LOS ANGELES -- Finding out you’ve made the U.S. Olympic Team is just as sweet the third time, as U.S. women’s water polo center Kami Craig found out this week.
Craig, a 2008 silver medalist and the 2012 gold medalist, was one of 13 athletes named to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Water Polo Team Thursday at the LA84 Foundation in Los Angeles. She’s one of four Olympians called back for a return trip this summer in Rio de Janeiro.
“I called my parents. I was crying, they were crying,” Craig said after the announcement. “Sitting in a position to be a three-time Olympian is truly a dream come true. Growing up in school, I had to deal with dyslexia and ADHD. Sports (water polo) has always been a safe haven for me. Sports has taken me so far. I feel so fortunate to be in this position.”
Craig is the only two-time Olympian on the U.S. squad. Team captain and attacker Maggie Steffens, attacker Courtney Mathewson and defender Melissa Seidemann join Craig from the 2012 team that won the United States’ first Olympic gold medal in women’s water polo.
Rounding out the Rio squad are nine Olympic rookies. They are goalkeepers Sami Hill and Ashleigh Johnson; defenders KK Clark and Makenzie Fischer; center Aria Fischer; and attackers Rachel Fattal, Kaleigh Gilchrist, Maddie Musselman and Kiley Neushul.
Center Ashley Grossman, attacker Kodi Hill, goalkeeper Gabby Stone and defender Alys Williams were the final cuts, though they will travel with the team in Rio.
For Musselman, Thursday’s celebration was extra sweet — it’s also her 18th birthday.
“I’ve been playing water polo since I was 8. My lifelong dream has finally been achieved, and it’s still so surreal,” she said. “As a team, we practice from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and then again from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. As a team we have two practices five days a week. All the hours and dedication we put in has finally paid off.”
The U.S. women open Olympic competition on Aug. 9 against Spain in a rematch — and one the four-year anniversary, no less — of the 2012 Olympic gold-medal game.
The Americans are heavy favorites to repeat as Olympic champions — a feat never accomplished in women’s water polo. Since 2014, Team USA has won every major tournament and comes into the Games as the first team to attain all four major titles — Olympic, world championship, World Cup and World League.
The journey from London to Rio wasn’t always as easy as it might appear, though, as Krikorian reflected on at the roster announcement ceremony. Speaking after LA84 President & CEO Renata Simril and Janet Evans, an LA 2024 vice chair and four-time Olympic champion as a swimmer, Krikorian said his biggest concern after the London Games was complacency.
“We moved into 2013 with seven of these world-class athletes,” he said. “We finished fifth at the world championships, which wasn’t too great an experience for any of the people involved.”
Soon after the team began its dominant run, which continued earlier this month with a win at the World Super League Final in China. It was Team USA’s third championship in a row.
Team USA brings a powerful and balanced roster to Rio. Steffens, a two-time FINA World Player of the Year and the 2012 Olympic tournament MVP, leads a powerful offense that includes fellow Olympic veteran Mathewson as well as rising stars such as Neushul and Fattal.
Johnson, the starting goalkeeper, was named Top Goalkeeper and gold-medal game MVP at last year’s world championships. She will become the first black woman to play on a U.S. Olympic water polo team.
The team also brings plenty of youth to Rio. Craig, 28, and Mathewson, 29, are the most veteran players, while Fischer, 17, and Musselman are both teenagers.
Krikorian is confident in his group.
“We had a lot of meetings yesterday. It was very emotional for them to be an Olympian,” he said. “I look forward to the next two months, and it will be the best two months of the last four years.”
The team plays Hungary and Russia three times each throughout the United States before heading to Rio de Janeiro. In the Games, Team USA is part of Group B with Spain, Hungary and China.
For Craig, even though she was a favorite to make a third Olympic team, she said she still had butterflies when meeting Krikorian for roster evaluations.
“It never gets old,” she said. “Even though it would be my third Olympics, the struggles and everything make it all worthwhile. The meeting was pretty nerve-racking. There were only two centers on the team, and we knew (Krikorian) was only taking two centers for the team, but I was still a mess.”
Now that she’s on the team, her focus is set solely on one goal.
“It’s all about gold,” she said.