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at the Tokyo Olympics

Olympic water polo: USA women golden again

Aug 7, 2021
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

TOKYO – With 14 goals and 5 against, the U.S. women’s water polo team won its third consecutive Olympic gold medal on Saturday over Spain. In the far corner of the pool deck in Tokyo, some of the aces, extras, and staff hugged on bench, but the heart of the team was in the center of the pool, on the center line, in a central circle. The women who had played seven games to gold, churned their legs like egg beaters for 224 minutes over two weeks while getting dunked, pulled, and pummeled underwater – for the joy of slamming a yellow ball into a net – refused to take dry land. The red suits and white caps of Spain floated away one by one, and the navy-blue ring in the pool only grew. Soon, the entire U.S. squad found each other to celebrate in the floating mass.

A day from now, when record book closes on women’s Olympic water polo for another three years, the U.S. team will be remembered for its consistency – never missing a medal in the 21-year Olympic history of the game. STANFORD's Maggie Steffens will be remembered for adding 18 goals in Tokyo to break and extend the women’s Olympic scoring record to 56.

And all the headlines will be about the three-peat by a team that featured a dozen Pac-12 players. 

But that’s not the story. 

“Everyone wasn’t a part of the three,” head coach Adam Krikorian (UCLA) said after the game. Aside from Krikorian, Steffens, center Melissa Seidemann (STANFORD) and some staff, “The reality is, this is the very first gold medal for this team. Every team is different. And they’re all special. 

“So, honestly, I don’t want to talk about it very much – because it’s [about] this one. It’s that team. It’s those 13 women out there that worked their tails off to make that happen,” he said.

“Every single one of them… they have their own story,” he said.

Very few of those stories are about defending gold, coping with pressure, or other tired athletic themes. They are about life, death, hard hits, and near misses. As a result, Krikorian said before the tournament began, “We take a humble approach. That's been one of our strengths. We go into every game knowing that we can be beaten. In fact, maybe there's a good chance.”

In the Tokyo Olympic pool, it proved to be true. The U.S. was beaten by Hungary (the eventual bronze medalist), 10-9, in the third game of round robin. It was pressed by the team representing the Russian Olympic Committee in the semifinal tied at 11 late in the fourth quarter, until the US scored four unanswered goals to prevail 15-11 and advance to the gold-medal game.

“It put us through a lot of stress and a lot of adversity and when you go through something like that and you get through on the other side, it gives you so much confidence,” Krikorian said about the semifinal, but the extrapolation was clear. “So often, we want confidence given to us. But the true stuff, the really great stuff, is built through adversity.”

The U.S. players had seen plenty, dating back to the last Olympics. Eight players in Tokyo could still remember the August day in 2016 when Krikorian received news that his older brother Blake died of heart attack at 48, just as the Rio Games were about to open. The team urged the coach to fly home to mourn, and when Krikorian came back, an hour before the first game, he found out that the mother of his center, Melissa Seidemann, had a stroke. Before leaving Brazil, Seidemann’s mom had a second one. Eleven months ago, she had a third and died.

In October 2017, in the midst of her mother’s travails, Seidemann went to Las Vegas Strip for a country music festival with teammates and friends. Thirty minutes after she left, a man in a hotel shot and killed 60 people and wounded 411 more. Teammate Alys Williams (UCLA) had stayed to hear Jason Aldean, and soon, Williams and her boyfriend were running through bullets, seeking shelter in a casino. Just 19 months earlier, Williams missed a train in Brussels en route to an Olympic qualifier in Holland. Had she been prompt, she would have been at the station where a suicide bomber killed 20 and wounded 106.  And at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, after the U.S. won its third straight gold medal, Williams had a third near miss when she left a nightclub 45 minutes before a balcony collapsed and killed two South Koreans and injured 17. Among those affected were Tokyo teammates Kaleigh Gilchrist (USC), Paige Hauschild (USC), and 2020 men’s Olympian Johnny Hooper (CALIFORNIA). Gilchrist’s left leg was in bad shape. A US team staff member made a tourniquet and another 2020 Olympian, Hannes Daube, carried her to the street to get an ambulance. It took doctors 12 hours of surgery and 100 stitches to mend three cut muscles.

After rehabbing 12 hours a day for five months, Gilchrist was back in the pool, but her scars remained.

“I think about it every day; it’s constantly on my mind,” she said after training one day in December 2019. “I got a second chance at life.”

“It’s a heck of a story, you guys, a heck of a story,” Krikorian said of Gilchrist, the former Trojan. “You don't know, unless you were actually there watching it day in and day out. There's a ton of highly inspiring stories on our team, not just Kaleigh,” he said. “Unfortunately, they're not thrust in the media limelight, like some other sports. But I'll tell you what, these women are as badass as it gets. I would put these women up against any team in the world in any sport.”

The strength they draw from each other is unshakeable.

“Alone, there are many things you can't do,” Steffens said, “but together, the impossible is possible. For us, it's all about the circle, it's all about the team. All of our hands are in. There's not one hand out.

“We kept coming out of [every challenge] stronger, stronger together. Today was just a show of who we are as a team. We stick together, we rise up and we thrive in those moments. It was amazing to see the balance, and the full team effort.  You could see it from every single player on our team.”

Nine players scored in the gold-medal game, and Ashleigh Johnson blocked 73% of the shots, and USC’s Amanda Longan blocked one more in the fourth quarter.

“That’s what it’s about,” Steffens said. “It’s about the unit that we build, the unit that we create, and that’s where the magic lies. I’m really grateful to be a part of it and show the world that magic that we’ve created as a circle on the team.”