Kami Craig

U.S. women win water polo gold


KAZAN, Russia — Rachel Fattal bubbled up with absolute, incandescent delight in describing late Friday how it felt to win the women’s water polo world championship. “Surreal,” she said. Then, a moment later, “Amazing.” Then, finally, “Unbelievable amounts of joy and happiness.”

The U.S. women, led all tournament by Fattal, part of a new generation of world-class talent on the team, held on Friday night to defeat the Netherlands, 5-4, before a raucous crowd.

The gold medal-winning US women's water polo team // Getty Images

With the victory, the American women won their fourth world championship; no other women’s program has as many.

Further, heading now toward the Rio 2016 Olympics, the U.S. women are — all at the same time — Olympic, world championship, World Cup and World League champions.

“The media likes it. USA Water Polo likes it,” U.S. head coach Adam Krikorian said, referring to that string.

“But every team is unique. Every championship is special.”

You can talk all you want about how tough any sport on the Olympic program is. There’s no doubt the toughest is water polo. The skill set it takes to play the game at a world-class level is formidable, and that’s being generous.

The game demands that you swim, tread water and wrestle with your opponents, all the while trying to shoot the ball into a net or stopping the other team from doing the same. Try it. See if you last even one minute before you end up flopping by the side of the pool.

The U.S. women finished sixth at the world championships in 2011 in Shanghai, losing to Russia in a stunner; they got fifth at the Barcelona 2013 worlds, losing to Spain.

In between, the U.S. women took gold at the 2012 London Games.

Since London and in particular Barcelona, the team has undergone some significant changes.

Heather Petri and Brenda Villa, for instance, mainstays on the U.S. team for more than a dozen years, retired.

So, too, Betsey Armstrong, the starting goalie for years. The backup goalie, Tumua Anae — retired as well.

It is a testament to the athletes in the pipeline — as well as the skill and verve of Krikorian, his assistant coaches and staff — that the U.S. women have been able to, well, plug and play and stay not just near but at the top of the world.

It’s not just that the senior U.S. women are now world champions.

The U.S. girls’ junior and youth teams — they’re No. 1 in the world, too.

Starting goalie Ashleigh Johnson is a rising senior at — of all places — Princeton. She was named the Kazan 2015 tournament’s best goalie.

With about 4 minutes to go in Friday’s final quarter, she made a highlight reel-worthy save on a penalty shot, obviously from point blank range, delivered by Holland’s Catharina Van Der Sloot.

She made another with 16 seconds to go in the game, this time off a shot from Nomi Stomphorst, that sealed the deal for the Americans.

“I didn’t feel very much pressure,” she said when asked about taking over in goal for a mainstay such as Armstrong, adding a moment later that she and the other new U.S. goalie, Sami Hall, were able to step right in: “I feel like this is a new team.”

Which in so many ways it is.

Kami Craig, Courtney Mathewson, Maggie Steffens — they’re still key elements of the U.S. effort.


Maddie Musselman, who just turned 17 in June, is going to be a senior in high school; she scored Friday night to put the U.S. ahead, 2-1, in the second period. Her dad, Jeff, pitched for five years in the major leagues, for Toronto and the New York Mets, from 1986 through 1990.

Makenzie Fisher, 18, just finished high school. Her dad, Erich, was on the U.S. men’s team that took fourth at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Fattal is due to be a senior this fall at UCLA. She scored once Friday, cementing her status as the tourney MVP.

The set-up for the match Friday night under the lights — game time was 10 p.m. — evoked memories for not just a few observers of the women’s water polo final at the 2008 Beijing Games.

That match featured a higher-ranked U.S. team against an up-and-coming Dutch squad; the Dutch ended up winning, 9-8, on a goal with 26 seconds left from left-hander Danielle de Bruijn; she scored an astonishing seven goals.

The game Friday was notable for its defensive intensity.

Steffens, the U.S. captain, said after the game she could only hear out of her right ear; the left one got dinged, and hard.

When the game was over, two water polo caps, the special headgear that all players wear, lay at the bottom of the pool — they had been ripped off during the game.

The only two-goal lead of the game came late, the Americans up, 5-3, on Mathewson’s shot with 35 seconds to go in the third.

It stayed 5-3 until Holland’s Maud Megens scored with 3:13 to go. 5-4.

Back and forth it went, tension building, until the final save, with those 16 seconds left, by Johnson.

When the final buzzer sounded, all the American players jumped in the pool, dragging Krikorian — in a blue USA Water Polo and khaki pants — and his assistants in, too.

“I’m just happy we eeked that out,” he said. “The Dutch — they played really tough.”

Particle physics and water polo


It is reasonable  to wonder why a story about a water polo coach getting the U.S. Olympic Committee's top award for sportsmanship and fair play would begin with a reference to the award this week of the Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of something called the Higgs boson particle. The Higgs, as it is known among physicists, has in common parlance come to be called the "god particle," because it explains -- well, everything. It has to do with how things acquire mass. More elementally, as the New York Times' brilliant science writer Dennis Overbye explains, it is that the cosmos is framed by simple, indeed elegant, laws. At the same time, everything interesting -- in particular, us -- happens because of lapses or flaws in that elegance.

That is, because of a mistake.


Our world is so imperfect. It's the mistake, and the response, that is forever so compelling.

In the semifinal round of the women's water polo tournament at the 2012 London Olympics, Adam Krikorian, the U.S. coach, made a tremendous mistake.

With just one second to go, the Americans up by one goal over Australia, 9-8, he called a timeout.

Australian captain Kate Gynther's shot had just rattled off the crossbar. Krikorian thought the ball had ended up in the hands of the American goalkeeper, Betsey Armstrong. He called time. He thought everything was fine and the Americans were on their way, after a hard-fought game with the Aussies, to the gold-medal game.

Suddenly, it was not fine. The officials began huddling.

It wasn't just that the stakes were obviously high. Here, again, was history.

For more than a decade, the U.S. women's water polo program had been on nothing less than a quest for gold.

In Sydney in 2000, at the very first Olympic women's water polo tournament, the U.S. women lost gold -- to Australia -- on a shot made with roughly one second left in the game.

In Athens in 2004, the Americans finished third.

In Beijing in 2008, the Americans again took second, this time behind Netherlands, on a goal scored with just 26 seconds to go.

Krikorian -- who had been the coach at UCLA -- took over the program following Beijing, succeeding Guy Baker. He instilled a new culture. He said, over and again, we are all in this together.

He also made it plain the moment would come -- he didn't know when -- when the players had so bought into the idea of playing not just with but for each other as well as the staff, the coaches and the United States of America that they would know, they would just know, what to do and how to do it.

That, he made clear, was what a team was about.

And -- more.

In our world, so filled with skepticism and doubt, it is so easy, so tempting, to dismiss the idea of a team becoming truly a family. A family is rich with faith and, indeed, with love.

Physics can make incredible things happen. Love, though, is the strongest force of all. It bends time.

When Adam Krikorian called timeout, the problem was this:

Betsey Armstrong did not, in fact, have possession of the ball.

The rules were, as ever, simple: calling time when you don't have possession means the other team gets a penalty shot.

So, with just one second left in the game, the referees gave Australian star Ash Southern the ball. She whipped it past Armstrong. Just that fast, the game was tied. The horn sounded.

Onto overtime.

At the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, the Americans had finished sixth, their worst performance in over a decade. In the final game of that tournament, Australia had beaten the Americans for fifth place, 10-5.

To get to the Beijing final four years before, the Americans had defeated Australia in the semi, 9-8.

Now the Americans, seemingly on their way to the London final, were -- well, what?

"I just made the biggest mistake of my life," Krikorian said this week, recalling the moment, adding, "Immediately all these thoughts go through your head: 'I just cost my team the chance to play in the gold-medal game,' a dream they had been working toward for three or four years, some of them 12 years. There was a lot of battling inside my own head."

He added a moment later, "I typically pride myself on how I perform under pressure. This was something I had never experienced before. It was a bit overwhelming for me. I just remember being speechless. For once in my life, I didn't have anything to say. They came over to me in the huddle. I might have said a couple words. I mostly stared at them like I was looking at ghosts."

London Olympics - USA Water Polo Womens Press Conference

The time between regulation quarters is two minutes. Between regulation and overtime it's five minutes. There was still a lot of time left to go.

Krikorian looked at the clock -- 4:10 still to go until the whistle would blow to signal the start of overtime. He said, "It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had to get over it."

He called another huddle.

He said, "We are not going to let some stupid mistake by the coach affect the outcome of this game," explaining now, "I knew I had to say something that would immediately allow me to take responsibility for the mistake."

That plain. That simple. That elegant.

"That second meeting Adam had with us, bringing us all together, admitting, 'Guys, I made a mistake,' moving forward from that -- that showed all our team strength," said center Annika Dries, who is now 21 and playing both at Stanford and for the U.S. national team.

There really were no words thereafter: "The one thing I do remember is the eye contact I made with my teammates, the coaching staff, how determined we were and how there didn't even need to be words expressed: 'We got this. We are going to do this together.'

"I was swimming back and forth. I looked up at Adam and I just nodded. He knew and I knew that no matter what, we were in this together."

Attacker Courtney Mathewson, now 27, is also still on the U.S. national team. She had played for Krikorian at UCLA, graduating in 2008.

She said, "We knew he had made a mistake. But we make mistakes all the time. Everyone makes mistakes. This was our time to come together and prove to him that it was really just another bump in the road and we were going to get to where we wanted to be at the end.

"… We nodded. We looked each other in the eye. There was a little touch. We could feel the electricity within us at that moment. We could feel it was going to work out. We had done everything possible to prepare when things weren't going our way.

"After that second meeting, we could have been playing anybody at any time. But we knew. We were playing for each other and for Adam.

'And we dominated. It was straight domination."

Halfway through the first of the two three-minute overtimes, Maggie Steffens, then just 19, hit a skip shot. Then Kami Craig, who had also played on the 2008 Olympic team, hit from close range to make it 11-9.

That's how the game, finally, ended.

Two days later, the U.S. would defeat Spain, 8-5, for gold.

On Friday, amid the USOC's annual assembly in Colorado Springs, Colo., Krikorian will receive an award handed out each year since 1985, the USOC citing him for demonstrating "composure, crediting his players for showing resolve and making the best of a difficult situation."

"Ironically," he said, "for me what was unquestionably the worst mistake in my coaching career [turned out to be] my most rewarding moment," adding, "The culture I wanted to create, and dreamed of creating, was just staring at me in that intense moment. It was a great feeling, a very rewarding feeling."

He also said, "The thing I keep coming back to is as a coach you are in a position of influence. You have a unique opportunity to influence your athletes, your sport, your country, the Olympic Games. That provides a unique opportunity, a unique time to have an influence on the world, even if it's two seconds, five seconds, 10 seconds."

Ladies and gentlemen, particle physics may well be brutally difficult to explain. But in matters of team chemistry, it's easy: Adam Krikorian, winner of this year's Jack Kelly Fair Play Award.

Water polo: the start of the quest

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Over the past week, the U.S. women's water polo team has played Hungary in four exhibitions up and down the state of California, the Americans winning all four, the last a 9-4 victory Sunday that was way more physical than the final score would indicate before a happy, flag-waving crowd of about 1,000 people at Corona del Mar High School. Afterward, the American players signed autographs and posed for photos -- there were dozens and dozens of little girls in the crowd -- and, under a postcard-perfect Southern California sky, the NBC cameras beamed it all out on live TV.

It was, as Olympic send-offs go, about as good as it gets.

Three weeks from Monday, the U.S. team opens round-robin play at the 2012 Games against -- Hungary.

Since 2000, the Americans have done it all in water polo, won everything there is to win, except for Olympic gold.

This game Sunday was, in a sense, the beginning of the end of the journey. It was also, in a way, the start of the quest.

These four games against Hungary mean everything and nothing.

When the history of this U.S. team is written, no one is particularly apt to remember this four-game set. The Americans won the first game, last Monday, up in Palo Alto, 17-8; the second game, on the Fourth of July, back down in Southern California, at Los Alamitos, 14-8; and game three on Friday in San Diego, 7-6.

The games were all different. The Americans were ahead in some games, behind in others, and figured out a way to win all four games.

Along with the undeniable benefit of being on national TV -- that, ultimately, is the value of this series: they figured out a way to win.

Sunday's game was broken open early in the third quarter, when Maggie Steffens scored twice and Kami Craig once. What was once a tight game was suddenly 7-3.

But the revealing lesson in how smart this U.S. team can be came on the sequence that led to the next goal. With time winding down on the 30-second shot clock, Brenda Villa, who along with Heather Petri has played on every American Olympic team since 2000, fired a skip shot that left Hungarian goaltender Flora Bolonyai -- a current All-American at USC -- no option but to stop it in a way that it rolled out of play behind her. That gave the Americans the ball, and another 30 seconds. Elsie Windes got off another shot that led to another re-set -- which led, finally, to a goal by Kelly Rulon, making it 8-3 midway through the third.

"It's good to play a series of four games and good to be reminded of how quickly things can change," goalie Betsey Armstrong said, adding a moment later, "You have to remember to play your own game."

Until July 22, when they leave for London, the Americans will be practicing at their home base at Los Alamitos -- with one break. On Monday night, they're heading as a group to Las Vegas; on Tuesday, they're due to watch the U.S. men's basketball team practice and meet with head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

About a year ago, Rulon had bought Krzyzewski's 2009 book, "The Gold Standard," about the 2008 U.S. men's basketball team. It has since been widely read on the water polo team, coach Adam Krikorian said.

Krikorian, who coached at UCLA and knows the John Wooden story well, said that perhaps the U.S. women will glean some "words of wisdom or any kind of inspiration" from Krzyzewski.

Then again, this meeting might turn out to be a two-way street. Seven players on that men's basketball team will be Olympic newbies. They might want to hear what Brenda Villa and Heather Petri have to say, too.

"It's really cool," Petri said, "to feel this level of confidence that our teammates have right now. It's empowering us as well," meaning the two of them. "We felt it. We know what's ahead of us. To see them acknowledging it, and being empowered by it, is really exciting."

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."

U.S. women's water polo - a success story

You watch water polo, arguably the most difficult and demanding team sport in the Summer Olympics, and you see what looks more or less like a soccer or basketball game play out in a pool. And that's true enough. But so much more is going on below the surface, if only you know where to look.

It's a little bit like what's going on with the U.S. women's water polo team the past two years, one of the great success stories on the American scene -- to be clear, not just the Olympic scene but beyond, one of the best stories in all of American sports.

To read more, click through to teamusa.org: http://bit.ly/c3Uh1N