Paige Hauschild competes in an exhibition match versus Canada on May 19, 2021 in Los Alamitos, Calif.
Through the early stretch of the 453-day desert between matches for the U.S. women’s water polo team, Paige Hauschild could not do what she does best. Instead, she discovered what she does worst.
“I can’t play the ukulele,” Paige admitted freely. “I’m horrible.”
It was those first uncertain months of the pandemic. The Tokyo Olympics had been postponed for a year, and pools throughout Southern California were shuttered indefinitely. Hauschild and her teammates filled their days the way all of us did — with Zoom calls, striving to stay connected. To stay occupied. For an athlete who had spent more than a decade navigating a strict, calculated regimen of school and pool, undefined down time was unfamiliar and daunting. So, Hauschild found new ways to fill her days.
There were hikes with her parents in her hometown of Santa Barbara that she’d always heard about but had never found time to take. There were baking recipes to try, a big paint-by-numbers project to pursue.
And then there was the ukulele.
Hauschild is not particularly musical. She’d never played an instrument before. Still, she and teammate Kaleigh Gilchrist decided to order a pair of ukuleles and learn them together in weekly Zoom sessions led by one of their athletic trainers from USA Water Polo — an inspired choice of instructor, considering what a painful stretch this would turn out to be.
After a few weeks of trying to learn basic chords and attempting a song that never quite approximated the original source material, the grand experiment ended. The four-string menace was banished to the closet, forever unmastered.
“I’m so used to, ‘Oh, this is something I’m good at, let’s do it.’ I have never felt so incapable of something,” said Hauschild.
The uke proved not to be the only trigger for one of water polo’s rising stars to feel out of her depth during the pandemic. Without access to a pool, Hauschild needed to find other avenues for working out, for staying in shape, even if it wouldn’t necessarily be water polo shape.
She had to evolve.
“I became a land animal for three months,” she said.
Which meant doing what other bipedal land animals do for exercise: go for a run.
Hauschild would see social media posts from friends and family celebrating the five-mile routes they’d just finished. Her mother runs every day. And if those people could do it, surely an internationally acclaimed athlete on the cusp of potentially earning a spot on USA Water Polo’s Olympic roster would be able to lace ‘em up and hit the ground running, right?
“(Our strength coach) told us to run for a minute, walk for a minute. That was how we were going to transition. Run for 10 minutes, walk for two,” said Hauschild, who adopted a different approach. “I’m running five miles as fast as I can. I got super competitive, and when it didn’t come naturally, I got frustrated, which is a little hard to admit.”
The running might not have come easy to Hauschild, but it never approached ukulele bad. Soon enough, though, she could swap her sneakers for a swimsuit. Hauschild and her teammates were cleared to return to their natural habitat — the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos.
It wasn’t quite back to normal (whatever that means, these days). At first, the senior national team was restricted from practicing as a full group. A half-dozen players or so were allowed to practice together in one two-hour window, another small group at another time. It would be months before contact would be allowed in their drills.
Evolving back into aquatic animals, as it turned out, would take some time.
“Our first dive in the pool felt weird, like I forgot how to swim,” Hauschild said. “With swimming, you can get out of shape really fast. Even if you take only a week or two off, you go back in the pool and it’s like, ‘Whoa.’ It definitely took some time for us to get back to where we wanted to be.”
Where they wanted to be, of course, was back on top of the water polo world. Team USA has won Olympic gold in the last two Games. The women have also won the last three World Cups and world championships, and the last six FINA World League titles. And while they were on the shelf, their top challengers from around the world were practicing and playing.
The only competition available was in-house.
“We just wanted to play other people,” Hauschild said. “We scrimmaged all the time, just against each other. At a certain point, you’re like, I know exactly what my teammate is going to do right now. You need something different — a different style, a difference pace. We needed anyone else.”
Just before Team USA resumed international competition with a three-game series against Canada in mid-May, the best team in the world found its “anyone else”: boys varsity teams from a couple of local high schools, Harvard-Westlake and Newport Harbor.
“Some of them were really fast, really strong. We ended up winning our games, but they were super into it,” said Hauschild, the youngest player on the national team roster, who at 21 actually was closer in age to those high school opponents than to some of her veteran teammates. “They really went for it, which we appreciated. We wanted some competition.”
At long last, Hauschild and her teammates were back — back in the pool and back to the business of conquering the world. They started getting notifications counting down to Tokyo, and preparations for the Olympics started to feel real again. On Thursday, the U.S. players will find out which ones are going to Tokyo this summer. With the awkward months of pandemic limbo finally in the past, and Hauschild was able pack away those humbling misfires of five-mile runs and ukulele lessons.
But not everything from The Lost Year was forgettable.
In March, Hauschild and her teammates took a training trip to Hawaii. They needed a change in scenery, a change in practice venue, a change in perspective.
Which they surely got.
“Jamie Neushul said, ‘You guys, we can go skydiving.’” said Hauschild, who sports a bit of a thrill-seeking streak; shark-caging is high on her personal bucket list. “Jamie always wanted to do it. We almost did it on a different trip. And we thought doing it in Hawaii would be awesome.”
Hauschild was in. So was about half the team, including the ones most terrified at the prospect. On their final morning, they booked their spots in a plane they paid money to walk out of mid-flight.
Through the windows, Hauschild could see the entirety of the Big Island beneath her. She spotted a whale, playing in the Pacific.
Soon enough, the safety and serenity were smashed away. The instructor — strapped to her back for a tandem dive — kicked open the door, and Hauschild felt a rush.
A rush of wind. A rush of adrenaline. A rush of fear.
“The second he opened the door, I thought, ‘No no no no no no no. I can’t do this,’” Hauschild said. “If I had to jump out myself, I don’t know if I could have. But you don’t really have a choice. He does it for you.”
During those initial moments of freefall, Hauschild confirms, there was some screaming. But when the parachute opened and she recaptured control of her breathing, she removed her goggles and basked in the beauty and tranquility of her new surroundings.
It was then, hovering over Hawaii roughly one year after her life and her career and her plans were first interrupted, forcing a struggle to make sense of a life on land, a water creature learned that she could fly.