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End of an Era

May 5, 2022

FOR THE PAST seven years, the United States has dominated women's water polo, winning every major global title, including two Olympics and three world championships.

The run began in 2015, the same year sisters Makenzie Fischer and Aria Fischer joined the national team.

This week at the NCAA Championship in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Makenzie Fischer, Stanford's all-time leading scorer with 277 goals, will retire from water polo at the age of 25. Aria Fischer will play her final season at Stanford next year.

When U.S. national team coach Adam Krikorian considers his team without the Fischers, he considers the questions that were solved when they arrived.

"They're irreplaceable," Krikorian said. "They're two of the all-time greats. And they will go down as just that, as two of the best to ever play their positions, and two people who had a tremendous impact on our program.

"They'll forever be a part of a team that many would say is the best to ever play the game. Seven years of dominance, and they've been an enormous piece to that."

Krikorian said their impact is deeper than just their performances in the water.

"They pushed the rest of us, staff included, to be better, to be smarter, to be tougher, to be more resilient," he said. "I certainly can't thank them enough, and I know I speak on behalf of everyone in the program."

At Stanford, their impact is just as great. Makenzie, a sixth-year senior, will attempt to win her third national crown. Aria, a redshirt junior, attempts to win her second. The top-seeded Cardinal opens NCAA play on Friday with a quarterfinal. The final is Sunday.

Can the Fischers win one more title together?

 

Aria and Makenzie Fisher. Photos by Bob Drebin/ISIphotos.com.
 
* * *
 
AT SENIOR DAY on April 16, Makenzie Fischer was honored alongside three of her teammates – Chloe Harbilas, Lauren Indart and Madison Stamen. Fischer, from the Laguna Beach (Calif.) class of 2015, was a high school senior when they were freshmen. She is the oldest player that John Tanner, the 25th-year Dunlevie Family Director of Women's Water Polo, has ever coached at Stanford.

"Most of the time, I don't really notice the age difference," Makenzie said. "I really love everyone on the team and we get along. But other times I'm very acutely aware of it, just being at different points in our lives.

"I've been dubbed the 'grandma' on the team, for good reason. In terms of Senior Day, everyone was joking that they never thought this day would come for me. At certain points in my career, it didn't feel like it was ever that close."

There has been a Stanford connection since their father Erich, a 1992 water polo Olympian, was a two-time All-American and two-time NCAA champion at Stanford, with 197 career goals. As an assistant, Tanner coached Erich as a freshman and on the '92 Olympic team. Erich met his wife, Leslie, at Stanford, where she played club water polo, and Erich's brother, Martin, was a Stanford teammate of Tanner's.

That's why there are plenty of photos in the Fischer archives of young Makenzie and Aria walking through the Quad, posing at Avery Aquatic Center, or standing in front of the admissions office with their fingers crossed. Still, Tanner didn't take anything for granted when he landed Makenzie – scorer of 456 high school goals – and Aria, two years later.  

"The familiarity with Stanford, and Stanford water polo, was something we felt pretty good about," Tanner said. "But they're also really independent-minded, each of them. You can't assume anything."

By the time they reached Stanford, each was an international veteran. Aria, 15 at the 2016 Rio Games, is believed to be the youngest American Olympic gold medalist in any team sport. Makenzie was only 17. Both were in high school when they joined the national team and were transported to training and games throughout the Southland by Erich and Leslie.  

 

The Fischer family on Senior Day. Photo by John P. Lozano/ISIphotos.com.

Krikorian was looking for answers. The U.S. had lost to Spain, 9-6, in the quarterfinals of the most recent World Championships, in 2013, and was looking to develop young players heading into Rio.

Though Makenzie was an offensive center, she had the frame, speed, and agility to be a great two-meter defender, and that's where Krikorian saw her greatest value.

Knowing her potential, and understanding the need to develop quickly, "there was no better way to be thrown to the fire than defending the strongest and meanest women there are," Krikorian said. "I knew that she had not only the ability, but deep down had the toughness to rise to the occasion. She certainly did that."

The test came in a quarterfinal rematch with Spain at the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia. A major concern was the ability to contain Maica Garcia Godoy, the reigning European player of the year and world's best center, who was especially effective against the U.S. two years earlier. This time, she was defended by Fischer.

"She absolutely changed the game," Krikorian said. "Her ability to stay in front of Maica, to use her speed and her length to defend, and then her speed and aggressiveness to provide opportunities on our counterattack and get into our offense …  

"For everyone who was around in 2013, we knew that was a glaring weakness. So, to see it in action in 2015, and to see the upper hand that we now had over them was an enormous lift for our group."

Garcia was held to one goal in an 8-5 U.S. victory that catapulted the Americans to their first world title in six years. And, as Krikorian noted, "we haven't lost a major event since."

 

 Makenzie and Aria Fischer, Olympic champions (2021). Photo by Jeff Cable/USA Water Polo.

 
* * *
 
MAKENZIE AND ARIA, roommates for the past three years, are two years apart in age and vastly different in personality. Makenzie is reserved, Aria is outgoing. Makenzie is stoic in the pool, Aria is intense.

"There's just so much homogeneity in what they've done and yet they couldn't be more different people," Tanner said.

In 2015, Krikorian met with Aria at a Laguna Beach Starbucks. He was considering bringing Aria on to the team but concerned about her age and whether she could handle the pressure.

"I wanted to be very careful," he said. "I was nervous about placing high expectations on her."

Toward the end of the meeting, Krikorian talked to Aria about what she needed to work on. Trying to be as transparent as possible, Krikorian told her that her chances of making the 2016 Olympic team were nearly impossible.

Aria looked Krikorian in the eye and glared.

"Her face …" he said. "It sticks in my mind today. I felt like she wanted to reach across the table and strangle me. Right then and there, you could see the determination and the passion and fire inside. "I knew at that moment she was going to do whatever she could to make it. I left that meeting thinking to myself, Man, this may be possible."

Aria may have been alone in her belief, but not for long.

"Many people thought we were crazy, thought she was crazy, because she didn't have the physicality at the time," Krikorian said. "But clearly, from Day One, she had a determination that was unmatched. She got pushed around for a year or two but put so much time and effort into getting stronger and developing her skills. Combined with that amazing determination and will to win, there was no turning back."

Though not a prolific goal-scorer, Aria became one of the best centers in the world -- earning exclusions, "and just creating havoc with her feistiness, toughness, and unwillingness to back down," Krikorian said. "She's one of those players you absolutely hate to play against, but love playing with, because of her competitive fire."

In the Tokyo Olympic final against Spain, Aria was a defensive force, blocking shot after shot as the U.S. earned a 14-5 victory.

"They're both complete, all-around amazing players," Tanner said. "They have the technical skills to play anywhere in the pool, play any position, and have the confidence to do that."

Their collegiate careers have been full of stops and starts, with two years away -- in 2020 and 2021 with the national team. But they've always been committed to playing four years at Stanford and taking in all the school has to offer.

 

Makenzie Fischer. Photo by John P. Lozano/ISIphotos.com.

Makenzie, the 2019 Peter J. Cutino Award winner as the nation's best collegiate player, is a mechanical engineering major. For her capstone project, she helped design a hexagonal roof for modular refugee housing. Working with an organization that sought to create more dignified living conditions for Syrian refugees in Jordan, Fischer's group was tasked with creating a roof that could be interconnected to accommodate additional family members and easily shipped and assembled.

"They really liked our roof solution," Makenzie said. "They're working with a manufacturer in Jordan to get up to speed on a first prototype and test. They're moving forward with the idea and they're excited about it."

Aria is an English major with a focus in creative writing. As a sophomore, she wrote a regular lifestyle column in the Stanford Daily. She's most interested in writing television screenplays and, down the road, becoming an author.

"One of the cool things about Stanford is that I feel like I was exposed to so many other things outside of sport," Makenzie said. "I love water polo and playing on the national team and the experiences I've had there, but I'm really excited about getting to explore some of the other interests I've become aware of at Stanford, like design and mechanical engineering.

"And I love camping, and getting the chance to be more spontaneous and go on some adventures. Who knows? Maybe hike the Pacific Crest Trail."

Aria, alongside Makenzie for an interview at Avery, listened and laughed. "I can see the title: 'Makenzie Fischer Retires From Water Polo, Going to Hike the PCT.'"

 

Even as kids, Aria (left) and Makenzie seemed destined for Stanford.

 
* * *
 
MAKENZIE IS NOT especially active on her Instagram account. But nearly all of her posts are from nature -- a hike or a drive or a camping trip. And many of them include a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Makenzie holds the sandwich in the lower left corner with two bites taken off the upper right corner. There are PB&J photos at the Grand Tetons, Arches, Glacier, Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon. In front of mountain lakes, waterfalls, oceans, and wooded creeks.

She swears it's not the same sandwich. "That would be gnarly," she said.

"I don't know why," said Makenzie. "I always have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my lunches, and one day I just took a picture of it with the background. I thought it looked cool. Now, I do it every time."

Whether Makenzie is hiking the PCT or taking photos of peanut butter sandwiches, the water polo world will be all the poorer.

"I know personally that I've never set against a better defender than Makenzie," Aria said. "She left a legacy with the national team. She's one of the best defenders to ever play the game."

Makenzie, in turn, paid tribute to Aria.

"She literally strikes fear in opposing players," Makenzie said. "It happens to me sometimes when I'm guarding her in practice. I'll swim the opposite way to avoid her sometimes. She brings so much passion and energy to every single play, every single possession. She'll punish you for any mistake you make."

Krikorian emphasizes that each should be judged individually to fully appreciate their talents.

"You're never going to find someone like Makenzie again, who can do everything," he said. "And I'll be damned if you're going to find someone as competitive and driven and determined as Aria. I have a hard time envisioning someone who can do it better than those two."

As Makenzie prepared for her final week of competition, Aria voiced what many are thinking: "The sport of water polo will miss her when she's gone," Aria said.

The laughter that characterized much of the interview disappeared into seriousness for a moment.

"Thank you," Makenzie said.

"I'll miss her," said Aria, to no one in particular.