It was an unforgettable moment for Makenzie and Aria Fischer when the sisters waited to be officially introduced into the sisterhood that is the U.S. Olympic women’s water polo team.
The pair is part of a 13-member U.S. squad that arrived in Rio de Janeiro earlier in the week for the Summer Olympic Games. That team was revealed by Coach Adam Krikorian during a Los Angeles press conference in mid-June.
The announcement of the team not only added to the bond the sisters share, it also drew a slight laugh from Aria who said she enjoys the good-natured ribbing aspect of their relationship.
“Coach introduced us by cap order,” explained Aria, who wears cap No. 9. “I was named first and when he got to Makenzie (cap No. 11), he introduced her as ‘Aria’s older sister.’ I got a chuckle out of that because usually, it’s the other way around. I’m usually introduced as Makenzie’s younger sister. It was pretty cool. We’re competitive, but in a good way.”
Joking aside, Makenzie and Aria have excelled in the pool together since they were youngsters, starting in club and continuing into their careers at Laguna Beach High and with the U.S. national team.
Now, both are Olympians.
Makenzie, who began playing with the national team in 2013, is 19. Aria, at 17, is the youngest member of the women’s water polo team.
Being an American Olympic water polo athlete has been a family affair: their father, Erich, a two-time All-American at Stanford and one of the program’s leaders in career goals scored, competed for the U.S. men’s water polo team at the 1992 Barcelona Games. The U.S. finished fourth that year.
“It’s pretty special,” Makenzie said of making the team. “It’s even more exciting when you get to do it with your sister. It’s definitely surreal. A year ago, if you were to tell me that we would make the 2016 Rio team, it would be hard to believe.”
Aria, who has trained full-time with the women’s national team since September, agreed.
“Obviously, I’m super excited and looking forward to going to Rio and competing,” she said. “This whole year, I’ve had the chance to play with so many of these women whom I’ve looked up to. I’m just so glad to be a part of this group.”
Makenzie, a 2015 graduate of Laguna Beach High, had set girls’ water polo program career records for goals, steals and total points (goals and assists), and the single-season record for points during her senior season. An attacker/utility player, she was part of back-to-back CIF Southern Section Division 1 championship teams and a two-time Division 1 Player of the Year.
She delayed enrolling at Stanford last fall to train with the women’s national team, and said she will begin her studies on The Farm in the fall.
“This past year has taught me so much,” she said. “I learned a lot, not only about the game of water polo but also as a person, socially and living on my own. I’ve played all over the world and experienced different cultures. Getting through this past year has made me stronger. It really was worth it.”
It also challenged her game: Krikorian put the idea out to Makenzie about taking on the role of defender.
“He talked to me about it and felt that I could excel at the position,” Makenzie said. “Sometimes it could be rough making the adjustments, but I really love playing the position. I like the responsibility of playing defense.”
“Her overall, specific development has really helped this team,” Krikorian said. “Defense was an area that we needed to fill and her ability to fill that role as a defender has been a huge boost. She just went after it. She’s that type of a player.
“Makenzie’s one of the fastest swimmers on our team. She has great arm length and speed, can create transitions, has natural instincts and has given us depth on defense on the right side. It’s been fun to watch her develop and embrace this role.”
The position switch for Makenzie also meant match-ups in practice with her sister, who plays center.
“Aria’s on the opposing team in practices, and we definitely go after it,” Makenzie said in a laughing manner similar to her sister. “We don’t give each other pointers. We don’t talk about it, we just go at it in the pool. I’m a pretty calm person, but she (Aria) can get you going. It’s a fun rivalry, though.”
Aria, a two-time All-CIF player during her first two years at Laguna Beach, was home schooled last year and trained full-time with the national team. Last summer, she helped the U.S. junior women’s team win the FINA world title and was selected tournament MVP.
“It’s been an amazing past year,” Aria said, adding that she will return to Laguna Beach for her senior year this fall. “It’s important to follow your dreams and I put myself out there and worked hard. It’s all about the journey and this past year has been so worth it.”
Krikorian has seen Aria hone her talents in the past year, working her way toward Olympics contention.
“She was on the radar, and I’m not shocked she made the team. I knew it was a possibility,” he said.
“I remember, though, one of the first meetings with her. I told her there was a slim-to-none chance of her making the team. I’m not sure if she wanted to cry, or hit me. But, seeing her competitive nature as I got to know her, I knew she had it in her to do it. It’s tough to count someone like that out.
“Aria has a ferocious attitude and a will to score, and those are good fits for her position (center). She’s a great back up to one of the best centers in the world (Olympic veteran Kami Craig).”
The U.S. women are ranked No. 1 in the world and have won every major tournament since 2014, including the FINA World Championship, FINA World Cup, Pan American Games title, and three FINA World League Super Final titles. In March in the Netherlands, they won gold (8-0 record) at the Olympic Qualification Tournament where a quarterfinal round win over France earned the team a berth to the 2016 Olympic Games.
Makenzie scored a team-high 24 goals and Aria scored 11 in the qualification tournament.
Team USA will attempt to win a second straight gold medal at the Olympic Games. The 2012 team, which included another standout Laguna Beach and Stanford athlete, Annika Dries, won gold at the London Games. That team also included another pair of sisters, Maggie and Jessica Steffens.
Maggie Steffens, an attacker, is one of four veterans returning to Team USA.
Team USA will open Olympic play Tuesday against Spain. Other Group B preliminary games for the U.S. are against China on Thursday and Hungary on Aug. 13. Quarterfinal round games are Aug. 15 and the medal round is scheduled for Aug. 19.
Erich Fischer said he and his wife, Leslie, will leave Monday for Rio. He said they will watch Friday’s opening ceremonies with some friends at the home of one of his ’92 Olympics teammates, three-time Olympian and former UC Irvine star Chris Duplanty.
“It’s hard to describe how proud Leslie and I are of Makenzie and Aria,” Erich Fischer said. “We’re still overwhelmed that they made the Olympic team and are pursuing their dreams in Rio. I think once we watch the opening ceremony, it will sink in more, and when we watch them play in the pool venue, it will hit us more than that.
“I will never forget walking the opening ceremony in Barcelona. To walk through that tunnel and be with athletes from around the world, specifically all the other USA athletes, was an amazing feeling. And an archer shot a flaming arrow to light the Olympic torch. It wasn’t from close-range, either, and it was right on target. It was incredible. I want them to enjoy all the pageantry and camaraderie the opening offers as they get ready to embark on what should be an amazing experience.”
Did their father offer any parting advice to his Olympian daughters before they left for Rio?
“The biggest thing I wanted to express to them was that they will have the nerves, the excitement, the energy going into their first competition,” he said. “I remember having too much adrenaline that first game. I worked through it after one or two quarters, but being too pumped can drain you.
“I told them to relax, keep themselves calm, and keep their mind clear before the game. No Rocky type of music. Just go out there and play the way you know how to play.”