Unless you throw down thousands of dollars at an NBA or NFL game, you’re not meeting any of the players. Here at the AVP, however, it’s more surprising when you don’t bump into your favorite stars. You might catch them walking from the athletes’ tent to the courts. Win or lose, players still meet fans and sign autographs post-match. You’re able to watch mere yards from the court, able to see up close the finesse and block calls, and maybe (if you’re lucky) hear a little trash talk.
This relaxed accessibility to the athletes is one of my favorite parts of the AVP Tour. I love it for the fans and even appreciate it as a player. It’s surreal to warm up next to Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena or train against the women you’ve seen on TV. As a newbie in 2015, I was taken aback by how quickly I was welcomed into the fold. How open people were to sharing their love of the game and speaking into my life. But the most shocking (and luckiest) part of my entrance into the beach volleyball world was my dinner with April Ross on my first night in California.
A little backstory before I jump to the dinner: When I decided to move to California in October 2015, I knew comically little about beach volleyball. I’d just played for fun and only recognized the names of the Olympic athletes. I started following the AVP on Instagram during Summer 2014, but Kerri and April won every tournament that year, so they’re the only ones I took notice of (sorry everyone else). So when my dad told me that one of his work contacts knew a friend of a friend of a friend of April Ross, I freaked out.
In heroic dad fashion, my father worked his magic and secured a dinner with April. In slightly terrifying dad efficiency, he set the dinner for my first night in California. Here I was – equipped with zero knowledge of beach volleyball and after a three-day road trip with my dad – meeting my volleyball icon. Cool thanks, dad.
I was nervous about meeting April but figured she had to be a pretty friendly and down-to-earth chick if she said yes to dinner with a newbie. My dad and I arrived at Claim Jumper, the centrally located seafood chain with excellent calamari that April suggested, embarrassingly early (as we often do). Lucky for us, a few minutes later April showed up.
“You’re early,” she said. “I like you already.”
Laugh—sigh of relief—intros—orders.
And then we got right down to business.
Looking back now at the index cards with my dad’s notes from that night makes me laugh out loud. While I should have been self-conscious about how little I knew, in reality, I wasn’t aware of how little I knew. He jotted down snippets like, “CBVA, Norceca, and www.bvbinfo.com.” I had never heard of these words before; now they’re as familiar to me as any. But April never made me feel inadequate or inept; she was patient and methodical, going through every nugget of information I needed to get started.
Along with educating me on all things volley, April also opened up about her career and lessons the game taught her. Using my memory and my father’s yellow index cards, I’ve accumulated a list of all the things April told me that I’ve never forgotten.
- USA Volleyball’s Elite Development Program will be holding tryouts in a few days. Thank God we had dinner on my first night, or I would have missed this opportunity. EDP ended up changing my life—I somehow aced tryouts and was allowed into the program. Holly McPeak and Barb Fontana coached a small group of female players and me every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for three months. It was a crash course on the basics. But more importantly, it introduced me to the entire volleyball world. I met more than 20 women that competed on both the AVP and FIVB; most are friends I still have now. From those connections, I was able to set up practices and get my foot in the door. All because April suggested I tryout over a plate of shrimp scampi.
- Noted by Dad: “Play in CBVA Opens on weekends. Partly $, partly practice.” CBVA stands for California Beach Volleyball Association. The organization holds well-run, one-day tournaments along the Californian coast. A lot of really talented athletes sign up for these tournaments, so playing in them brings valuable experience and practice.
- Learn how to play in a visor. This is honestly one of the best pieces of advice she gave. Think about it: if you don’t wear a hat, you expose your face to the sun an extra 2+ hours every practice (read more about AVP athletes’ intense training routines here). But just because it made sense doesn’t mean I didn’t complain when I tried it out. “I can’t see past the brim; this stupid thing keeps falling off; it makes my hair messy; I look ugly in it.” You know—the usual. But I pushed through because April Ross specifically told me to do something, and I was not about to let her down. Bonus: I get to rep my beloved Colts whenever I play.
- The Olympics are awesome. This tidbit was less about advice and more to satisfy my curiosity. I grilled April on everything, from meeting Kobe Bryant to the Olympic Village to that Gold Medal Match feeling. I gobbled up every story with relish, asking for more details and probably freaking her out a bit.
- Noted by Dad: “All about discipline and self-motivation || Resilient.” These are words my dad picked out from April’s comments, words that described the way she approaches the game and how she recommended I should. They stand true today. Beach volleyball is entirely self-motivated. We don’t play for a league or coaches that tell us what to do and when—we set up our own practices and pick our partners. You have to be disciplined because no one else is going to give you the kick in the pants you may need. And you have to be resilient. Volleyball is a rollercoaster of emotion. Sometimes brutal, but always worth it.
- Don’t stay with partners based on friendship; choose the person who complements your game the best. This has been invaluable information throughout my career. April opened up and shared a vulnerable story, one I was honored to be privy to. But she also assured me that if friendships are strong enough, they’ll survive a partner breakup.
After all of this, as if she hadn’t done enough, April invited me to practice. A REAL-LIFE PRACTICE WITH APRIL ROSS. That’s what was going through my head. Of course, I think I said something more cool, calm, and collected like, “Yes, oh my gosh, really? Of course, I’ll come. Thank you so much! When and where? Oh, doesn’t matter; I’ll cancel anything else I have. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Yeah, something chill like that.
What April didn’t know is that my practice with her was just my third beach volleyball practice ever. I was rough around the edges (to put it lightly), but she was patient and kind, understanding when I needed more time to comprehend a drill or catch my breath. My Instagram post from that day of training said, “Learning from the best. Humbling, to say the least, but I can’t believe day three of training looked like this.” I still can’t believe it.
That dinner established the bedrock for my first season, and really for my career. April helped me lay a foundation of information and wisdom, volleyball and life lessons, actionable steps and considerations for the future. I realize how lucky I am for that dinner. For my dad connecting the dots and getting me there. And for April saying yes and spending hours with someone she’d never met, all in the name of growing the game.
Thanks again, April.
Follow Kim Smith on Instagram @kimesmith21
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