Alix Klineman is blessed with a 6-foot-5 frame and world class athleticism. Her wingspan and hitting power are elite. Those tools, though, weren’t enough for the 28-year-old former Stanford indoor volleyball player to succeed after switching to the beach in 2017.
She wanted to reach the Olympics. She wanted to finally prove her All-American indoor career for the Cardinal was a stepping-stone, not a peak — even if her path from there to the beach game took five years and was dotted with setbacks.
In her second summer on the AVP tour, Klineman will play in the San Francisco Open from July 5-8. It’s the tournament where she made her first-ever beach volleyball championship game appearance last year. It’ll be an appropriate setting to reflect on her transformation from AVP outsider to contender.
“She’s on the right track to play in the Olympics,” said April Ross, Klineman’s partner and a two-time Olympian. “She has the desire, competitiveness and will to get there. … She’s a very intense student and studies herself and the game more than any other person I’ve ever played with.”
The work begins with an early morning trip to the beach to train with Ross. There’s a drive to the gym to lift weights and a rehab session to keep her expended body fresh. Then it’s time to study. She pores over hundreds of taped practices and tournament matches.
This workload has helped unlock Klineman’s potential, making her more than an intriguing-but-unpolished project. After winning an FIVB international tournament with Ross in January, Klineman won the AVP’s Austin Open in May. She finished third at this month’s New York City Open.
Despite making it to the title match last year in San Francisco — a major breakthrough after never finishing higher than seventh place — Klineman was annoyed. She spoke in a low voice following her loss to Betsy Flint and Kelley Larsen and lamented her team’s lack of consistency. Her shoulders drooped.
Looking back, Klineman’s current coach, Jen Kessy, is astonished Klineman made it that far. Klineman only started working with Kessy, a 2012 silver medalist, in the winter. Before that, Klineman mostly relied on her natural abilities and didn’t know much about beach volleyball technique.
“She got to finals in the AVP without even really having major instruction,” Kessy said. “That was amazing.”
It’s taken time for Kessy to figure out how to coach Klineman, who for so many years operated under the more structured umbrella of the indoor game. Going over film has become a key source of growth. Kessy’s also learned she can be harsh with Klineman, though she said that kind of motivational technique is rarely necessary.
The biggest lesson: Kessy taught Klineman that hitting with power doesn’t carry the same effectiveness on the beach. Instead, keeping the ball in play is emphasized as a way of dealing with wind and other weather conditions. Klineman can’t solely lean on her superior athleticism to win matches.
“She’s learning how to shoot,” Kessy said. “Before, all she would do was come in and hit any ball and every ball.”
After Klineman left Stanford, her indoor career sputtered. She was suspended 13 months for a positive anabolic steroid test even though the USADA ruled the result came from accidental ingestion of her mother’s DHEA supplement. Her subsequent time playing professionally in Italy and Brazil didn’t produce the national team breakthrough she wanted.
So, with her indoor Olympic hopes fading, she returned home to Manhattan Beach in search of an opportunity as a beach player. It’s worked out as well as she could have hoped. With the help of Ross — a prolific AVP tour performer with Olympic experience — Klineman is positioned to make it to the stage that’s for so long eluded her.
“The two of them I think are not just gonna be there, but that dream of the Olympic gold I think is in their grasp,” Kessy said. “They have so much work to do as a team, but sometimes I look at them and I watch them and I’m like, ‘Wow. They’re going to be amazing.’”
Still, Klineman reminds those around her that her beach volleyball success isn’t everything.
Perhaps more important to her, she said, is an increased sense of personal satisfaction. Her switch to the sand brought her five minutes from her parents’ house after years of long-distance phone calls. And her work with Ross and Kessy —renowned international stars — provides an inside look at the game, rekindling her love for the sport.
“The vibe that we have is really good, it’s enjoyable,” Klineman said. “It’s not just, ‘Oh, we’re doing well.’ I feel like we’re truly having a great time working and chasing a goal together.”