High (school) expectations: Manhattan Beach Olympic gold medalist Alix Klineman
Those who knew Alix Klineman at Mira Costa High School would have been surprised if she hadn’t won gold at the Tokyo Olympics
by Paul Teetor
(Reprinted from Easy Reader, Nov. 2006)
When Alix Klineman received the Gatorade Player of the Year award in November 2006, prior to the Bay League Championship game against rival Redondo Union, she never once raised her arms — or the plaque — to acknowledge the applause that made Fisher Gymnasium rock like Staples Center after a Kobe Bryant dunk.
It was Klineman’s house, all right. But on this night it was a house divided, half full of fans who worship her running serve and flying smash, and half full of Redondo fans who had endured endless heartbreak over the previous four years thanks to her lethal hands, smart shots and spring-loaded legs.
For one brief, shining moment they were united in a standing ovation that transcended their fierce backyard rivalry.
As the crowd roared, Klineman accepted the plaque from the Gatorade guy. Staring down at the gym floor while every eye in the house was on her, she walked to the very top tier of the spectator stands and handed it to her parents, Mike and Kathie Klineman.
Surprised by the spontaneous gesture, her father flashed a half-smile and held the plaque up in the air for the crowd to see. Alix made her way back down to the court, eager to get back to what she’s all about: leading her team to victory.
The pumped-up crowd continued its standing ovation, howling its appreciation for her four years of soaring smashes, clever passes, give-up-your-body digs and more kills than Eastwood, Stallone and Schwarzenegger combined.
These were her neighbors, her peers, her fans and her long-time rivals, and they knew her well. They were also honoring her for strong family ties, for her incredible work ethic, for somehow finding the time to remain a straight-A student, and for four years of exactly what she was displaying at that very moment: grace under pressure.
“She always makes the right decisions,” said Redondo coach Tommy Chaffins. “It’s innate. I think it’s something she was born with.”
He should know: over the preceding four years, Chaffins and his Redondo team had faced Klineman and Mira Costa 12 times, and 12 times Redondo has tasted increasingly bitter defeat even as the Seahawks clawed their way up to becoming the top challenger to Mira Costa’s South Bay supremacy.
“She’s arguably the greatest high school player ever,” Chaffins said. “I always root for her — except when she’s playing us.”
Don’t put me In, coach
Alexa Altamura, the Mustang’s senior co-captain along with Klineman, has been playing volleyball with Klineman since the fourth grade. And even though Klineman says Kobe Bryant is her favorite athlete while Altamura cites Shaquille O’Neal, she still considers Klineman a close personal friend.
“I like Shaq’s personality, while she likes Kobe’s dedication and work ethic,” Altamura said. “We work it out.”
She said there was another aspect of Klineman’s complex personality at work during the Player-of-the-Year award ceremony: her intense shyness and strong sense of privacy.
“Alix hates attention,” she said. “Even when they make an announcement over the PA system in class and her name is mentioned, she’ll kind of shrink into her desk. She’s always been that way.”
Mustang coach DaeLae Aldrich said it was a struggle to get Klineman to accept the Gatorade Player-of-the-Year award at a pre-game ceremony instead of just accepting it privately.
“When I told her about it, she said ‘oh no, coach, please don’t do that,’” Aldrich said. “She didn’t want any part of any ceremony. But I told her she had to do it, so she finally said OK.”
Klineman admitted she has had a hard time dealing with all the attention coming her way over the last two years, as many volleyball experts have taken to calling the 6-foot-4 outside hitter the best prep player in American history.
The full house at the regular season finale — the Mustangs went on to finish 30-0 and win a third straight state title — included the head coaches from Texas and UCLA, both among the five finalists still seeking her signature on a scholarship offer.
Earlier that week Klineman had been named the national Prep athlete of the week by Sports Illustrated, which dubbed her The Terminator, thanks to some SI editor apparently doing the Time Warp.
But somehow the 1984 film title was appropriate. In today’s I-me-mine age of look-at-me, look-at-my-video-reel athletic narcissism, the 16-year-old Klineman is decidedly old school: no gold chains, no tattoos, no piercings, no talking smack to the opposition, no posse — not even an entourage, except her family — and no arm waving victory dances or bragging disguised as healthy self-esteem.
“I don’t mind attention directed towards my team, but I guess I don’t really like the personal attention,” she confessed in an interview last week. “When someone compliments me I feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I would rather just be left alone to play volleyball.”
After four years of watching Klineman grow into a superstar and deal with all the attention and pressures, Aldrich said she has handled it well.
“Alix is the most humble person I’ve ever known,” she said. “That’s no act. She’s not aloof, just shy and private.”
Klineman is an object of fascination and endless discussion not just because of her talent, her skills or even her height — she came into Mira Costa as a 6-foot-2 freshman and disputes Redondo-based rumors that she is now 6-foot-6 — or even because she projects as a sure-thing professional superstar on the same level as Kerri Walsh and Misty May.
“Actually, she’s better than Kerri Walsh was at this age because, remember, she really should be just a junior in high school now (because she skipped a year),” said her club coach, Joy McKenzie-Feurbinger. “The sky’s the limit for her, depending on how hard she works.”
No, the most remarkable thing about Klineman is that at the tender age of 16 she seems so amazingly, unbelievably perfect: a natural-born-superstar with cover girl looks, Ivy-League brains, a close-knit, supportive family and buckets of universal praise from friends and foes alike.
That’s why Costa insiders continue to predict she will ultimately choose Stanford or UCLA.
Of course what looks like effortless grace, power and speed on the court combined with rare tactical instincts is actually the result of years of hard work and dedication off the court.
“She’s a perfectionist who will work on some fine point over and over and over until she gets it exactly right,” said Chaffins, who first spotted her as a 9-year-old tagging along with her older brother Max at a volleyball clinic at the Hermosa Beach pier. “Technically, her footwork is perfect, which is amazing for someone that tall. Her agility is off the charts, but it’s also because she worked on it so hard and pays incredible attention to details. She understood that movement was a potential weakness for someone her size.”
In the beginning
Klineman has not always been so perfect. She was late developing her volleyball skills, she has gotten at least one B in both math and English, she got in trouble for throwing a water balloon on a team trip to Hawaii, and she had a serious scheduling conflict before her sophomore season that almost led to her leaving the Mira Costa team.
“It’s all true,” Klineman said. “I’m not perfect, not even close. Are you kidding?”
Altamura laughed at the idea that her best friend might be perfect, although she understood how fans and rivals who don’t know her personally might see her that way.
She suggested it’s not that Klineman looks down at the world around her, it’s that the world looks up to Klineman — literally and figuratively.
“Beneath her perfect surface, Alix is very real and very down to earth,” Altamura said. “Once she gets to know you, she’ll let you know what her opinion is. And believe me she has very strong opinions.”
Altumurra said that in the beginning, way back in the fourth grade when she first met her on a club team called the Hot Waves, Klineman was a tall, skinny stick figure who was often among the last to play.
“The big thing back then was to serve over-handed, but she was the last player on our team to learn over-handed serving,” Altumurra said. “Looking back it seems so funny now, but she hadn’t grown into her body yet.”
Klineman laughed when asked about her early lack of skill development.
“It’s true,” she said. “I just wasn’t very coordinated back then.”
And there was another problem: volleyball wasn’t even her best — or favorite — sport.
At Robinson Elementary School — where she skipped first grade after transferring in from a Montessori School — her height advantage in basketball trumped her coltish tendency toward clumsiness.
“I found basketball a lot easier than volleyball,” she said. “I think basketball takes less coordination. Volleyball is a lot harder to learn.”
Altamura watched the Klineman legend grow while attending nearby Pacific Elementary School.
“She was a monster post player, the best insider player among all the kids, boys and girls,” she said. “No one could stop her.”
But even in that early hoop success there was a problem developing.
“I didn’t like all the physical contact,” Klineman said. “I’m tall and thin. I wasn’t built for all that banging. I kind of got beat up a lot.”
Club coach Joy McKenzie said that Klineman’s wiry frame continues to be a challenge as Klineman prepares for a college career and ultimately for a pro career.
“She has a strength issue,” McKenzie said. “She needs to work on weight training. She’s already begun lifting weights, so I‘m sure she’ll deal with it.”
Watching Big Brother
By the time Klineman entered Manhattan Beach Middle School, she had begun developing an interest in competitive volleyball thanks to her older brother Max, who later developed into a Mira Costa star and is now a varsity player at UC Santa Barbara.
When Chaffins spotted her as a 9-year-old while working with Max at the Hermosa Pier, he recognized extraordinary potential in the girl who told him she liked basketball better than volleyball.
“Her brother was very talented, but when I saw her my coach’s instinct said ‘Wow,’” Chaffins recalled. “She was just so tall and yet still so coordinated. Even when she was just walking you could see this was somebody who definitely had a great future in whatever sport she decided to focus on.”
Her transition from basketball to volleyball during sixth and seventh grade was a natural process that fed on itself.
“The better I got at volleyball, the more I liked it,” she said. “Pretty soon I was playing club volleyball with older kids.”
Chaffins played a key role in her early development. Her parents hired him for private lessons when she was 11.
“Her parents do a wonderful job of supporting her without pushing her,” Chaffins said. “They like to nurture her, and that has allowed her to reach her fullest potential.”
In this case she wanted to work on her blocking footwork.
“That’s when I was struck by her determination to be great,” he said. “You can’t teach that.”
Altamura said she saw another quantum leap in improvement in Klineman when she joined the Long Beach club team run by Joy McKenzie-Feurbinger.
“Once she started working with Joy she got so good I realized she could be a superstar,” Altamura said. “She just kept getting better and better, catching up to everybody and then leaving us behind.”
Klineman’s late surge of improvement was so under-the-radar that Costa coach Aldrich insists she had never heard the name Alix Klineman until she saw her at varsity tryouts her freshman year.
“We don’t recruit and I try to stay away from the club circuit, so I did not know of Alix Klineman,” she said. “That’s the God’s honest truth.”
In 21 years of coaching, Aldrich had never started a freshman and kept her in for the entire game.
She broke that policy for Klineman.
“She was a little shaky as a passer, because her backcourt skills were not as finely honed as her front court skills,” Aldrich said. “But we pushed her to play all game because we could see her agility , her speed and her overall coordination was amazing for her age. And she’s not just tall, she has great hops. The girl can hang.”
No Roman holiday
After a great freshman season, Klineman and Aldrich faced their first serious conflict.
Klineman has always had a fascination with Italy, and when she won a summer beach tournament that entitled her to spend a week in Italy playing in an international tournament she was thrilled at the prospect. She would have to miss the first week of practice but no games.
Aldrich, however, took a hard line. She told Klineman she would not be excused from practice and if she went to Italy she would not be on the team that season.
“I told her if you’re going to play for me, I need this program to be important to you,” she said. “I told her you’ve got the beach for the rest of your life, and you can go to Italy any time except during our season. But I have to treat you like everyone else.”
A stunned Klineman said she would have to think it over.
“After she leaves, I’m crossing my fingers and my feet, hoping I haven’t made a terrible mistake,” Aldrich said. “But I hold my kids accountable, and I felt this was the right thing to do, whether she was a scrub or a superstar.”
The next day, Aldrich said, Klineman came to her office and said she would not go to Italy. But she clearly was not happy.
“After she walked out I jumped up and down and hugged Lisa,” she said, referring to long-time assistant coach Lisa Arce-Zimmerman.
Aldrich was quick to point out that was the only major conflict between the coach and her precocious superstar.
“When I listen to the horror stories from other programs about their so-called superstars,” she said, “I realize how lucky we have been with Alix.”
For her part, Klineman admitted it was a difficult moment for a 14-year-old girl just starting a big-time athletic career.
“It was a very tough decision,” she said. “I had to weigh all the pros and cons. But in the end, of course I was not going to miss the season.”
The little instigator
Klineman began her first varsity season playing both middle blocker and outside hitter. But by the end she was playing primarily OH, and dominating games with her trademark combination of smart-bomb smashes and off-speed dinks, dips and tips that leave defenders diving on the floor and digging in desperation, alternately overpowered and out-smarted.
“She’s like a power pitcher in baseball with a great changeup and slider,” said Chaffins. “She can read the defense and hit the right shot almost every time. She has wonderful court vision.”
She carried that dominance over to her sophomore season, and along with fellow sophomore stars Lauren Bledsoe, and Altamura, led the Mustangs to their first state title since the 1980s.
“We hadn’t won state for 15 years, so that was pretty special,” Klineman said. “I’ll never forget that.”
Altamura, however, said her fondest memory from 2004 was an incident in Hawaii when the team was staying on the 10th floor of a hotel. The girls had too much energy and not enough to do. Sure enough an early morning water balloon fight broke out that led to everyone, including Klineman, getting soaked.
The next thing she saw, Altamura said, was Klineman coming out of her room with a bucket of ice water.
“She hid behind this wall so she could throw water in their face, but she missed them and accidentally poured ice water all over the security guard on the bottom floor,” she said.
Aldrich said that was when she got dragged into it.
“I got a phone call from security. I couldn’t believe it because I had never had any trouble with Alix or any of those sophomore girls,” she said. “So I immediately called their room.”
Meanwhile, other security guards knocked on Altamura’s door and started questioning her.
“Alix had no idea we’re talking to security, so she leans over and throws some water balloons that land on the security guy down below,” she said. “So he calls up and now our security guy starts freaking out and pounding on Alix’s door at the same time that coach calls.”
Eventually, it was filed under girls-will-be-girls, especially when they’re in Hawaii for a big-time volleyball tournament. And once security let everybody off the hook and Aldrich delivered her obligatory lecture, it turned into a team-wide bonding experience.
“That was the most fun of their entire lives,” Aldrich said. “I couldn’t stay mad at them.”
“We were really scared because the hotel manager was outraged and coach was really mad,” she said. “But looking back on it now I wouldn’t have changed anything.”
“Even though we won the tournament, that was the highlight of the whole trip,” she said.
“That story is never going to fade from my memory.”
And, she said, it revealed a more playful side of Klineman.
“It was so much fun even though we almost got kicked out because of Alix,” she said. “She’s a little instigator sometimes.”
The Hitter always goes for it
In 2005, Klineman led Mira Costa to another CIF crown and another state title, setting up 2006’s bid for a three-peat. She also led Mira Costa to two Bay League wins over Redondo as well as two more close, hard-fought wins over the Seahawks in both the CIF finals and the southern section playoffs for the state title.
Chaffins said losing that string of heartbreakers to a team led by someone like Klineman made it at least a bit tolerable.
“I’ve always seen her conduct herself with the highest degree of class,” he said. “I‘ve never seen her show up a teammate or an opponent, or be not supportive of a teammate. Here she is arguably the greatest prep player ever and while you have to have an air of confidence, I’ve never seen her act cocky in a negative manner. You can tell she’s the woman in charge out there, but she’s never arrogant or belittling.”
Klineman said she hopes to play pro volleyball one day and is interested in journalism beyond that. But she is determined to take each step of her journey one day at a time and make sure she wins today before worrying about winning tomorrow.
She let slip a competitive secret when she recalled the end of a private lesson she had with Chaffins when she was 11 years old.
“There’s one piece of advice from him that I’ve never forgotten,” she said. “I always think about it on game points.”
They were doing a drill in which Chaffins set her up with a potential kill and she had to find an opening on his side of the net. The session would not end until she scored 10 straight times.
Eventually she got to nine straight, and on the last one she tipped it for a tenth straight winner.
Finally, the practice was over.
But Chaffins wasn’t happy.
“Tommy told me you never tip on game points,” she said. “Since then I always go for the smash.” ER
Contact: paul email@example.com. ER
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