From Stanford to Team USA, a water polo dynasty aims for a fourth Olympic title


MIAMI — The whistle blew and the women's water polo players from Team USA and Spain swam to the center of the pool. The referee threw the ball into the water. The players converged. The packed crowd at the Ransom Everglades Aquatic Center cheered.

Welcome to the swimming competition, a sprint race that opens every water polo match.

In a rematch of the Tokyo Olympic gold medal match, the United States beat Spain 9-7 in the first of five international friendlies for the Americans in December. It was the U.S. team's first competitive action since clinching its spot at the 2024 Paris Olympics when it won the Pan American Games gold medal over Canada on Nov. 4.

In Paris, the United States will try to continue its Olympic dominance. The Americans have won three consecutive gold medals and have not missed a podium finish since women's water polo became an Olympic sport in 2000, also earning two silver medals and one bronze.

But this is a different US team. Several players will be Olympic rookies, mixed with seasoned veterans like Maggie Steffens, Team USA's most decorated water polo player, who helped capture the third title.

One of those rookies is Ryann Neushul, who is trying to make her first Olympic roster. But she's not like most Olympic rookies. Her sisters, Kiley and Jamie, also played water polo and won Olympic gold. All three went to Stanford and achieved greatness on the Cardinal's illustrious women's water polo team.

By joining the Paris 2024 team, 23-year-old Ryann would fulfill a childhood dream: following in her sisters' footsteps and representing Team USA at the highest level in water polo, all in hopes of expanding the already unprecedented gold medal for the country. streak.

It's hard to escape water polo in the Neushul house. Ryann's parents, Cathy and Peter, played collegiate water polo at UC Santa Barbara. Peter was on UC Santa Barbara's only championship men's water polo team. In 2015, Cathy founded the “805 Water Polo Club” in Santa Barbara, which allows athletes ages 4 to 18 to develop as water polo players.

Being around the pool deck and in the water, Ryann caught the water polo virus. At 5-foot-6, she isn't the tallest player, but she makes up for it with her innate determination.

“Size doesn't matter in water,” Neushul said. “You get in the water and just play.”

Neushul admired his elder sisters. Watching them in the pool provided Ryann with the fundamental knowledge of what it took for her to be the best. Neushul remembers that when she was 10 years old she watched Jamie and Kiley play against Newport Harbor, a competitor from Dos Pueblos High School in the CIF Southern Section Division I championship game. Newport led Dos Pueblos, 7-2, just before halftime.

“They're not going to let us lose this game,” Ryann said of her sisters.

Dos Pueblos defeated Newport Beach that day, 8-7. Jamie, a high school freshman, scored the tying and winning goals.

Fast forward to Kiley's last NCAA championship game at Stanford. Ryann was there and witnessed the end of a stellar college career. He pointed out that Kiley received an exclusion (the term used in water polo for a foul), which gave Stanford an advantage. On the power play that followed, Kiley passed it to Jamie, who passed it back. Kiley lofted the ball past the goalkeeper to score.

Ryann was amazed. Kiley scored five of Stanford's seven goals en route to a 7-6 victory over UCLA. It was Kiley's third NCAA championship. For Ryann, it was a source of inspiration. He wanted to follow the path that his sisters traced. Be dominant athletes in water polo. To play in the most important games.

“I want the people in the stands to say, 'Ryann Neushul is not going to let his team lose by eight goals,'” Neushul said.

At 23 years old, Ryann Neushul is the latest Stanford star to make waves with the United States national team. She hopes to help Team USA win its fourth consecutive gold medal next summer. (Tyler Schank/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

John Tanner was sitting in his office at Stanford's Avery Aquatic Center, where he is entering his 27th season in charge of the Cardinal women's water polo team.

Mentioning Ryann Neushul makes Tanner smile. She still sees the girl on the pool deck watching her sisters or being the energy lightning rod at team events.

Tanner first spoke to Ryann on the pool deck at Cal State Bakersfield. She was 9 years old.

“She came up to me and said, 'Hi, JT, I'm Ryann,'” Tanner said, marveling at her intellect and confidence at such a young age.

Mentions their first NCAA championship win in 2019. It was a shutout, where players often pass the ball to create a scoring opportunity. Instead, Neushul took the ball, fired it into the net and scored. Without hesitation.

“The way we carry ourselves contributes to and even increases our confidence,” Tanner said. “She's just not lacking in self-confidence.”

Tanner was an All-American water polo player at Stanford. He became a scouting coach for the US national team in 1988. Ten years later, after coaching the US team to win gold at the 1991 World Cup, he returned to Soul mater of him. He took over as head coach of women's water polo. In Tanner's fifth season on the job, Stanford won its first NCAA championship. An avalanche of praise for Tanner's program began. Nine NCAA championships. Fourteen Olympic athletes. Stanford has not finished outside the top three in the country in any of his seasons as a coach.

These achievements are a byproduct of the excellence Tanner forged at Stanford over more than two decades. Training, expectations and competition prepared Stanford athletes like the Neushuls for the national team.

“The freedom to choose your specialty, the freedom to make decisions on the water has made me the player I am today,” Neushul said of Tanner's team culture.

For those water polo athletes who want to make it to the Olympics, Tanner meets with them individually. She writes a detailed plan of the necessary steps for the team to consider.

Neushul remembers that meeting with Tanner. A collaboration between coach and athlete with the hope of accelerating the path to the Olympic goal.

“He's extremely meticulous,” Neushul said. “He says, 'I'm efficient with your time, so you'll be efficient with mine.' We are all sacrificing to be here.

“He doesn't just care about the players because of what they do in the water. But he cares about them as human beings and what they can do in the future for the world.”

The morning of the international friendly against Spain, the United States team trained for two hours. The athletes jumped into the pool and swam during their 15-minute warm-up. The players then practiced passing.

Adam Krikorian, Team USA women's water polo coach since 2009, called his players to the other end of the pool. Krikorian's tenure on the national team includes three Olympic gold medals, five world aquatics championships and four world cups.

In short, a dynasty.

“The one thing I've enjoyed is the energy and positivity that all of our new players have brought to this process,” Krikorian said. “It inspires you to be better and, in a way, it takes you back to that time (for me, 14 years ago) when I started this job and gives you a little boost of energy.”

Team USA Women's Water Polo
Adam Krikorian (squatting) instructs Team USA during the 2023 world championships, including Maggie Steffens (No. 6) and Ryan Neushul (No. 8). (Albert ten Hove / BSR Agency / Getty Images)

Krikorian instructed his players to practice the 6-on-5 formation. While the players passed the ball and the defenders focused on their assignments. There was a certain time per exercise. Ashleigh Johnson, the goalkeeper for Team USA, was counting down.

With Team USA, Neushul is taking on a more defensive role, in contrast to the offensive presence he brought while at Stanford. But Neushul doesn't care. She sees herself as a bridge between gold medalists and newcomers to the national team, adaptable to help the team win.

As the 6-on-5 drill continued, Neushul moved to another group. There he worked with Steffens on defense tactics. Steffens has nothing left to prove in water polo. A three-time Olympic gold medalist, four-time world champion, three-time Pan American gold medalist and four-time World Cup winner, she is in exceptional water polo status. She still loves the game. She embraces competition. Most importantly, Steffens, 30, enjoys mentoring younger players like Neushul.

“She's like a little sister to me,” said Steffens, also a Stanford graduate. “She does a great job finding her own identity. She is willing to fight and I can feel her heart from thousands of miles away.”

Trailing 3-2 at halftime against Spain, Team USA showed off its high-scoring offense in the second half. In the third quarter, the United States outscored Spain 4-1. In the fourth quarter, the United States took a four-goal lead that they never relinquished.

Neushul, Steffens, Jewel Roemer (also from Stanford), Denise Mammolito, Kaleigh Gilchrist and Rachel Fattal scored in the second half. Roemer led Team USA with two goals. When the final horn sounded, the women hugged each other and left the pool. According to Krikorian, matches against the best countries in the world are necessary preparation for Paris 2024. Unlike previous teams, which had several returning players, this version of Team USA is navigating new territory. According to Krikorian, they are not that talented. Not so experienced.

“This is a completely new team,” Krikorian said. “We have not done anything”.

That's why Team USA is undergoing rigorous training. The players are away for several months at a time: training in Long Beach, California, playing games in Florida and abroad in Europe. Be prepared for the gigantic Olympic stage.

(Top photo of John Tanner and Ryann Neushul celebrating Stanford's 2019 NCAA Championship: Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

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