Two-Time Olympic Medalist April Ross

Two-Time Olympic Medalist April Ross Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

The Beach Volleyball Star Shares How She Honors Her Mother by Raising Cancer Awareness

by Ashley Hubbard

When she was a sophomore in college, beach volleyball star April Ross lost her mother to metastatic breast cancer. Nearly two decades after her indescribable loss, April remembers her mother, Margie, not only as a warrior but also as a source of strength and inspiration. To honor her mother’s memory, April is committed to using her platform as an Olympian to raise breast cancer awareness.

“The more voices involved in furthering awareness, the wider spread the message becomes, and knowledge is power,” April tells Coping® in a recent interview. “Early detection is important, but so is understanding all your treatment options, especially for those living with metastatic breast cancer. That’s why I’m proud to be partnering with Lilly to raise awareness of metastatic breast cancer and the treatment option Verzenio for those with certain types of the metastatic disease.”

Keeping things in perspective helps me stay grounded and focused on what is really important in this life.

Finding her passion in the sand

Though she’s now one of the most universally recognized beach volleyball players, April began her volleyball career indoors at her California high school. Her mother by her side.

“My mom was my emotional support system,” April shares. “She was determined to give me and my sister a childhood filled with opportunity. Regardless of how she was feeling, she signed us up for everything possible and drove us to the multiple practices we would have daily.”

The support from her mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer when April was in elementary school, was just one of the reasons April became the nation’s top indoor volleyball recruit, earning a scholarship to the University of Southern California. However, college was a bittersweet experience for April. It was during this time that she had to say goodbye to her mom after a 10-year fight with cancer, but on the other hand, she went on to lead USC to back-to-back NCAA Championships.

After graduation, April played professional volleyball in Puerto Rico for three years before deciding to step off the court for good. Or so she thought.

“I had no real aspirations to play beach volleyball professionally,” April admits. “But when my former college teammate called [and asked] me to play in some beach tournaments with her, I agreed because it sounded fun. And I’ve never looked back.”

Now, a two-time Olympic beach volleyball medalist – winning silver with Jennifer Kessy at the 2012 London Games and bronze with Kerri Walsh-Jennings at the 2016 Games in Rio – April is headed to her third straight Olympic Games this summer in Tokyo.

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Lessons learned from her loss

When she lost her mom in 2001, April remembers going through several phases of coping before finally landing on a
healthy and balanced perspective.

“At first I was extremely motivated to throw caution to the wind and live every moment as if there might not be another,” April shares. “As I began to realize that wasn’t the best way to live life, I started to focus more on creating meaningful experiences and investing in relationships.

A Brief Q&A with April Ross 

Was there anything in particular that helped you, as a child, cope with your mother’s diagnosis and illness? 

I think playing sports helped me a lot when coping with my mom’s diagnosis. It’s a common adage that you need to leave everything, besides volleyball, outside of the gym, and [doing that] gave me a reprieve from worrying about my mom. My teammates acted as built-in friends as well and provided me with a support system, which really helped.

Has your mother’s cancer experience led you to taking certain precautions in regard to breast cancer?

It has. I fought for a mammogram well before it was advised to start getting them. I now get both MRIs and mammograms once a year, and even though I was afraid of the results, I got my genes tested. I have researched how different environmental factors might contribute to breast cancer and do my best to lead a healthy and active lifestyle for that reason, even though I know there are no guarantees.

“I think her passing has always driven me to keep things in perspective; it allows me to see volleyball as only a game. If we win, I celebrate, but if we lose, it’s not the end of the world. Keeping things in perspective helps me stay grounded and focused on what is really important in this life.”

When asked what advice she would give to someone whose loved one is facing cancer, April exclaims, “Dive in!” Fitting words coming from a beach volleyball player.

“It was hard for me to face my mom’s diagnosis, and easier to ignore it, because it scared me,” she explains. “But I think leaning in and learning everything you can about cancer makes it less scary and allows you to be more emotionally supportive of a friend or family member going through it.”

Looking ahead

As she gears up for Tokyo, April contemplates what would happen if her mom could see her now.

“I think my mom would be proud of how I’ve come through a lot of the trials I’ve experienced in my life and be supportive of – and excited about – my volleyball career,” April reflects. “[If she were here], I would just tell her how much I miss her, and it would be so amazing to catch her up on everything. Just sharing my life with her would mean so much to me.”

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You can keep up with April Ross on Instagram and Twitter (@AprilRossBeach), as well as on Facebook (@AprilRossOfficial).

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2021.