Sports

Local athletes to have a say in Olympic gold medal quest

 

Stanford senior Maggie Steffens remembers her older teammates guiding her through the ordeal of preparing for the Olympics. Now an elder stateswoman of the team, she's helping guide the new faces as the United States women's Olympic water polo team prepares to defend its gold medal in Rio.

Mackenzie Fischer is one of those newcomers. Like Steffens, she delayed her freshman year at Stanford to train with the national team. One of her favorite memories is joining a group of fellow water polo enthusiasts at a restaurant in Laguna Beach to watch the 2012 London Olympics gold medal match against Spain.

Fischer had a personal connection in that Stanford grad Annika Dries, who attended Wednesday night's festivities, was also a Laguna Beach resident and had given her private lessons.

Menlo Park resident KK Clark and Stanford grad Kiley Neushul are also new to this year's Olympic team, though both were on the U.S. national program's radar four years ago. They each helped their respective colleges -- Clark attended UCLA -- win national titles.

Clark played for U.S. Olympic coach Adam Krikorian, who coached the Bruins to five consecutive NCAA titles through 2009, and seven overall, before joining the national program.

Krikorian, a native of Mountain View and still a Bay Area sports fan, remains the only college coach to win at least three consecutive national championships.

Stanford's John Tanner, for whom Neushul played, has won back-to-back titles on two occasions and owns five championships overall.

Cardinal grad Melissa Seidemann, who returns for her second Olympics, came to water polo rather late, at age 12. She was more a swimmer, who was guided into water polo by a former Cal player.

Krikorian was tasked with replacing nine Olympians from 2012 and he's been able to blend youth with experience. The oldest is 29-year-old Courtney Mathewson. Kami Craig just turned 29 and Seidemann is 26. All three, along with Steffens, are returnees from London.

Aria Fischer, at age 17, is the youngest. Mackenzie is 19 and Maddie Musselman is 18.

Clark is two days younger than Seidemann and Sami Hill and Kaleigh Gilchrist are both 24. Steffens, at age 23, is the seventh-oldest and sixth-youngest.

That's a pretty good mix if one of your veterans is at the median age. The team is old enough to have plenty of international experience and young enough to infuse renewed energy.

Two others, Stanford grad Ashley Grossman and Cardinal senior Gabby Stone, are also full-time members of the 17-player U.S. senior national team. Olympic rosters are limited to 13.

The five players with local connections sat down with local media before Wednesday night's "Rumble to Rio," at Stanford, the final match on American soil before the team departs for Rio, to talk over all things Olympics.

Melissa Seidemann

She says: "There are a lot of changes from four years ago. We want to keep our preparation consistent for the Olympics, which require the highest intensity, the highest focus, the highest everything.

"My role on the team has changed. I'm in a position of leadership more than I have been.

"Youth is a blessing. The girls have energy.

"I think we all feel a loyalty to our schools, but we're family with each other.

"Spain has grown to be one of our greatest rivals, consistently over the past four years."

Her water polo genealogy: Sisters Lauren (UC Davis) and Natalie (USA Cadet training team).

Extra: Played professionally in Spain after the 2012 London Olympics. "I got to know members of the national team and they brought me into their homes."

Kiley Neushul

She says: "It's been a great road for me. The time at Stanford was just spectacular for me. We had some of the best and smartest players and coaches. It was a treat to come to Avery every day to train hard.

"The Olympics feel like a completely new quadrennial; a brand new slate.

"Every day when you wake up, you have to remember how you got to that point.

Her water polo genealogy: Mother Cathy played for UC Santa Barbara and is a long-time coach at the college, high school and club level. Father Peter was a two-time All-American at UC Santa Barbara. Sister Jamie played at Stanford. "I've been around older water polo players since I was little," Kiley said. "I've been exposed to great players and coaches."

Extra: Peter Neushul is the author of "World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing." Yes, she surfs. She's planning a trip with Gilchrist for after the Olympics.

Mackenzie Fischer

She says: "I didn't give it much thought. It's not going to change anything here. Stanford will always be here for me. This is the chance of a lifetime." -- On deferring her freshman year at Stanford.

"At first we go thrown into it. Then they took us under their wings. You have to earn respect, but it's said the game doesn't know your age. There's no reason an 18-year-old can't play as well as the older players."

"It's crazy. It's getting closer and feels more real. I'm a little nervous."

Her water polo genealogy: Father Erich was a 1992 Olympian; younger sister Aria is an Olympic teammate.

Extra: Won the Junior Olympic national title with the Laguna Beach 12U team. The title game was played at Stanford.

KK Clark

She says: "Everyone on this team has the ability to take over a game. I think of the Warriors and they have the four: Stephen, Klay, Draymond and now Durant. When I look at myself, I take inspiration from them. I'm not going to take shots away from our scorers but each role is just as important. I'm going to create open water, move a lot.

"We all respect each other and we all push each other. I try to be the glue in a relationship. I hate confrontation."

Her water polo genealogy: Aunt Marybeth Dorst was a 1980 swimming Olympian; Uncle Chris Dorst was 1980, 1984 Olympian; Sisters Zizi and Christie played water polo at UC Santa Barbara; Cousins Lindsay (Cal), Rebecca (UCLA) and Emily (Stanford) all played in college. "I thought if my aunt and uncle were Olympians, it would be in my blood. So, yeah, (at Sacred Heart Prep) I played JV for two years."

Extra: USC grad Kami Craig, now one of her closest friends, scared her at first. "I felt she was untouchable for a year. I was really nervous. We've come a long way to get to know each other."

Maggie Steffens

She says: "It's definitely different; different role, different team, same goal.

"It's fun to have done this before and know how special it is. I had great role models, great leaders in Brenda Villa, Heather Petri, Betsy Armstrong ... all women who accomplished so much and who helped me grow. I want to do what I had done for me. I want to facilitate greatness. There's no place I'd rather be than expecting to be great.

"I'm excited to be going back to Stanford and to have 'Fish' come with me is even better.

"The best part is the team work. When this team is focused and really in it, it's the best water polo I have ever played. It's fun to watch. It's the unselfishness we have."

Her water polo genealogy: Older sister Jessica was both a Stanford and Olympic teammate. Large family of relatives who have achieved success in sports, most of them in water polo; Maureen O'Toole, founder of Diablo Water Polo Club and, at age 39, a 2000 Olympian. "My dad had a connection with her and we joined with her right away. She's a huge part of this. She's one of the best water polo players in the world, man or woman. It just wasn't the skills but also mental toughness and learning respect."

Extra: Met her idol, Mia Hamm, and was immediately star-struck. "I have a '9' jersey and I did a book report on her. I asked her about expectations and she said 'You have to love that pressure. Take it and run with it.'"

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