Maddie Musselman was asked a popular question in sixth grade, and her answer went in the Andersen Elementary yearbook.
What do you want to be when you grow up? Musselman, 11 years old at the time, had a simple answer.
"Olympic water polo player," she is quoted as saying in the yearbook, next to a baby picture of her.
Musselman just smiles when the yearbook quote is brought up. Swimming and soccer were her sports growing up.
"Isn't that kind of weird?" she said. "I always thought that I was going to be an Olympic swimmer. I looked back on that [quote], and I was like, 'Maybe I made my decision a little bit earlier than I thought.'"
Water polo is the sport where her gold medal dreams currently lie. In June, she was named to the U.S. Olympic women's water polo team on her 18th birthday. She's currently in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, getting ready to help Team USA try to defend its gold medal. The Opening Ceremonies are Friday night and the first game is Tuesday, against Spain.
A 5-foot-11 attacker from Newport Beach, Musselman is the second-youngest player on the squad. Yet, she has more than carried her weight in her nearly three years training with the senior national team. She scored a match-high six goals as Team USA beat Russia, 16-5, on July 21 at Cathedral Catholic High in San Diego, then four more in another win over Russia, 15-7, at
Soon enough, Musselman will call the UCLA pool home as a future Bruin. It's the same one where her older sister Alex, a goalie, finished up her collegiate career this spring, helping UCLA secure a third-place finish at the NCAA Championships. The youngest Musselman sister is Ella, who will be a high school freshman this fall.
For Maddie, college can wait. This summer, she wants the championship that means the most in her sport, and that's an Olympic gold medal.
She has blossomed over the last three years. Maddie Musselman was the Newport-Mesa Dream Team Player of the Year as a 15-year-old sophomore at Corona del Mar High. A year later, in March 2015, she made the tough decision to leave CdM and train full-time with the national team.
It only came after close consultation with U.S. Coach Adam Krikorian, as well as her parents Jeff and Karen. Both of them have athletic backgrounds, as Jeff was a Major League Baseball relief pitcher in the 1980s and Karen played soccer at
"My dad was like, 'You have to make sure everything's in line before you actually do it,'" Maddie Musselman said. "He came up with different plans, and we met with Adam. He was kind of that guide for doing water polo and also doing school. If he wasn't there, then I don't think I'd be able to do it."
Maddie finished up high school online, with Laurel Springs. On the national team she kept growing and growing, scoring five goals to help Team USA win the 2015 FINA World Championship. She had nine goals in the 2016 FINA Intercontinental Tournament, 13 goals at the Olympic Qualification Tournament in the Netherlands and 11 goals in the FINA World League Super Final in Texas.
Any question of if she could cut it playing up with the big girls was quickly erased.
"This process is about having a dream and having the courage to chase it," Krikorian said. "It took a tremendous amount of courage on her part [to leave CdM]. She didn't know where it was going to end up. I had a good feeling about it, honestly, from the beginning, but you don't know. There's some fear that goes along with that. I think she should be commended for that, honestly, more than making it, for having the courage.
"A lot of young kids in her situation would let the fear kind of get to them, but she persevered. I'm so proud of her. She's developed so much as a water polo player, but also as a person. She's become not just a member of this team, she's become a high-producing member of this team. I still think her best moments are ahead of us."
To some degree, Musselman symbolizes the youth of the 2016 women's water polo Olympic team, which has nine first-time Olympians on the 13-player roster and an average age of only 23. Four years ago, Krikorian said the team was primarily built around
Musselman is one of those ways. Ross Sinclair, the Newport Harbor boys' water polo coach who coached her for two years at CdM, is not surprised. During one offseason, he gave her a book to read, "Outliers: The Story of Success" by Malcolm Gladwell. An outlier is the way that Sinclair sees Musselman.
"She's the best natural athlete that I've ever seen, that I've ever coached, that I've ever played with," Sinclair said. "I think she's an Olympian in multiple sports, if she started playing that sport at an early level. She's one in seven billion, in my honest opinion ... And I don't think she's anywhere near her peak. Physically she's going to get stronger with four years of college, she's going to get faster, she's going to get smarter.
"She's not going to stop at one Olympics, I'll tell you that. She's going to want to win four championships at UCLA. She's going to want to win a gold medal, another gold medal, another gold medal. She's something special."
She's also kept humble and with her roots, coming back to CdM several times to watch games. Musselman was named to the Olympic team on June 16. Two days later, she was at the Newport Hills Swim Team pool to compete for the Killer Whales in a home meet.
Michelle Sperling, the Newport Hills head coach, has known Musselman since she was 5. They both came into the Newport Hills program at the same time, Sperling as coach and Musselman as swimmer.
More recently, Musselman invited Sperling to a Team USA practice, as well as the Olympic water polo gala at the Irvine Hilton.
"She's always been such a driven swimmer," Sperling said. "I always saw a little extra talent in her. There was something definitely special about Maddie, competitive-wise. I've been coaching for 20 years, and Maddie is definitely one of a kind. Now that she's in Rio and her first game's on Tuesday, it kind of gives me chills ... She has touched and inspired everybody around us. She's just so humble, and it makes you want to cheer for her more."
CdM assistant principal Daniel Patterson has seen Musselman's humility as well, partially through his 5-year-old daughter Leighton.
"She brought in a picture to share with her preschool class, that I took of her and Maddie at a water polo match," Patterson said. "'This is my picture with a champion,'" is what she kept telling everybody. It was really cute. She is inspiring not just to us but also to the younger generations. My daughter is 5, and she has this icon that she's looking at. It can really inspire people to work hard and stick with something."
Patterson couldn't really imagine a better role model for his daughter. He said Musselman "might be the nicest person alive."
"But then you also think that she's an Olympian," he said. "In the water, she obviously does really well, but when you speak with her or talk with her parents, they're just so grounded ... She never lost that connection with the school. Although she left CdM, it was kind of like she never left. She's just so authentic, and I don't think she's let [becoming an Olympian] change her in that way."
Musselman can't wait for the games to begin. After Spain, top-ranked Team USA continues group play against China on Thursday, then Hungary on Aug. 13.
"I want to feel everything," she said. "I want to be nervous, excited, scared. I think we'll be fine. We've been there before [in November for a tournament], so we saw the Olympic park being built and stuff. We kind of got a visual, which was cool, and we've prepared. We know what we have to do, it's just a matter of doing it. I think it'll be fun to just experience the Olympics, positive or negative results."
Nothing in the journey so far has been a negative for Musselman. She is definitely enjoying the ride. On the Olympic team, she has two other Newport Beach residents in Kaleigh Gilchrist and team captain Maggie Steffens.
Both of them have five to six years on Musselman. But, as she has said in the past, age is just a number. The only numbers that matter to her are the ones on the scoreboard at the end of the match.
"I've challenged their ability to lead," Krikorian said of the young players on the team. "Especially Maddie and [Laguna Beach High graduate Makenzie Fischer]. From day one, when they joined us in the fall of 2013, they were with not the collegiate athletes but they were with our graduates. They were with
So, at 18 years old, Musselman is a leader on the best team in the world.