How a team becomes a family

Two summers ago, Lolo Silver was the leading scorer for the winning U.S. women's water polo team at the FINA World Cup, with 11 goals. A few months later, in February, 2011, she and her mom, Kathy Heddy-Drum, were having lunch. Mom, Lolo said, your left eye looks funny.

Thus began a journey that would envelop the entire U.S. water polo team. Truly, it would help transform the team into a family.

Kathy Heddy-Drum, who herself is an Olympian, a swimmer who finished fifth in the 400 meters at the 1976 Games in Montreal, turned out to have a tumor in her eye, behind her socket. The tumor proved malignant.

Doctors scheduled surgery for last March 25.

As it turned out, Jessica Steffens happened to be living at Kathy's house.

Jessica, who was on the U.S. silver medal-winning 2008 Olympic team, had gone to Stanford with Lolo. They had played water polo together there. They were now on the 2012 U.S. national team together.

When Jessica first moved down to Southern California in early 2011 to train for the 2012 team, she didn't have a bed or, really, much stuff to call her own. So she had moved in with Kathy, in Long Beach.

"It was so nice having her here," Kathy said. "She was so nice to talk to. We cooked together, and we laughed, and her father," Carlos, who is well-known in water polo circles, "is really funny."

For her part, Jessica said she was so grateful just to be able to help Kathy in any little way she could. She cooked. She cleaned. Whatever.

"Right before she was going into surgery, we went out with the team to breakfast and we invited Kathy and Lolo," Jessica said. "For both of them, that was really special.

"That was good for us, too, to feel we were part of it and we were there for them."

During the surgery, doctors removed Kathy's eye. Three weeks later, they called with bad news. We are so sorry, they said, but the cancer isn't all gone. You have to undergo 40 radiation treatments.

By the end of the course of the radiation, Kathy was, as she put it, "pretty sick." She had to check into a hospital for a week, right around the 4th of July.

The parents of some of the women on the team, Jessica said, took time to visit Kathy in the hospital.

Lolo, meanwhile, was juggling practice, hospital, practice. Or trying to. She didn't make the U.S. team that went to the 2011 world championships in Shanghai.

"Obviously, I was pretty upset I didn't make the world championships team," Lolo said. "At that point, it kind of showed me that there are bigger things in life."

Understand that Lolo had always been, as one of her oldest and best friends, Jessica Hardy,  who went to high school with her at Long Beach Wilson, put it, "really tough … independent tough."

Jessica Hardy is one of America's top-ranked sprint swimmers. She said, "Kathy is one of the nicest persons to have ever walked the face of the earth. To have this happen to her -- everyone was heartbroken."

Now, Jessica Hardy said, Lolo was "100 percent putting her mom before anybody else -- and that's hard the year before the Olympics when you're doing everything you can to focus on that.

" … I was really proud of her. Everyone was proud of her."

The U.S. team struggled to sixth place in Shanghai. Lolo took the time to go up to Stanford, to train with her coaches there. Next on the schedule: the Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, in October.

Lolo was the team's alternate; she attended the team's training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., but did not travel to Mexico. The U.S. won Pan Am gold, Jessica's younger sister, Maggie, scoring the winning goal in a wild 27-26 penalty shootout over Canada in the championship game.

That victory qualified the Americans for London. Canada was knocked out of the Olympics Friday, losing at a last-chance meet in Trieste, Italy.

Last month, Lolo was on the roster for a tournament in Russia called the Kirishi Cup. She scored three goals against Spain, albeit in a 12-10 loss.

There's no question Lolo can score. As she well knows, she has to play defense, the hallmark of U.S. coach Adam Krikorian's winning way.

"I pride myself in defense. I like playing defense. I don't think people understand that," Lolo said. "It's not that I am so focused on offense that the defense gets overlooked. I understand it really well; I realize what I need to do to play really good defense."

That understanding underscores another layer of Lolo and Kathy -- indeed, the team's -- journey.

For this past year and a half, these 17 women have willingly, readily become a family.

All the while knowing that only 13 will go to London.

The team will be formally named in about a month, on May 17, at a ceremony at the LA 84 Foundation, the legacy building of the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

It is widely believed that Lolo is one of those on the bubble.

The other 16 have done everything and more for Lolo and Kathy, Lolo saying amid tears of release and joy, "I couldn't imagine going through it without them."

One of the others, Kami Craig, said, "Being part of a team, it's always being compared to being part of a family.

"… When we're not at the pool, you can find most of us hanging out with each other. You're doing a year and a half of full-time. That's family. There's not a lot of things you can hide from each other, whether you want to or not. That's the beauty of it. And the discomfort of it.

"When Lolo's mom got sick, it was natural for us to gather around her and make sure she had all the support she needed to handle the situation."

Kami also said, "If anything like that would happen to myself, I would expect the same. It's a no-brainer.

"… It's letting your guard down. It's knowing you can rely on your teammates, not just in the water but out of the water. It's not fake. It's real."

At the same time, the full-on competition to make the team is intensely real, too.

"Of course I want to be there more than anything," Lolo said.

She added, "It's weird. We are a team. It's weird to think about that, that at the end of the day some of us won't make it. We're all so close now."

Listening to those remarks, Krikorian said, "We are almost there," adding, referring to the players, "They have almost taken this thing completely," which of course has been the goal all along, because a team that takes ownership develops communication, trust, respect and, ultimately, confidence.

He said, "We have a few more months to go. I am very thankful for those months because they will get us where we want this team to be. It's not my team. It's our team."

If Lolo does make the 2012 Olympic team, her mom will absolutely be able to see her play in London with her good eye. "It has been a long road," Kathy said.

Kathy is back to running again. She is back in the water, too, at the Seal Beach Swim Club, teaching second- through seventh-graders twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.

If you saw Kathy, you wouldn't know anything was amiss. She has an artificial eye; the artists spent considerable time matching the coloring so that the shades of blue look just so.

During the surgery, doctors had to cut an optic nerve; Kathy said the left side of her face is numb. Even so, she said she considers herself fortunate. She has her water polo family. There's a lot of goodness to be thankful for. And, she said, "Luckily, my smile is there."