By George McGuirk | Special to the NB Indy
As April Ross prepares for the Tokyo Olympic Games, it will be yet another volleyball competition without her mother Margie watching her compete. However, Ross credits her strength and determination to her mother’s courageous journey against an incurable form of breast cancer.
Ross, 39, is an American professional beach volleyball player who grew up in Newport Beach and attended Newport Harbor High School. At NHHS she was a star indoor volleyball player, eventually becoming the nation’s top recruit for her graduating class.
According to the Olympics Fandom website, Ross was the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Player of the Year in 1998 and 1999. In her senior season, she notched 624 kills and 526 digs. She played club volleyball for Orange County Volleyball Club for five years. She also played on the U.S. Junior National Team.
Ross attended USC, where she was among USC’s all-time career record-holders including first in points (1,430) and points per game.
Ross went on to win a silver medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics with Jennifer Kessy, and a bronze medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics with Kerri Walsh Jennings. Ross and Kessy were also the 2009 Beach Volleyball World Champions.
Ross’ journey was full of challenges, but much different than the hardships her mother faced.
Ross learned of her mother’s illness at the age of 10 but did not know many details. After witnessing Margie’s 10-year battle with metastatic breast cancer (MBC), Ross understands how difficult the journey can be for a stage IV breast cancer patient and their family.
The selflessness and courageousness Margie exhibited throughout her life seems to have rubbed off on Ross, who admits “I do feel like I take after her a lot, and even though she passed away when I was younger, I feel like I’m ending up like her.”
Ross is committed to spreading awareness of MBC and working to uplift those dealing with this disease. Through her partnership with Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company that focuses on the research and development of new medicines, Ross is excited to advocate for the MBC community and share Margie’s story of strength and perseverance ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo (held this year in July after being postponed last year).
Throughout her childhood, Ross watched as her mother symbolized the backbone of the Ross family. She made the family lunches, shuttled both Ross and her sister Amy to sporting events, and provided all the emotional support.
“I have a much different perspective looking back at the amount of strength she carried herself with to take care of my sister and I, and provide us with opportunities,” said Ross.
Besides the strength to fight, Margie taught Ross how to find success in life and in volleyball.
“She taught me that it didn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s about how much effort you put in and if you had fun or not,” said Ross.
The two-time medalist said that during her last Olympics, she went in with a “gold medal or bust” mentality, and it made the games much more stressful. While she expressed gratitude for receiving the bronze, she explained how her mindset for Tokyo is different.
“I want to make sure going into it that I just enjoy the process, the games, and the whole experience,” said Ross.
Given the intensity that both Ross and her current partner Alix Klineman compete at, gold is still very much in their sights, but it’s not the most important goal.
From an early age, Ross learned about the importance of family and developing a strong support system. Now, she can see how this mentality has guided her throughout her volleyball career and in life.
“The importance has grown on me the longer I play that your team is huge and the journey can be hard, so having those people around you who lift you up is really important,” she said
Even though Margie died years ago, Ross still feels a connection to her mother when she’s on the volleyball court.
“She gave me this necklace in high school that I wear during the Olympics, kind of keeping her with me. I think that’s when I feel her the most,” she said.
For Ross, it helps her to know that her mother is up there watching her do what she loves.
“Sometimes I’m on the backline serving, maybe having a few doubts and I’ll just be like, ok mom, I need you to help me out with this one,” said Ross.
Even without her physical presence, Margie seems to find a way to help her daughter.
“Oftentimes when there’s a crazy play that could go either way, or I do something unintentional that goes our way and I had no control over, I tap my chest and point to the sky. It’s a nod to her, thanking her for that point,” she explained.
Beyond her connection with Margie, Ross relies on the love and support of her father and sister.
“My dad was my coach growing up and he helped me develop my mentality around sports. To this day, he is still super supportive and always in touch with me at tournaments,” said Ross.
The connection Ross has with her sister Amy is less like a coach and more of a companion.
“Amy is my best friend and the person I go to when I’m having a hard time. She helps me work through frustrations, kinda like my therapist,” said Ross with a smile.
“I know I can count on them for anything, they are a huge part of what I do, and any success I have,” added Ross.
Ross believes that with her experience as the daughter of a metastatic breast cancer patient, along with her voice as an Olympic athlete, she can help communicate with those who are dealing with similar struggles.
Her advice for anyone in the MBC community: “Cherish the time you have with your loved one and make that a priority.”
Looking back on her life, Ross said that if she could change anything, she would have spent more time with her mom.
Now, Ross is spending time advocating for the MBC community in partnership with Eli Lilly and sharing her story.
“I want to drive awareness of treatment options like Verzenio, so people are aware of them.”
Verzenio is a prescription medication licensed by Eli Lilly to treat certain types of metastatic breast cancer and is advocated on behalf of Ross.
“For me, time with loved ones and creating those memories are really important, so hopefully the more people that know, the more they can pursue these treatment options,” she said.
Ross hopes that people will recognize and take advantage of this opportunity for treatment, while at the same time, never forgetting what truly matters most.
“Make those memories, spend that time with your loved one, and be there to support them in any way they need it.”