In a scrap of shade at Shiokaze Park, April Ross and Alix Klineman rested amid screeching cicadas and shirt-soaking humidity that pushed the heat index to 99 degrees.
Like everything else the American beach volleyball duo has faced at the Summer Games, the sweltering morning didn’t faze them.
“I feel like I’m getting used to it,” said Klineman, the first-time Olympian from Manhattan Beach.
The same could be said for their romp through the bracket, in which they have won six times and dropped only one set on the way to the gold-medal game.
That included the duo making quick work of Switzerland’s Anouk Verge-Depre and Joana Heidrich 21-12, 21-11, in a semifinal Thursday.
The Americans play the Australian duo of Mariafe Artacho del Solar and Taliqua Clancy, who entered the competition ranked 17th in the world and have already clinched their country’s first medal in the sport in more than two decades, in the deciding game Friday morning.
For Ross and Klineman, the 38 minutes inside the empty stadium in the semifinal looked less like a critical moment and more like an unrelenting, unflinching lesson delivered to would-be competitors when they train in Hermosa Beach.
In the second set, for example, Ross spiked the ball toward Heidrich, whose dig attempt caromed out of bounds. A minute later, Heidrich responded with a spike attempt, but the 6-foot-5 Klineman blocked it. That’s how the match went all morning, sending the Swiss duo lunging around the hot sand, looking baffled and bedraggled.
“The opponents made a lot of pressure from the first point,” Verge-Depre said. “We didn’t find our rhythm. We had a lot of struggles there.”
The only break from the onslaught were brief trips to tents where the players draped cool towels around their necks, enjoyed the breeze from large fans positioned around them and escaped the sun for a few minutes.
The 9 a.m. start made little difference as the heat transformed the stadium near Tokyo Bay into something resembling a furnace. Ross said they expected the hottest day of the competition and were mentally prepared, while Klineman recalled the conditions at their training camp in Orlando that “crushed me” and made this weather seem like an expected obstacle in their charge to the podium.
That’s why neither of them looked particularly winded — or even overheated — after the game.
“Just because you work for [it] and just because you do everything you can doesn't mean that it happens,” Klineman said. “The fact that everything is falling into place just feels so magical.”
Ross, the former USC standout from Costa Mesa, won silver at the London Games in 2012 and bronze in Rio de Janeiro five years ago. She will have the opportunity to add the missing piece to her decorated career -- and help continue the long-running U.S. dominance in the sport.
Since beach volleyball was introduced at the Atlanta Games in 1996, Americans have won 10 medals, six of them gold. An 11th medal is now guaranteed.
“She’s worked so hard to get where she is that I didn’t want to let her down,” Ross said of Klineman, who she partnered with three years ago. “The fact that we’re in the gold medal match is what we both wanted for each other.”
Even the heat couldn’t stop them.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.