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6 local alumni make United States women’s water polo Olympic team

From left, Alys Williams, Aria Fischer, Kaleigh Gilchrist, Maddie Musselman, Stephania Haralabidis and Makenzie Fischer.
Local athletes, from left, Alys Williams, Aria Fischer, Kaleigh Gilchrist, Maddie Musselman, Stephania Haralabidis and Makenzie Fischer have been selected as six of the 13 members of the U.S. women’s water polo team during a news conference on Wednesday at Doubletree by Hilton in Los Angeles. They will be competing for a third straight gold medal at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Alys Williams was the last player cut from the 2016 U.S. Olympic women’s water polo team.

She never got to travel to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to help Team USA win its second straight gold medal.

Williams is fairly low-key out of the water, but missing an opportunity like that is a bitter pill to swallow for any competitive athlete.

With one more year of eligibility left at UCLA, the Edison High School alumna could have finished her career with the Bruins and headed off into the sunset.

Instead, she got back to work and set her sights for the next Olympics, taking place this summer in Tokyo.

“There’s always been nerves, that’s for sure,” said Williams, 27. “I’ve tried to stay positive, but especially after 2016, it’s been like, what if that happens again? What if I get all this way and I don’t make it? I’ve been nervous about it, but much more confident this time around.”

Williams and her teammates had to deal with the coronavirus pandemic that postponed the Olympics for a year. She also got married to fellow UCLA alum Cody Moore last November.

The hard work all paid off for Williams on Wednesday. She heard her name called as one of 13 players to represent the United States in Tokyo starting next month.

She became the first player in program history to be the last cut for a previous Olympic roster, then make the team for the next Olympics.

“To hear [head coach Adam Krikorian] say the words, I felt like I could breathe,” Williams said. “Shout-out to all of the people who aren’t here with us today, because I know what it feels like.”

On a warm morning, the 2021 Olympic squad was announced at a ceremony at Kyoto Garden in downtown Los Angeles. More than half of the team — seven players — have local ties.

Left-handed attacker Stephania Haralabidis, a Corona del Mar High graduate, made her first Olympics. CdM alumna and attacker Maddie Musselman made her second Olympics while CdM’s current coach, defender and center Melissa Seidemann, is back to chase her third straight gold medal.

Newport Harbor alumna Kaleigh Gilchrist and the former Laguna Beach standout sister duo of Makenzie and Aria Fischer also are headed to their second straight Olympic Games.

Makenzie Fischer, now a two-time Olympian, looks for a shot in an exhibition match against Canada on May 19.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“It’s awesome,” said Gilchrist, fully recovered from a leg injury suffered in 2019 when a balcony at a nightclub in South Korea collapsed.

“Looking back at Rio, I always joke that it seemed like a cakewalk after these last five years that everyone’s been through. It was a long time coming and a tough road, but I’m better for it and I believe this team’s better for it.”

The coaching staff even has a local feel, as UC Irvine women’s water polo coach Dan Klatt returns as an assistant for his third straight Olympics. CdM alumnus Chris Oeding is another assistant coach for the second straight Olympics.

Team USA boasts eight returners, led by captain Maggie Steffens, as it goes for its third straight gold medal. The Americans are 14-0 this year since play resumed last month, and previously boasted a 69-match winning streak.

Each member of the team adapted to down time during the pandemic in different ways. Musselman said she started an Instagram food page, @musshavefood.

She was an 18-year-old kid during her first Olympics but now has a different role. Like Williams in 2016, Musselman will return to UCLA next year as a redshirt senior. She’s a three-time All-American.

“I was definitely more stargazed and young last time,” Musselman said. “It’s great to compete with the returners and to be able to go with a lot of the first-timers as well, especially Alys.

“I got to play with her at UCLA as well, and to be to play with her at this Olympics, it makes that a lot more exciting. We get to bring that passion from those first-timers with us to Tokyo, as well as the experience from the three-timers [Seidemann and Steffens].”

Musselman is also reconnected with Haralabidis. The two were teammates on the 2013 CdM girls’ water polo team which won the program’s only CIF Southern Section Division 1 title.

As for Williams, she said she was proud to represent Edison on the Olympic team. She is the Chargers’ first Olympic water polo player in school history.

Former Chargers girls’ water polo coach Diggy Riley said Williams was always a joy to coach before she graduated in 2012.

“Five years ago, she’s the first alternate [for the Olympics],” Riley said Wednesday in a phone interview.

“What a life lesson. How easy it would be to be like, ‘I’m done, I’m not going to go through four more years of this’ … She chose to go for it again, knowing that there were no guarantees. That takes a lot of guts and a lot of faith.”

Riley said Williams’ contact is still listed as “Alice” in his cellphone, not “Alys.”

“That first Sunset League game at Newport, when we did the showcases, they would announce her name as Alice Williams,” he said. “It was the funniest thing. She was like, ‘My name’s not Alice.’ And I was like, ‘It is now’ … Little Alice is now an Olympian.”

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