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What Makes The U.S. Women's Water Polo Team So Successful? Maddie Musselman Explains

By Darci Miller | Aug. 30, 2017, 11 a.m. (ET)


Each month, Team USA Awards presented by Dow celebrates outstanding achievements of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Maddie Musselman and the U.S. Women's Water Polo Team won Team of the Month for July 2017, during which the women went undefeated at the FINA World Championships to win their third consecutive world or Olympic title. In Musselman's Diamond Club feature, presented by Dow, she explains some of the key elements to the team's unprecedented run of success.


Maddie Musselman competes in the women's water polo gold-medal match against Spain at the FINA World Championships on July 28, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary.

The U.S. women’s water polo team is in the midst of one of the most dominant runs in history. After winning Olympic gold in 2012, Team USA went on to win the FINA Women’s World League in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017; the FINA Women’s Water Polo World Cup in 2014; the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games; the Olympic Games Rio 2016; and the FINA World Championship in 2015 and, most recently, 2017.

At the 2017 world championships, 19-year-old Maddie Musselman’s MVP performance led Team USA to the top of the podium. On a squad that was a combination of returning Olympians and first-time national team members, Musselman’s blend of skill and experience – she now owns two world titles and an Olympic gold medal – made her a de facto leader.

But Musselman couldn’t do it alone, and she herself is the first to admit that. So what is it that makes the U.S. women’s water polo team successful on an unparalleled level?

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1. Veteran Leadership

Following the gold-medal win in Rio, the team underwent a good amount of turnover as veteran athletes decided to step away from the sport. This meant that the team competing at the 2017 world championships in Budapest, Hungary, looked very different from the decorated squad from previous years. Of the 13 members of the world championships roster, six newcomers joined seven returning Olympians. It forced Musselman, the second-youngest member of the 2016 Olympic team, to grow up fast.

“It’s been difficult in terms of vocalizing my opinions, just because I’m still young and still playing with a lot of girls that are older than me,” Musselman said. “It’s a very different role than I had before, which allowed me to develop more as a player, so that was really cool.”

Though Musselman had to step out of her comfort zone in speaking up, she was confident in her ability to lead by example. And when she did need to get more vocal, she had plenty of inspiration from her own teammates.

“I’m really close with Courtney Mathewson. She was on the 2015 [world championships] team and she was a huge person who led by example, and she spoke up when she needed to speak up,” Musselman said. “She wasn’t a very vocal leader, but when she needed to say the things she wanted to say, she would. And Maggie Steffens, obviously. I’ve definitely tried to emulate her vocal leadership in sharing my experience and being able to speak up in the moments that I need to. And she’s just very good at encouraging teammates, and I think that’s something I want to be able to do.”


2. Team Chemistry

What do you get when you combine players from the rival water polo powerhouses of UCLA, USC, Stanford and Cal and have them play as teammates just weeks after concluding their college seasons?

World champions.

The college water polo season concluded in May; in June, the members of the national team went to China to compete together with this new group for the first time; then there were a couple of weeks of training at home in Long Beach, California, together for the first time; and then, in August, it was off to Budapest for a month for the world championships.

“I think that’s the growing part of it, being able to push the past behind you and accept them on your team and be teammates and friends,” Musselman said of playing with college rivals. “Definitely a value of our team is being able to accept each other’s differences and where we come from, and keep the rivalry because it keeps it competitive, but it’s definitely fun playing with them. I mean, it’s the top players in the world all coming on one team, so it’s super fun.”

But in just a matter of months?

Musselman credits the attitude of her teammates to welcoming new players into the fold so quickly. During full-time training prior to an Olympics, there are plenty of hiking trips and other team activities to strengthen relationships outside of the pool. But with such a time crunch, it was up to the players to open up and reach out to each other on their own.

“You look at other teams and there’s not the chemistry and the cohesiveness that this team creates,” Musselman said. “But it’s not easy to make. We’re a new team and it’s going to take a while to really connect. But just from this summer and learning from it, there’s a lot of competitive and passionate people, and when you have people like that, you can go really far with that.”


3. A Culture Of Success

For the women of USA Water Polo, winning has come to be expected. But rather than allow that to add pressure to new team members, or act as a deterrent, the returning members are able to turn it into motivation for the future.

When the new athletes joined the team earlier this year, the veterans sat them down to share their values, experiences and what it means to be a part of the legacy of this team.

“I think sharing our experience and opening it up to them really welcomes them into our team,” Musselman said. “And knowing that the past is the past, we’ve won two gold medals but now it’s their turn to be part of a team that can win a gold medal. I think that gives them a lot of confidence and inspiration to want to be there every summer and want to compete at the highest level.”


4. Unselfish Attitudes

Though Musselman’s star may have shined the brightest at the world championships, she’s not shy about giving credit to her teammates. While the number of goals she scored lit up the stat sheets, she says the way her teammates passed to her and set her up to score was vital to the team’s success.

Equally as important was the team’s collective attitude.

“I think every single person deserves credit, whether they played one minute or played the whole game. Every single person,” Musselman said. “You can only be successful because you have every single person on that team fully committed to that game.”

While the veterans were no stranger to the competition on the biggest stage, the newcomers were less so. Musselman credits them for being able to thrive in their roles – be it starting or on the bench – and step up when their moment came.

Not even the coaching staff is exempt from the team-first attitude, nor the team’s gratitude. The time, energy and commitment they put into making the team successful shouldn’t go unnoticed, Musselman says, and celebrating their gold medals with the staff is her favorite moment of the world championships experience.

“We jumped in the pool after we won, and our doctor and our trainer didn’t jump in yet,” Musselman said. “Our coach went back and dragged them into the water. Our trainer and our doctor, not that they’re not good swimmers, but they’re wearing clothes and pretty much could drown if they jump in. But they all jumped in, and our trainer came up and her hair was all over her face. It was just a fun moment to know and acknowledge that they were part of the win.”


5. A Hunger For More

With all of the success the U.S. women’s water polo team has achieved in the last several years, the question remains: what could possibly be left to do? What serves as motivation when everything has already been done?

“That question gets asked a lot, and something that I personally like to ask myself is, ‘what can I do more of?’ There’s always something next,” Musselman said. “And I think especially with new people coming on the team, there’s new goals and there’s new achievements that we want to have. Just knowing that you can always do something more in the sport, and that the sport’s always changing, and the people on the team are always changing, that allows us to always look forward.”

Musselman says her MVP award serves as motivation for the future, a far cry from making her complacent. Not even blowout wins at the world championships were easy games, she says, because knowing that teams are going 100 percent to beat the U.S. makes them go 110 percent. And all of those gold medals serve as inspiration, a tantalizing prospect of what can still be accomplished.

“I think always remembering what we’ve done is a great motivation factor for what we can keep doing,” Musselman said. “Making history is obviously great – I mean, we’re back-to-back gold medalists, but we could be three-time or four-time in the future, which is continuing to make history, and I think that’s inspiring and motivating.”

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