Aria Fischer knew that at just 17 years old, the odds of making the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Water Polo Team weren’t necessarily in her favor.
But she had a plan.
Work really hard, and make it a goal to get better and learn something new every single day.
“I thought by doing that, I’d have the best shot to make it,” said Fischer, now 18.
Her plan worked.
The Laguna Beach, California, native not only made the Olympic team but also became the youngest U.S. woman to win an Olympic gold medal in a team sport when the water polo team won its second consecutive gold medal at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
This week, because the tournament takes place during the NCAA season, the high school senior will be one of the more veteran players on the U.S. squad competing in the FINA Women’s Intercontinental Tournament at University of California, Davis. She and Melissa Seidemann are the only Olympians on the 13-woman roster.
Water polo might be a niche sport, but in the Fischer family the knack and love for the game runs strong. Dad Erich Fischer was a member of the 1992 Olympic men’s water polo team. He didn’t speak much of his career as Aria and older sister Makenzie, 20, were growing up, and held off on introducing his daughters to the sport until they had strong foundations in swimming.
For Aria, that introduction came at the age of 9, and she immediately fell in love.
“I just got a sense of adrenaline that I hadn’t gotten with any other sport,” she said. “I played soccer and basketball, but I didn’t get the same excitement while playing those games, so I knew early on it was the sport I wanted to play.”
At 9, Fischer fully admits that she didn’t really understand what being an Olympian meant. She just knew her father was one, and she wanted to be one, too. As the sisters got older and better and it began to look like their careers were trending in the same direction their dad’s did, he began to talk more to them about the experience.
“He knew we’d be going through similar experiences,” Aria said. “I think it was cool for us to have him share that with us.”
Makenzie deferred going to Stanford in order to make the national team and ended up being instrumental in the team’s 2015 world title and qualification for the Rio Games. At 19, she was still among the younger players on the Olympic team in Rio.
Aria called the day they learned they both made the Olympic team one of the most special moments of her life.
“Then telling our parents later that night was great, too, because they obviously put so much work into it, too,” she said. “They shuttled me around to my practices and they’ve been at every one of my games, so it was just a really great day.”
One piece of advice from her father that stuck with Fischer going into Rio was that she wouldn’t need to pump herself up before the game.
“He said, ‘You’re already going to be pumped up, so you don’t need to go listen to hardcore music or do anything crazy,” she said. “It was pretty good advice.”
Instead of being nervous before the first game, Fischer said, she felt like she did at any other tournament because of the amount of preparation the team had done leading up to Rio. She didn’t know that she had a chance of being the youngest U.S. team sport gold medalist until after it was already done.
“Someone said, ‘Did you know this?’ and I had no clue,” she said. “It’s obviously an honor because there are so many great athletes, and I think about everyone I know who’s competed at a high level and I just have so much respect for them.”
The Olympic experience lived up to everything Fischer had dreamt about and then some, but she said it was the journey to get there that she’ll remember most.
“It was so valuable to spend the whole year training with 15 other strong, independent women, and I think they really taught me what it is like to be a strong female athlete,” she said. “They’ll always be the role models I’ll look up to. I get to see firsthand and be with people who are such strong women and carry themselves so well.”
After Rio, Fischer returned home to Laguna Beach, where she and Makenzie were welcomed and celebrated by the community, then got back to life as a high school student. A typical day for her offseason is swimming in the morning, followed by school and then lifting or more training afterward.
The Laguna Beach Breakers went 31-0 this season and Fischer led the team with 103 goals and 61 steals. She was second in assists with 58, and was named the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Division I Player of the Year.
Next year, she’ll join her sister at Stanford.
For now, though, she’ll do her part to make sure the U.S. earns another gold medal at this week’s tournament.
“I think every team brings their ‘A’ game against us, and every team wants to beat us,” Fischer said. “For me, it’s even more motivation to come out each game and make sure that doesn’t happen.”