GREENWICH, CT — Wednesday night’s visit by the USA Water Polo Women’s National Team to the Greenwich YMCA was a milestone for the area’s youth water polo program, according to Mike Graff, Chairman of USA Water Polo. In remarks to a standing-room-only crowd on the Y’s pool deck, Mr. Graff described the evening’s exhibition match between Team USA and the Hungarian National Women’s team—won 11-6 by the Americans—as a first: two women’s Olympic teams meeting in the Northeast.
That it was in Greenwich came as no surprise to Graff, who for the past decade has led the California-based organization that governs the sport in the USA. “Greenwich has just been a fantastic source of growth for us… there are hundreds of kids playing within twenty miles of here.” he said in comments from the pool deck. “We decided to bring the team out, spur some excitement, and let people see, touch, feel and be part of the Olympic movement.”
With an audience dominated by young athletes, it’s clear that water polo, a sport that most Americans know only in an Olympic year, will continue to develop and flourish.
“We’re growing rapidly in the Northeast. Overall, we’ve doubled our membership across the country [in the past 10 years], and we’ve more than doubled it here.” Graff said.
With four local players, including 14-year-old Kaila Carroll, currently members of the top U.S. women’s squad, and with Thomas Dunstan, originally from Greenwich, a contender for a spot on the Senior Men’s National Team that will compete at the Rio Olympics, the U.S. national program has benefited greatly from its association with Greenwich Aquatics.
According to Kim Tierney Wang, Director of Club operations for Greenwich Aquatics and one of the architects of the sport’s explosive growth in the region, it is her club’s players that were the evening’s biggest beneficiaries.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our players, especially for the girls,” Tierney Wang said. “We have a really strong group of girls, and the fact that the Olympic team has three high-school-aged players—it’s really inspiring for our girls to see that this could be them in a couple of years.”
Focus Is the Key
In the water, for the second time in this three-match series—the final meeting between the two teams will be Saturday afternoon at Fordham University in New York City—the Americans dominated their Hungarian counterparts. With back-to-back decisive wins over an opponent that ranks among the world’s top squads, the Americans demonstrated that they are determined and focused on the upcoming Olympic Games, which open August 5.
“It’s hard to simulate situations [like] game clocks, regular referees, and the environment—and then having the Hungarians here, we know they’re extremely talented, one of the best offensive teams in the world,” USA Water Polo Women’s National Team Head Coach Adam Krikorian said following the match. “It forces us to have an edge and be able to stay focused, and that’s what we need.”
As Krikorian, who coached the Americans to Olympic gold at the 2012 London Games, knows, complacency is not an option for his team, which is favored to capture a second straight Olympic championship.
“There’s no time to rest or take it easy,” said Krikorian. “Sometimes teams and athletes have a tendency to back off a little too soon. We need to continue to push and get better, to try and create and simulate the pressure and the competition we’re going to feel at the Olympic Games—and that’s exactly what this has done for us.“
Courtney Matthewson, who at 29 is the oldest and most experienced player on a young U.S. roster, understands what it takes to pursue the top honor in her sport.
“The intensity and the focus has really stepped up,” said Matthewson, who Wednesday night led all scorers with three goals. “We’ve always been unified, but there’s a greater sense of purpose with this team. Now we know the 13 girls that we’re going to battle with in the Olympics. It’s just been full on since they announced the team [June 16]—we’ve been traveling, we’ve been training.”
Representing her country has both benefits and challenges, Matthewson pointed out.
“[A]nytime you wear ‘USA’ over your chest, you’re a target,” she said. “Being the defending Olympic gold medalist and the fact that no one’s ever won back-to-back gold medals makes the target even larger and the pressure even greater.”
Remember: Everyone’s a Leader
With only four players returning from the 2012 squad, Maggie Steffens, Team USA’s captain, knows that a new generation will need to shoulder the load to ensure a successful Olympics for the favored Americans.
“Last time around I had incredible leaders to guide me through London,” said Steffens, the youngest player on the 2012 roster. “I had my sister Jessica on the team, I had Brenda Villa, four-time Olympian [and] the best player of the decade. So I was following some very incredible leaders, women and players. [That] helped facilitate my role on this team now.”
The 23-year-old, who has already played six years for the U.S., is confident that her teammates will step up to the task.
“Something our coach always tells us is ‘Everyone’s a leader.’ Whether you’re the youngest, the oldest, you’ve been playing a year or five years—I hope that we can all embody and show that when we play on this team now.”
Coach Krikorian, who has known success both at the collegiate level—14 championships as either a player, assistant coach or coach with the UCLA men’s and women’s teams—as well as in the Olympics, understands that a great deal is expected of this team, but believes they are well-prepared for the challenge ahead.
“We know that we can be beat on any given day, but we also know that we have this wealth of experience and success that gives us confidence going into a game,” he said. “The thing we talk about a lot in terms of our preparation is continuing to be humble enough to prepare but confident enough to perform. When we have that mindset—which we’ve had—we’re tough to beat.”
As to the young players of Greenwich and the Northeast who aspire to Olympic greatness, they are the true beneficiaries of Team USA’s presence in Connecticut; they’ve now have experienced it first-hand.
“This is their dream, and they see it,” Greenwich Aquatics’ Tierney Wang said about her young players. “To have this match in their own pool and the U.S. team here is special to them.”