The women's water polo team celebrates their gold medal win after defeating Canada at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 10, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
Olympic hopeful Paige Hauschild has been playing water polo since she was in elementary school, she said, and she’s 21 now.
She’s never had a layoff from competition like she’s had this year.
“I think the longest I had was two weeks,” she said. “It was super weird, thinking, ‘What do I do with myself? ’I’ve played water polo every single day since I was 8 or 9 and all of a sudden that was gone. It was so weird to deal with.”
Although life is slowly getting back to normal for the U.S. women’s water polo team in terms of training together, with a few friendly matches in Europe penciled in with a great deal of hope for later this fall and winter, it’s been a strange year to say the least.
Like everyone at the start of 2020, the team expected to be in Tokyo this past summer. The two-time defending Olympic champions — who’ve also won gold at the last three world championships — were looking to make it three in a row and gearing up for the final team selection process back in March.
Then everything shut down.
Grappling with the postponement of the Games was tough for athletes all over, but the challenges for the water polo team were only starting. Unlike athletes such as runners or cyclists who could still train fairly normally, water polo players were in a tough spot. They couldn’t be together, for starters, and even if they could, pools everywhere were shut down.
For elite athletes who aren’t accustomed to taking time off, it was hard.
“Some girls had backyard pools, or had a neighbor with a backyard pool, but they definitely weren’t 25 yards,” said Hauschild, who competes collegiately for USC. “They’d try to go and work on legs or swim in circles. I had no access to a pool so I was trying to adapt to being a land mammal.”
Head coach Adam Krikorian, who has led the team since 2009, gave all the credit to the team’s strength coach, nutritionist, sports psychologist and trainers for allowing the women to take equipment home and putting together a plan to help everyone stay in shape during the lockdown.
Multiple Zoom calls per week helped them stay in touch, check in on each other, vent frustrations, get the latest updates and support one another.
Finally in June they were able to get back together and get in the pool, albeit not in the manner to which they were accustomed. Undergoing regular testing and adhering to safety protocols, the team worked out in small groups both in the weight room and the pool, where they were unable to do anything that required them to be in contact with one another but could still do drills and work on technique.
It wasn’t ideal, Krikorian said, but it allowed them to come together and get an idea of what training might look like in the future. They were together for 10 weeks, ending when they initially thought their season would be over in 2020: Aug. 9, which would have been the goldmedal game in Tokyo.
“We used that 10-week period to learn little things that worked, things that didn’t, what protocols we needed and what we can take out so when we started back up (in September) we’d have a better idea of how we should operate,” he said. “I like to think we’re much more efficient now because of that process.”
Now the team is back together again after a one-month break. They’re hopeful, Krikorian said, that with a continued decrease in COVID-19 cases and increased testing that in October they’ll be able to start contact drills and playing again. He’s even more hopeful that they’ll be able to travel to Greece and Hungary in December for some friendly matches.
It’s already beginning to feel more like the preparation for Tokyo 2021 is underway compared to their time together over the summer.
“It does, even though it was just a difference of a month,” said 2016 gold medalist Aria Fischer. “This fall was a reset just to get to be like OK, this is real, we’re training for Tokyo again. Obviously we still have protocols in place, we’re still not playing water polo and still stay socially distant in the pool.”
One result of the layoff and inability to be together in the pool earlier this year has been a new appreciation for the things that may not have garnered much enthusiasm a year ago.
“Before if you told me we were just going to swim I’d be like, ‘Ugh, I want to play, I don’t want to swim,’” Fischer said. “Now even having the opportunity to swim makes you really grateful for every time we get to practice our sport.”
A few things will likely have to happen in order for the team to travel to Europe later this fall, Krikorian said, including the OK from the governments where they hope to play, continued testing and no spikes in the virus, as well as some other logistics.
And even if it does happen, he said, they may have to take some lumps early on given that some European leagues have been playing for a little while now.
But at least they’ll be playing.
“Sometimes you get in this rut and this position where you’re just going through the motions,” Krikorian said. “For us, we’ve found the joy behind playing a sport and being with a team and I think this journey, as difficult as it was, at the end of the day is going to allow us to find more joy in playing the game we love and playing with the team and the people we love. We’re excited to get back at it. It might not be pretty in the beginning, but that’s OK. We have a bit of a long runway until we get to Tokyo 2021.”