Ava Stryker could have doubted herself as a young water polo player. She was smaller than her peers and less experienced. Plus, she was excelling in gymnastics at the time, and could have pursued that sport.
Instead, Stryker decided to stick with water polo, honed her skills by competing against better competition and constantly trained with her club team. She eventually became one of the top high school players in the country.
Now just one month shy from graduating San Marcos High School in Santa Barbara, California, Stryker is once again elevating her game while playing with elite teammates — this time the U.S. senior national team. She recently took part in a pair of 2023 World Aquatics Women’s World Cup qualifiers in the Netherlands and Greece.
“This is the best experience that’s ever happened to me,” Stryker said. “It’s helped me tremendously. Everyone is here to help you grow.”
Stryker is now a 5-foot-9 attacker who will attend the University of Southern California this fall and play for the water polo team. She has dreams of eventually making the U.S. Olympic Team, if not at the 2024 Paris Games then definitely at the 2028 Los Angeles Games near the area where she was born and raised.
She began taking swimming lessons around age 6. Her older sister, Jaymie Stryker, influenced Ava to try water polo shortly after. Jaymie was a star player before tearing her labrum during her junior year of high school.
“I followed her footsteps and almost immediately had a good group of girls around me,” Ava said.
Ava joined the Santa Barbara 805 Water Polo Club and tirelessly trained until she got exponentially better.
“They gave me the fundamental skills and knowledge to where I am today,” she said.
Many of her club teammates also played on her high school team, which created a cohesiveness and a natural camaraderie.
She also credits her coaches.
“It was fun having a group so close all the time,” Stryker said. “All my coaches contributed to the player I am.”
Stryker’s development took a pause in 2020 once the pandemic shut down many sports across the country. Shortly after things started getting back to some kind of normalcy, she was invited to the Water Polo Olympic Development Program (ODP) Academy in Irvine, California. Ethan Damato, a legendary California high school coach, took over as the women’s head coach at the ODP in 2022.
Stryker said playing with those around her who were better continued making her a better player.
“Playing with those better than me helped me be where I wanted to be,” Stryker said. “I think the main reason I have gone to where I am is the people I choose to surround myself with. Their work ethic and their mentality.
“I admire people who want to get better, always pushing to find what you want to do to get better.”
Stryker took some big steps last year while playing with the U.S. junior team. In July, she was named tournament MVP as the U.S. won the Pan Am Junior Championships in Indianapolis. The following month, she helped the Americans win the FINA Youth World Water Polo Championships in Serbia.
With the college season ongoing and several members of the senior national team unavailable this spring, Stryker was one of a handful of high schoolers who got an opportunity to travel and compete with Team USA, winners of the last three Olympic gold medals and the sport’s dominant team for the past decade.
High school players joining Stryker on the senior team this spring have been attacker Emily Ausmus, utility players Rachel Gazzaniga and Allison Cohen, and two-meter defensive player Julia Bonaguidi.
Stryker said training with proven Olympic champions has upped her game even more, from trying to whiz the ball past gold-medal goalies to learning from her own little mistakes.
“It’s a whole other level of physicality,” she said. “I make mistakes but learn from them.”
Stryker said those mistakes might be “little stuff” like passing to one person when she should have passed to another. Attacking the goal when she passed up a shot to make a pass. Defensively being in the right body position and learning to find the passing lanes quicker.
As for her future, she’s not sure if she’ll make the 2024 Olympic team, but making the 2028 team is certainly on her radar.
“I do have goals, probably not for 2024. But this experience will help me down the road. I’m becoming familiar with national team style of play,” Stryker said. “Making the 2028 team would be amazing. It would be huge, and it’s definitely one of my goals.
“As long as I have a good work ethic I think I have a shot.”