Kami Craig (L) and Courtney Mathewson announced their retirements this month after a combined 19 years with the U.S. women's national water polo team.
Kami Craig and Courtney Mathewson played for a combined 19 years on the U.S. women’s national water polo team, and during that time they helped create a dynasty.
With multiple major victories at every level, including back-to-back Olympic gold medals in 2012 and 2016, Craig and Mathewson both announced their retirements earlier this month believing they accomplished more than they ever could have hoped for during their tenures with Team USA.
“I think about all the great opportunities that water polo has given me, and to have had the honor to win a gold medal at the 2012 Games and then come out again on top in Rio, I got to live my wildest dreams,” said Craig, who spent 13 years on the national team.
Mathewson said she knew when she came back after winning gold at the London Games in 2012 that Rio would be her last attempt at Olympic glory.
“Especially with the success we had last quad and in Rio, it was the perfect exit for me to finish at the height of my career and say goodbye and never look back,” said Mathewson, who, even battling through injuries, was a key component of the team’s attack during her career. “It was perfect timing.”
Both players were set to be honored in exhibition games this month, and Mathewson’s game is still on for Tuesday against China at Foothill High School in Tustin, California. However, Craig’s game this past weekend in Santa Barbara, California, was moved due to the wildfires there and USA Water Polo will celebrate her career at a to-be-determined event next summer.
Craig, 30, from San Luis Obispo, California, joined the national team in 2007 and won her first of three FINA world championships before becoming the youngest member of the 2008 Olympic team that traveled to Beijing. While the entire process of competing with a national team and trying to make an Olympic team offers countless lessons both big and small, she said, one of her greatest lessons came out of that experience in Beijing.
“We were favored to win gold and won silver, then had seven players from ’08 come back for 2012 with this idea of, ‘OK, next time we’re going to do it our way,’” she said. “We wanted to get the job done. There are hundreds of thousands of lessons to be learned by this journey and 13 years with the national team, but that one in particular stands out, just being completely prepared and having ownership of our team as athletes. Coming back and competing in London and finishing it out with gold was probably one of the most rewarding outcomes to a very difficult lesson of winning silver in 2008.”
Craig, who played collegiately at USC, closes out her career with three world championships, two FINA World Cup gold medals, nine World League Super Final gold medals, two Olympic gold medals and one Olympic silver medal.
Mathewson, 31, from Orange, California, joined the team in 2010 after wrapping up a college career at UCLA, where she won four NCAA championships.
The U.S. already had the top program in the world, she said, so part of her role was to continue that tradition and success, which she did. During her career, Mathewson was part of 13 major FINA competitions including the Olympics, world championships and World League Super Finals, and won gold in all but three.
“But winning that first gold at the Olympics in 2012 was pretty amazing,” she said. “It was a really special group of girls and a big thing for the U.S. winning that first gold. They’d had success at all different levels — World Cup, world championships, Super League — but didn’t have that Olympic gold medal. So that first Olympics, that first taste of being at that level, is something I hold dear to my heart. But it was neat to go back and try to make the team again in ’16 because it was a different group of women, different circumstances and a lot of hard work to put in, but they both mean so much to me in different ways.”
Mathewson said she already misses being around her teammates and the experience of everyone working together toward a common goal. She hopes to stay involved in the sport either through coaching or teaching clinics, and has plans within the next couple of years to go back to school for speech language pathology. For now, she is a new mom to daughter Aspen Rae, born in September.
Craig works with a company called RISE Elite Athletes mentoring young athletes and has a small business with former teammate Kaleigh Gilchrist called Camps 4 Champs holding water polo camps and clinics. She’s also looking forward to getting involved in more coaching opportunities moving forward.
As for the national team, she said, she knows the future is bright.
“This is such a young, talented, athletic, fierce team I’m excited to see how they make this next quad their own,” she said. “I literally, as we were going through 2016, tried to give them as much knowledge as I could pass on, from as simple as setting a mindset when entering a practice or jumping into the pool to the words I’d leave them with at team meetings or before heading into the biggest game.
“It was really fun to feel good about leaving everything I learned from the last 13 years and from the veterans of my teams and passing it on to them, and it felt really good saying, ‘OK, it’s your time, your turn to take this team and start taking it in the direction it’s meant to go.’”Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.