Until last week, Kami Craig hadn’t seen her U.S. water polo teammates for a long time.
In fact, most of the top American players have been scattered across Southern California, the United States or the world since they last played together at the Holiday Cup in December.
Like Craig, some were playing abroad. Most were with their college programs. And a few were training in Southern California, where the U.S. team makes its home.
Craig, 26, a center and two-time Olympian who helped the American women win their first Olympic gold medal at London in 2012, has spent the past eight months playing for a team in Italy.
Last week, she and a number of her teammates came together for the first time since December to begin training in preparation for a busy summer.
“It’s always fun to catch up and there’s always buzzing, because everyone’s talking 100 miles an hour,” Craig said. “It’s fun to see the new girls who are joining the team and the veterans that have been there for a while, and re-connecting with the girls you haven’t seen all year.”
First up for the Americans comes the eight-team FINA Intercontinental Qualification Tournament at the Riverside Aquatics Complex at Riverside (California) City College. It begins today with opening ceremonies and exhibition games, then gets rolling with four games of pool play every day from Tuesday through Thursday, followed by three days of elimination games. It culminates with the championship game Sunday at 4:30 p.m.
Next up is the FINA World League Super Final in Beijing from June 10-15, with the FINA World Cup in Russia Aug. 12-17.
Teams from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Japan, Kazakhstan and Venezuela will be at the Riverside tournament. Team USA will play an exhibition game against Australia Monday at 6 p.m. Then comes three straight games, all at 7:30 p.m., against Japan on Tuesday, Kazakhstan on Wednesday and Canada on Thursday.
It’s a strong field, considering Australia won the silver medal at London, China is the defending champion of the Super Final and Canada and Brazil are strong, as well.
Craig says it’s hard to predict how the U.S. team will play, with this being the team’s first competition of 2014. Then again, most every team is in the same situation, she said.
“It’s an opportunity for us to grow as a team and an opportunity for us to get better, and we’ll just take it game by game and hopefully grow as a group,” Craig said.
Once she and her teammates get a few practices and games behind them, they should come together.
“We’ve all been playing water polo and we’re all coming back in some sort of shape to be ready to jump in and start playing,” she said. “But like anything, it takes a few practices. But you know, it’s really good to feed off relationships with the older teammates that you’ve already played summers and years with before, and just kind of introduce the younger girls into that as well.”
Craig and goalkeeper Betsey Armstrong rank among the most veteran players who’ll see action in the Riverside tournament. Armstrong, 31, and Craig were teammates at the Beijing Games when Team USA won silver, and four years later in London for their breakthrough gold.
Since those Games, the national team has begun introducing some fresh talent as veterans such as four-time Olympians Brenda Villa and Heather Petri retired. Craig says she enjoys getting to know and play with those newer players — who’ve yet to be part of an Olympic team — such as a pair of former UCLA standouts in 23-year-old defender KK Clark and attacker Jillian Kraus, 27. Also in the mix for roster spots in Riverside are Arizona State goalkeeper E.B. Keeve and two California prep standouts, Makenzie Fischer of Laguna Beach High and Maddie Musselman of Corona del Mar High.
National team standouts such as Maggie Steffens, Annika Dries and Rachel Fattal won’t be able to participate because their universities are still in session.
With two years still to go until the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Team USA still faces a long evolution, said Craig, who was a two-time NCAA Player of the Year at USC. Having gone through two previous four-year Olympic cycles, she understands that, as cliché as it might sound, it’s important for she and her teammates to focus on this busy summer ahead. She calls every year a “crucial steppingstone.”
After the tournament in Riverside, coach Adam Krikorian, his assistants and players will have a much better idea where they are. Six days of tournament play can go a long way toward getting the team back on track after its long hiatus. Plus, it will give some younger players their first international experience.
“It’s just another opportunity to get stronger and more experienced,” said Craig.
For a full schedule of the Riverside tournament and ticket information, go to the 2014 FINA Intercontinental Qualifier tab at the top of the women’s senior national team page at usawaterpolo.org.
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.