their initials, they even got a shout-out from an original member of the legendary "A Team" from the hit 1980s TV show. Mr. T was avidly watching them on their way to gold.
"Hey Fool! Don’t Bother me now, I am getting ready to watch the A-Team!" Mr. T tweeted on Thursday. "No, not the tv show… Grrr! I’m talking about @alixklineman and @AprilRossBeach going for the Gold in Beach Volleyball. Go USA Go!"
He then followed up with a tweet congratulating them on their win, writing, "You Brought your 'A' Game to the A-team! USA All the Way, you made Us Proud."
"So psyched," Ross said. "Mr. T is legendary and all his gold chains just felt like a good omen that he was watching us and keeping track. We feel like he blessed our team. He was (part of) the original 'A Team' and now we can fully be the 'A Team.'"