By Greg Mescall
For the first time since the quarter started, Spain was showing signs of life. They had just scored to cut their deficit to four against Team USA as the fourth quarter approached in the Gold-medal game of the 2017 FINA World Championship in Budapest.
The Spaniards ramped up their press defense over the remaining 25 seconds of the period hoping to preserve some momentum for a final push over the last eight minutes.
Maddie Musselman was under heavy watch, her defender there at every stroke. She was trying to break free, trying to make a move as time was winding down. Then with about five seconds to play in the period she gave a look to attacker Kiley Neushul and made a break to the goal.
As Musselman drove hard to the cage, Neushul dropped in a pass over the top with the precision accuracy of a brain surgeon. Musselman caught it, slammed on the brakes, rose up and fired the ball into the back of the net.
The thousands of fans at the Alfred Hajos Stadium on Margaret Island marveled at the sequence, Team USA cheered and Spain would get no closer.
“Instinct, taking what the defense gives her” is how Team USA Head Coach Adam Krikorian remembers the play.
On the swim back to center pool to restart play, all that was left for Musselman to do was raise her eyebrows at Neushul. It’s not an epic eyebrow raise on the level of, say, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but it’s a little something that shows how comfortable the 19-year-old World Championship MVP has become as a mainstay on Team USA, if you smell what Musselman is cooking.
It started back on a trip to China where Musselman scored a donut goal, over the goalie’s head, one that was so impressive she she described it as “kind of mean.” After the tally she looked to the typically stoic Neushul who raised her eyebrows in confirmation of the highlight score. Since then Musselman has run with it, raising her eyebrows at Neushul whenever the opportunity arises.
Inside jokes and World Championships and Olympic Golds were all part of the dream for Maddie Musselman, but not so soon. The Newport Beach, California, native had Olympic aspirations for a long time—but in 2014, just two years before the Olympic Games, she wasn’t selected for the FINA World Cup roster.
“I definitely did not think I would go to the Rio Olympics,” Musselman said, adding that Krikorian invited her in 2014 to night practice saying “you never know” and “this is preparation for later.”
“I thought, ‘I’ll be a part of it as long as I can be a part of it,’” she recalls.
Musselman went on a summer trip to Budapest and took part in the Kirishi Cup in Russia. Then after failing to make the cut for the World Cup, she headed off to the FINA Youth World Championships, taking Gold that August in Madrid.
She stayed in the mix as her junior year of high school began at Corona del Mar in southern California. “That summer was a lot of learning and [I thought], ‘Oh my gosh, this is really hard. I don’t know if I’ll make it,’” Musselman recalls.
She went to play her high school season, which runs through February, while also training with the National Team when possible.
The training paid off as Musselman made both the 2015 Pan American Games and FINA World Championship roster, winning two Golds with Team USA. An Olympic dream that looked years in the distance was now coming into rapid focus.
She had been in the water since she was three years old on the Newport Hills Swim Team. Michelle Sperling, her first swim coach, was the one that helped plant the Olympic dream. Every four years Sperling and the Musselman family would get together to watch the Olympic Games, and when swimming came on the coach let Musselman know that the athletes on the starting blocks could be her. At around eight years old Musselman’s older sister Alex introduced her to water polo. A strong swimming foundation would subsequently pay off—and though it rarely happened, the idea of beating Alex, a goalkeeper, in a team sport drew Maddie in.
By the time she was 12 Musselman had put aside all the other activities that dot a typical preteen’s athletic resume, including soccer and basketball, to focus solely on water polo.
“It was the team part, just the joy I had of going to practice every day,” Musselman recalls. “I wanted to go to the Olympics for swimming. The minute I committed to water polo I thought I could be an Olympian in that.”
Fresh off a summer of winning Gold at the highest level, Musselman was faced with a major choice most teenagers don’t have to make. Nothing was guaranteed but Krikorian offered her an opportunity to train full-time with the National Team to see if she could accelerate that Olympic dream by a couple of years.
This would mean a ton of sacrifice. No senior year at her high school. Now online school would be the way to a diploma. No senior season of high school water polo, no senior prom and all the activities that come with ruling the school after four long years.
With the support of her parents, both of whom played college athletics—and her father Jeff was a Major League Baseball pitcher—Musselman forged ahead and hardly, if ever, looked back.
“In the end it was worth it,” she says. “A huge part was my dad just telling me that this was a great opportunity, and I may never have this opportunity again.”
A little less than a year later—on June 16, 2016, her 18th birthday—Maddie Musselman was officially an Olympian. In reality she found out the night before and got to celebrate with her family at a hybrid birthday/Maddie is an Olympian dinner. A bunch of her friends showed up to surprise Musselman. And however cool you thought your 18th birthday was, it wasn’t like this one.
Some two months later Musselman wasn’t just an Olympian but an Olympic Gold medalist. The trepidation of competing to crack the lineup had given way to confidence bolstered by dominant performances in the water.
“[Rio] was a testament to our preparation. It created a lot of confidence at the Games, just the confidence that were going to get the job done,” said Musselman of Team USA’s run during which they trailed for just 44 seconds of the entire tournament. “The games we did play, it wasn’t like it was easy even though the score may seem like it.”
The preparation and the belief in the team carried over to the summer of 2017. Never before had an Olympic champ in women’s water polo reached the semifinals the following year at the World Championship. New rosters, diminished desire—whatever the reason it hadn’t happened, including Team USA in 2013. But the current United States squad has been on another level since 2014. They’ve plugged in new pieces here and there without skipping a beat.
Musselman was one of those pieces plugged in back at the start of this dynastic run, but she still remains in awe of her teammates. “To even be able to practice with them, it’s just eye-opening, I ask a million questions. Kiley asks a million questions, she doesn’t need to learn more. Maggie [Steffens] makes everything game-like, Rachel [Fattal] has this nasty shot that she shoots every time that nobody can block,” Musselman says, noting just three of her world-class teammates.
She’s in that crowd now, too.
“There are only a few people in the world that can move in the water like Maddie can,” says Krikorian. “That unique ability allows her to cover a lot of water defensively and helps her move in and out of space quickly on the offensive end of the pool. Her peak will be determined by her attitude and approach, and if that’s anything like what it’s been, she’s still climbing the mountain.”
In the lead up to 2016, Musselman befriended two-time Olympian Courtney Mathewson, one of the veterans on the team. The teenager and the 30-something became close, rooming together at all the major events with Mathewson getting tutored on the finer points of Snapchat and Musselman getting her first friend with a husband. With Mathewson retired and having welcomed her family’s first child with husband Chris, she’s been able to watch Musselman’s continued development.
“For Maddie, her potential and possible successes are limitless,” Mathewson said. "She has already achieved so much, and she’s just getting warmed up. With her work ethic, determination and humility, she will be able to achieve anything she wants to in or out of the water. It’s going to be exciting to watch her and to say that I was her teammate along the way.”
What Krikorian and Mathewson have known for a little while the rest of the world got a better look at in Budapest. Musselman led the United States in scoring with 16 goals as the squad went undefeated. She finished her freshman year at UCLA as the top newcomer in her conference and reached the NCAA Championship game. She has her sights set on being a doctor. She loves children, so probably something in pediatrics, and if not then something working with the human body. But first there’s more water polo on the horizon. Three more seasons with the Bruins and the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
A self-described introvert, the water polo part has never been a problem, but with all the success comes a whole lot of attention. She knows she’s a role model now and someone others aspire to emulate. When hundreds clogged her street upon her return from Rio, Musselman knew things had changed. When she’s tagged in a tweet about somebody dreaming to play with her, she doesn’t dismiss it. “First of all, I know it can happen. I never thought I would play with Courtney or Kami [Craig] or Maggie, especially with how young I was,” she says. “I never thought I’d get to be a part of it. A lot can happen in three years.”
So when someone gets giddy as the team hits the pool deck and smiles, she smiles back. Or when she’s at the Fashion Island Mall near her home and a total stranger waves with excitement, she waves back. She knows those little things can push a dream along.
Because she lived it.
When she’s not training for a big competition or on the UCLA campus, Musselman babysits the kids of a local family named the Olsens from time to time. One of the kids, Ella, has gotten into water polo. And ever since Maddie made the Olympics, Ella—now 8 years old—wants to be an Olympian, too. She’s been inspired by Maddie.
The circle is complete…it’s now Musselman dropping by to encourage the next generation that they, too, can live their dreams. Now they just need to work on their eyebrows.
This story appeared in FINA Aquatics World Magazine & SkipShot Magazine