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Locals help Team USA women’s water polo win fourth straight FINA world title

Corona del Mar High graduate Maddie Musselman
Corona del Mar High graduate Maddie Musselman was mobbed by neighborhood kids during an Olympic welcome home block party in Newport Beach last summer. On Saturday, Musselman helped Team USA win its fourth straight FINA World Championship.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Kaleigh Gilchrist said she wasn’t sure she was going to come back to the U.S. women’s water polo national team.

After winning two gold medals with Team USA, including last year in Tokyo, Gilchrist was headed into the tail end of her career. The former Newport Harbor High and USC standout, also an accomplished surfer, turned 30 this year.

“It took me a while to realize that I wanted to go for one more Olympics,” she said during a phone interview Tuesday. “The itch to compete grew, and I realized that there was still an awesome core coming back … this team is really special.”

Gilchrist delivered in a key moment Saturday with a world title on the line.

She drew the penalty shot in the final minute of the FINA World Championships title match. Former Corona del Mar star and recent UCLA graduate Maddie Musselman put the insurance goal away, her fifth one of the match.

Team USA was moments from celebrating its fourth straight world title after beating Hungary, 9-7, for the championship in Budapest, Hungary.

Kaleigh Gilchrist takes a shot during a match against Canada at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base in 2021.
U.S. women’s national water polo member Kaleigh Gilchrist takes a shot during a match against Canada at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base in 2021.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Musselman, last year’s Olympics Most Valuable Player, also was named the MVP of the FINA World Championships title match. Former CdM and USC star Stephania Haralabidis, another Olympic gold medal returner, also contributed for the Americans.

Gilchrist, who added a team-best two steals, shined in what she said was probably the best atmosphere she had ever played in during her storied career.

“Just being in Hungary, the country is full of water polo fans,” she said. “We had a sold-out crowd and got to play Hungary in the finals. Even before the game, [coach] Adam [Krikorian] reminded us, win or lose, embrace it all because it was going to be a super-fun environment. He was correct, but of course, it always helps when you win.”

Stephania Haralabidis battles for a ball during a pre-Olympic tune-up at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base in 2021.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

She added that the home fans vehemently disagreed with the penalty shot call in the final minute, but Musselman calmly stepped up and buried the shot.

Ryann Neushul added three goals for the U.S. in the final and goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson made 10 saves. Team USA went a perfect 6-0 in the tournament, including a 13-8 quarterfinal win over Spain and a 14-6 semifinal victory against Italy.

The staggering run for Team USA since 2014 also includes two Olympic gold medals, two FINA World Cups, two Pan American Games titles and seven FINA World League crowns.

Gilchrist and Musselman have been a big part of the recent success. Gilchrist called Musselman the best shooter in the world, and she is an obvious leader on a United States roster that featured five players making their World Championships debuts.

“Above all of her athletic play, she’s one of the most amazing, humble individuals I know,” Gilchrist said. “I think that’s why I gravitate toward her. She was a rock for me throughout my injury process from South Korea. It makes sense she’s the person she is, knowing her parents and knowing her sisters. Above all, she’s an awesome human, and I think that just rolls over into her water polo play.”

U.S. men finish sixth at FINA worlds

Huntington Beach High graduate Chase Dodd scored a goal in the fifth-place match of the FINA World Championships, but the U.S. men lost to Serbia 13-10 on Saturday in Budapest, Hungary.

Alex Bowen led Team USA with four goals, while Adrian Weinberg and Drew Holland combined for 11 goalie saves.

The U.S. men finished 4-3 in the tournament overall, making the quarterfinals before losing to Greece.

The team plays a three-game series with Italy this month in California, starting with a match on July 12 at 7:30 p.m. at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center.

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