(L-R) Makenzie Fischer and Aria Fischer pose for a photo together prior to the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
Aria and Makenzie Fischer are making the most of their enforced hiatus from the pool.
With the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 postponed until July 2021, the USA Water Polo sister act is physical distancing in their Long Beach, California, apartment.
Makenzie, a senior mechanical engineering major at Stanford University, enrolled in five classes, including courses in bioethics and technology entrepreneurship.
“I’m lucky (Stanford) is on the quarter system,” the 23-year-old said. “I’ve been back in classes for two weeks now. One of the assignments is to work on creating a start-up to solve some of the problems we face with COVID. It’s cool to talk about those problems in an academic sense.”
Aria, an English major at Stanford, focuses on her writing, and is even considering entering some competitions. The 21-year-old also practices an especially handy hobby: cooking.
“She loves to cook,” Makenzie said. “Me, I do the dishes.”
Pursuing other passions helps blunt the sisters’ disappointment in having to postpone their campaign for another gold medal in Tokyo, where Team USA will compete for its third straight Olympic title.
“Definitely, I was in shock for a little bit, there was a little bit of denial,” Makenzie said. “It was the right decision, but it was a little hard. We had been fast-tracking training since May of last year. It was a bummer, because we had put so much work in and were feeling really close as a team.”
Born and raised in Laguna Beach, California, the sisters grew up with strong connections to the sport and to Stanford. Dad Erich, a two-time All-American, was a member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team, while mom Leslie played on the Cardinal women’s team when water polo was a club sport. Uncle Martin Fischer coached the Stanford women’s team to its first national title.
“I got into water polo because my dad played at the ’92 Olympics, but I played a ton of other sports,” Makenzie said. “Basketball, tennis, soccer — I was really into soccer.”
Eventually, though, the now-6-foot-1 athlete felt “awkward and gangly on land” and gravitated to the pool.
“I fell in love with certain aspects of the game,” Makenzie said. “I love how you’re always involved in all parts of the defense, and it’s a really mental game.”
The sisters helped Team USA dominate at the Rio 2016 Games, where the U.S. women took six victories with a combined score of 73-32. Makenzie, a high-scoring attacker who likes to take calculated risks, contributed two goals in the team’s gold-medal game versus Italy. Aria, also an attacker, was the youngest member of the squad, just 17 in Rio.
Both were also on the U.S. team that won a third consecutive world title last year in South Korea. The team also holds each of the sport’s other major titles, including the World Cup and World League.
While Makenzie acknowledges teams including Australia, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy and Russia will offer fierce competition in Tokyo, she thinks the U.S. is well-positioned for yet another run at gold.
"We were getting to that point where we had a base level of cohesion, and were polishing plays, planning tactics and all of the fun stuff,” she said.
In the interim, the team meets remotely each weekday to review its current status and longer-term plans. Players speak with sport psychologists twice a week; a nutritionist offers virtual team lunches. Most players lack access to a pool, so dryland workouts prevail.
“Our trainer put together a Dropbox of exercise routines, exactly how to do them, and they are a big focus for the team,” Makenzie said. “When (USA Water Polo) saw we would probably be (sequestered), it arranged for us to get weights and stationary bikes, which is huge.”
John Abdou, chief high performance officer for USA Water Polo, is optimistic both the women’s and men’s team — which placed 10th in Rio — will emerge from the shutdown even stronger.
“The coaches are trying to keep the bands together, and if they are able to do so, then we’re in a great position,” Abdou said. “We were about six weeks away from choosing our teams before this lockdown happened. The biggest thing was to understand when the Olympics would be, and I’m grateful that was answered early on. Now, it’s up to our coaches to work with athletes and make individual plans for 2021.”
Abdou reasons that some athletes may benefit from the delay, while others could be hurt.
“Being a year older on the men’s side is crucial,” he said. “The average age on men’s gold-medal teams is 28, 29, and our average age is 21, 22. So, if you’re 20, you’ll be getting another year of growth and maturity. If you are one of the 30-year-olds, I don’t know — you may have a spouse or family to consider. In team sports, it will take longer (than in individual sports) to measure the impact.”
For her part, Makenzie has no worries.
“Ten months of training will not vanish,” she said. “I look forward to picking up where we left off.”