Mix swimming and basketball with soccer, toss in some wrestling for good measure, and you have a pretty good description of the exciting, fast-paced sport of water polo.
The U.S. women’s water polo team is ranked No. 1 in the world and is considered the favorite to bring home the gold medal at the Rio Olympics.
Since women’s water polo became an Olympic sport in 2000, the U.S. women have medaled every time, and they won their first gold in London four years ago.
The intense physicality of play “definitely makes for a really good sport to watch,” says center Kami Craig, 29. “It’s pretty exciting, watching people climb all over each other in the pool, and how we’re staying above water and keeping afloat, and then getting up big, taking shots.”
In late June, I watched the women practice at their home base in Los Alamitos, Calif., which also happens to be the military’s Joint Forces Training Base.
It was a discordant scene. At one end of the pool were Olympic athletes, preparing for a mammoth event on a world stage. And though it’s a military base, a passel of boisterous kids enjoying summer camp was at the other end of the pool, with water toys and slides.
“It’s screaming chaos,” acknowledges team coach Adam Krikorian. “It drives me crazy.”
The only positive Krikorian can muster is that it helps teach the women to stay focused and tune out distraction, a skill they’ll need in abundance in Rio.
To watch water polo is to see a frenzy of churn and motion. The players advance the ball quickly down the pool by swimming with it or throwing it. As they close in on the goal, they torpedo out of the water, launching themselves vertically and trying to slam the ball past the goalie into the net, at speeds up to 40 miles an hour.
That’s what you see on the surface. What you don’t see are the players’ legs, circling constantly underwater. The players aren’t allowed to touch the bottom of the pool. It’s deep water, anyway. They’re treading water the whole time, each leg circling in an opposite direction.
It’s a motion that has an excellent name: eggbeater.
When you want to propel your body up out of the water, “you bring your knees up while you eggbeater, and then you do a big breaststroke kick at the end,” explains goalie Ashleigh Johnson, 21.
Attacker Maddie Musselman, 18, adds: “Everybody does it differently. If someone’s really strong vertically, then you have really good legs eggbeatering up higher. You just spin your legs faster.”
Kami Craig chimes in, laughing, “I just will my body and throw everything upward, and hope I make it up!”
As for the wrestling component of water polo, the players tell me that kicking, dunking and grabbing are all a routine part of the game — but can also draw a foul. Case in point: I notice that the strap on goalie Johnson’s bathing suit is tied in front with a knot.
“Yeah,” she says matter-of-factly. “I got grabbed and it tore.”
There are just four players on this year’s Olympic roster returning from the 2012 Olympic champion team. Kami Craig is one of them, a team elder at age 29. This will be her third Olympics, and the memory of the gold medal ceremony in London is never far from reach.
“It’s the most emotional moment of my life,” Craig recalls. She chokes up as she describes it: “You’re hearing your national anthem played, you’ve got your family in the stands. I mean it’s — it’s what we’re out here for every single day, and it’s what we’re chasing right now. And I hope these girls get to experience the same thing.”
The roster for the Rio Games is young: the average age is 23. Everyone on the team is from California, except Johnson, who is also the only African-American. She’s from Miami, by way of Princeton.
Coach Krikorian says the women need to stay focused, confident and hungry.
“There’s gonna be seven other really good teams that are all gonna be gunnin’ for us,” he says. “It’s part of being American and wearing those three letters on your chest and representing the United States of America. People are out to get ya. Besides Americans, I don’t think anyone really wants to see us do well.”
The U.S. women’s water polo team begins play in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 9. The gold medal match is set for Aug. 19.