Maddie Musselman in action during the Women's Water Polo Gold Medal Classification match for Rio 2016.
In her mind’s eye, Maddie Musselman pictured things playing out differently.
“I was at Position 3, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is gonna look so good,’” recalled Musselman, six years and a water polo lifetime removed from the first attempted lob shot of her U.S. women’s national team career. “The moment it leaves my hand, I was like, ‘Oh no.’”
A dozen different things could have gone wrong with that shot, especially when the shooter was a 16-year-old high school kid competing in her first FINA Intercontinental Tournament halfway around the world, playing for the sport’s most dominant team alongside teammates whose resumes and trophy cases already featured world championships and Olympic gold medals. The ball could have launched over the top of the net or misfired wide, or she could have put too flat an arc on the shot, creating an effortless save for the goalie.
Immediately upon release, Musselman knew it actually was going to turn out much worse.
“The center defender comes out of nowhere and just catches the ball,” said Musselman, who turned her back on the play, slung her head low and started to swim back to play defense, none of which distracted her from the worst sound in the world — laughter. Coming from her own bench.
“I was so embarrassed, thinking, ‘I don’t deserve to be here. They might as well send me home now.’”
Her coaches didn’t send Musselman home, if only because New Zealand is one long, lonely boat ride back to Newport Beach, California.
Instead, they did the next-worst thing. They gathered the team to review the video from a game they had won in a tournament they would wind up winning. Together, they watched Musselman’s lowest moment. In slow motion. Repeatedly.
It was, to Musselman’s memory, “like a dagger to the heart.” It also may have been the most important crossroads moment of one of USA Water Polo’s most promising young stars.
“Ever since then, I thought, ‘You know what? Because of that, I’m going to become the best lobber on this team,” Musselman, now 22, said.
Bouncing back from adversity comes somewhat naturally for Musselman, who inherited at least some of that resilience from her father, Jeff. For parts of five seasons between 1996 and 1990, Jeff Musselman pitched in the major leagues, first for the Toronto Blue Jays and then for the New York Mets. He finished his career with a winning record, but there were plenty of moments reminiscent of his second daughter’s first lob.
In his third appearance in the majors, Jeff Musselman, then a 23-year-old September call up, came out of the bullpen to face Larry Herndon, pinch hitting for the Detroit Tigers. There was one out with runners on first and third, and Musselman served up a 1-2 slider that Herndon blasted into the covered grandstand that backstopped left field in Toronto’s old Exhibition Stadium.
Blue Jays manager Jimy Williams promptly visited the mound to check on his rookie reliever.
“He said, ‘What’d you throw?’” Jeff Musselman recalled. “I said, ‘I threw him my best slider.’ And he said, ‘Would you do it again?’ I said, ‘Yeah. I would.’ He goes, ‘Good.’ And he walked away.”
It was an important lesson for Musselman, who quickly came to realize that having your best stuff isn’t what defines a pitcher’s career. It’s how you handle things when your best stuff isn’t quite good enough.
In most conversations between father and daughter, both of whom reached the pinnacle of their profession, the prevailing topic has not been throwing mechanics. It’s been mentality.
“I’ve learned that from him — don’t be afraid to fail,” Maddie Musselman said. “Yeah, it may not look pretty in the moment, and you might get made fun of. I’ve had many experiences with that on the national team. People are like, “What are you doing? What are you trying?” Honestly, if I don’t try it, I’m never going to be able to do it.”
What Maddie does in the pool actually doesn’t remind Jeff of pitching at all.
“I see what they’re doing a lot more like a quarterback. In a pocket, he’s got five people trying to get at him. At the same time he has four or five different reads to make,” he said. “Is he going to dump it off? Is he going over the middle? Is he going deep? Who’s blitzing? You’ve got to register all that very quickly.”
Over the years, Maddie Musselman’s competitive mindset has proven critical to her development for Team USA. Since recovering from a shoulder surgery that sidelined her for much of 2018, she has expanded her repertoire of shots. She’s experimented with release points and arm angles and blossomed into a versatile scoring threat who can beat opponents with her head as well as her arm.
“Every time you go in a pool, you don’t know what you’re going to get,” said Musselman, who led her team in scoring at both the 2017 FINA World Championships and 2019 FINA World League Super Final; she was named Tournament MVP at both events. “Goalies are really different. Some goalies dig really deep, and you can shoot over their head. Some goalies have their arms straight up. You have to read what’s in front of you. You can be working on a shot all fall and get into a game, and it might not work. You have to adapt.”
That perspective and mature approach to her craft was not yet part of Musselman’s game back in her inauspicious Intercontinental debut. The foundation was there — she recognized the opportunity to try something a little different. She just didn’t execute that first time.
By the time she arrived at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, she was the second-youngest player on Team USA’s roster and a different player. She was also a different person.
On the night before the semifinal round, Jeff Musselman couldn’t sleep. He knew his daughter’s team was one win from being assured of a medal, one win away from defending its gold medal from the Olympic Games London 2012.
At one point in the late evening, he received a text from Maddie, which he initially was too wound up to look at. Was she hurt? Was she sick? What could have gone wrong that she’d be texting at this hour?
“I opened it and it says, ‘When we get home, can we go to Houston’s and get ribs?’” he said. “And I’m like, ‘This is what you’re thinking about right now?’ And she says, ‘Yes. I’m starving.’”
On her sport’s biggest stage, the moment turned out not to be too big for Maddie Musselman. She would finish the 2016 Games by being selected by the media to the Olympics All-Star team.
She scored 12 goals in Rio, second-most on the team, but it wasn’t her goal with 5:20 to play in the gold-medal game that she was most proud of. The more meaningful goal was her first at the Games, which came late in the first quarter of her first game. From Position 2.
On her first lob shot as an Olympian.