For the U.S. women’s water polo team, this week’s 2016 Olympic Qualification Tournament is all that stands between them and an opportunity to defend their gold medal the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.
They got off to a good start on Monday with a blowout 18-1 win over Japan.
Team USA must finish in the top four at the competition in Gouda, Netherlands, to earn a Rio berth.
The Americans continue group play against Canada on Tuesday, defending Olympic silver medalists Spain on Wednesday, Greece on Thursday and South Africa on Friday, before a crossover quarterfinal round on Saturday in which the winner advances to Rio. The Olympic qualification championship game is Monday.
While the tournament is Team USA’s first and last chance to get a ticket to Rio, coach Adam Krikorian said neither he nor the players are thinking about that yet.
“This tournament field is full with extremely talented and hungry teams, and we realize we are just one of those,” Krikorian said by email from Gouda before the opening match. “Our team is more focused on putting our best effort forward through each game, and we will see where that takes us when it’s all said and done.”
The team is young, with several newcomers who weren’t on the squad for its gold-medal performance at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Led by four returning players — captain Maggie Steffens, Courtney Mathewson, Melissa Seidemann and the only two-time Olympian on the team, Kami Craig — the group has had to nurture and mentor new additions.
“It’s been a beautiful thing to watch how this team pushes and nurtures the younger players,” Krikorian said. “It says a lot about what’s important to them. It tells me that this is a group that cares more about the team’s success than personal glory.”
The group is the same that led Team USA to a gold medal last month at the FINA Women’s Intercontinental Tournament in Lewisville, Texas, and entered the Gouda tournament after a 14-8 tune-up win over the Netherlands.
One of the newcomers paced the team offensively in the Olympic Qualification Tournament opener on Monday.
Kiley Neushul scored four goals for the Americans. Neushul, who helped Stanford win NCAA championships in 2012, 2014 and 2015, won the Peter J. Cutino Award given to the nation’s outstanding collegiate water polo player last year.
Craig and Aria Fischer each had three goals for the Americans against Japan.
Steffens, who was the MVP at the London Games and a teammate of Neushul’s at Stanford, added two goals. Rachel Fattal, Maddie Musselman and Makenzie Fischer also each had two.
This is the second time since women’s water polo was added to the Olympic Games in 2000 that Team USA has had to compete in the qualifying tournament to make the Games. Team USA also had to use the qualifying tournament to get a berth in that first Olympic competition in Sydney after failing to qualify in the Pan American Games a year earlier. Team USA not only qualified that year but won the silver medal at the 2000 Games, behind hosts Australia.
While the team’s goal of defending the gold in Rio could come down Saturday’s quarterfinal crossover round in Holland, Krikorian said he’s taking a bigger picture on its overall success or failure.
“We know that it hasn’t been one day, one month, or one year that will make a difference,” Krikorian said. “Rather, it’s the body of work that has prepared us for this moment. But we also realize that does not entitle us to anything and that we must continue to reach for our best.
“Winning and losing can be hard to predict. We have some impact on our opponent, but the only people we truly control are ourselves. And in order for us to play to our standard, we need to continue to bring the same hard-working and focused mindset to our preparation and competition, despite the natural highs and lows every team will face on this road.”
Dave Royse is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and a former reporter for the Associated Press and News Service of Florida. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.