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U.S. women’s water polo climbing mountains, coming together with gold medal at stake

U.S. women’s water polo faces a tough test against Italy for the Olympic gold medal, but that will be nothing compared to its off-season workouts.

RIO DE JANEIRO — To understand why the U.S. women’s water polo team is so badass, it’s necessary to look not in the pool but toward the heavens. Over the last year the players have done a series of team-building exercises, and it should come as no surprise that these visions of powerful femininity don’t sit around watching Pretty In Pink, or head to the salon for mani-pedis.

No, their activity of choice is powering up the tallest mountain they can find. They crushed Pike’s Peak (elevation 14,110 feet) and some nasty switchbacks in the foothills of Santa Barbara, but the real test came in the late spring, when the polo players took on the Manitou Incline, outside of the USOC headquarters in Colorado Springs. It evokes the climb into Mordor; the incline is 2,744 railroad ties that go straight up a vertiginous mountain, to nearly 9,000 feet of elevation. On the morning of the hike a freak storm blew in but, undaunted, the players bundled up and motored through the snow drifts.

“It’s the perfect metaphor, right?” says head coach Adam Krikorian. “It was a long journey, but we suffered as a team, and we overcame the challenge together.”

Step by step, these callow Americans have worked their way through the Olympic draw without losing a match, and now the mountain top is in sight: Friday’s gold-medal game against undefeated Italy, which will be played at 3:30 in Rio (2:30 p.m. ET.) The Americans have superior depth and the best ball skills this side of Magic Johnson, but, says defender Melissa Seidemann, “That’s not what decides these games. I think it’s all about the heart. It really comes down to your passion and your love for the game. And the girls on this team, we have a deep, burning, almost unhealthy desire to win.”

In Wednesday’s semifinals, overmatched Hungary tried to manhandle the American but badly underestimated their toughness and resolve; afterward the U.S. players giddily compared their various slashes and bruises, proud of these badges of honor. Italy is known for its oppressive defense and the Yanks are already spoiling for a fight. “It’s gonna be a war,” says center Kami Craig. “Bring it on!”

The women’s water polo players are among the most physically impressive athletes at the Games. On the U.S. roster of 13, eight women are 5' 11" or taller. They have as much brains as brawn: eight are current or former students at Stanford or UCLA, while goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson attends Princeton. Maddie Musselman will join some of her Olympic teammates at UCLA, where she begins her freshman year next month, but she’s already talking about attending medical school.

“We definitely have some dorks on this team,” says Craig. “We’re not afraid to nerd out.”

For Krikorian they are a coach’s dream—no concept is too esoteric, no scheme too sophisticated. Earlier this year Krikorian tried to institute a Kangaroo court but it quickly petered out.  “It wasn’t necessary because this group is so good at being accountable for everything that we do,” says Seidemann. “Whether it’s in the classroom or in the pool, we have all developed a lot of discipline. You own up to your mistakes and move on from them and everybody supports you when you make them.”

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The tone is set by team captain Maggie Steffans, who scored four goals against Hungary with a dazzling variety of shots. Krikorian calls her “probably the best player in the world.”

“She’s probably the best leader in the world,” Krikorian says. “She’s got just an incredible amount of energy. I’ve never known someone that is so nonstop. She’s so great at preparing and thinking down the line and loving all the little details that go into being successful. All of her teammates follow her example and that’s made my job much easier.”

Coming into Rio the biggest question mark for this team was its inexperience. It features nine first-time Olympians and three teenagers, and with an average age of 23 it is by far the youngest squad in U.S. history. But alongside Steffens’s powerful example the team has benefited from the veteran leadership of attacker Courtney Matthewson. At 5' 7" she is the shortest player on the team and one of the slowest swimmers, but she makes up for it with an iron will; Matthewson has had two shoulder surgeries and is currently playing with torn ligament in her elbow that will likely require Tommy John surgery. The kind of respect Matthewson commands was evident during the tense third quarter against Hungary. Krikorian sets the scene: “The energy in the building was off the charts. The game had gotten kind of hectic. I call timeout and everyone has something to say.  I don’t think anyone is making sense, including myself.”

At this point Matthewson spoke up: “Everyone take a deep breath and calm down.” The huddle went utterly silent, and the Americans showed great poise in closing out the game.

Craig had a crucial goal in that third period. She is a monster in the middle, the strongest player on a powerful team and the woman who charged up every mountain, leading the way for her teammates. She has uncanny ability to anticipate the run of play, which she credits in part to Pike’s Peak and the Incline and other forms of less painful team-building.

“That’s what’s most important, not only knowing each other in the water but knowing the ins and outs of each other outside of the water,” Craig says. “It’s loud in the pool, it's hard to hear.  When we get in tough situations we have to rely on each other, we have to rely on verbal cues and being able to read each other's emotions. That takes really investing in each other as people as well as players.”

The death of Krikorian’s brother Blake on the eve of these Games has added an emotional resonance to the pursuit of gold, and it’s the kind of poignant story that during the Olympics can suck in sports fans who didn’t previously know they cared about his sport. With the U.S. women’s soccer and beach volleyball teams coming up short at these Games, the women’s water polo team is well positioned to become America’s sweethearts should they claim a second straight gold medal. If that happens, Musselman could play the Alex Morgan role: smart, likeable and perky, with a telegenic smile. Her father Jeff spent four years in the big leagues pitching for the Mets and Blue Jays and now runs a sports management agency, so Maddie’s exposure to the big-time might explain why she seems so comfortable with a starring role at these Games. Like all of her teammates she is a missionary at heart, eager to promote the sport she loves.

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“Of course it would be a huge deal for us as individuals and as a team to win the gold medal but I think it would be bigger than any of us,” she says. “It would be so inspiring for the girls who are looking up to us, and hopefully we can create that dream where people want to be here in our shoes. I know that was what it was like for me four years ago watching this team play.” 

Given her youth and aw-shucks enthusiasm it’s natural to wonder if Musselman’s teammates ever haze her. She seemed taken aback by the question. “They would never do that!” she said. “They’re too loving.” She added another thought that cuts to the heart of this impressive team’s success: “They don’t just teach me about polo, they teach me about life.”