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Newport Beach’s Maddie Musselman, Kaleigh Gilchrist return to Olympic women’s water polo team

The United States Olympic women's water polo team poses during a news conference announcing the roster Thursday.
The United States Olympic women’s water polo team poses for a picture during a news conference announcing the roster at République Café Bakery & Restaurant in Los Angeles on Thursday.
(James Carbone)
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The United States women’s water polo team went to Paris earlier this month in advance of this summer’s Olympic Games.

Thanks to some maneuvering by team manager Ally Beck, the players got to enjoy a Taylor Swift concert on the Eras Tour, in the same La Défense Arena venue where the Olympic women’s water polo quarterfinals, semifinals and title match will be played this summer.

“It was an unbelievable, dream-come-true trip,” team member Kaleigh Gilchrist said. “I think it just got us all that much more excited for us to be there in August. We can’t wait to get back, for business, not for play.”

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Team USA, gunning for its fourth straight Olympic gold, is rooting against a cruel summer for its relatively inexperienced squad.

Ashleigh Johnson, left, and Newport Beach natives Kaleigh Gilchrist, center, and Maddie Musselman.
Ashleigh Johnson, left, and Newport Beach natives Kaleigh Gilchrist, center, and Maddie Musselman during Thursday’s press conference.
(James Carbone)

The 13-player Olympic roster was revealed Thursday at a news conference at République Café Bakery & Restaurant in Los Angeles, and Newport Beach natives Gilchrist and Maddie Musselman again made the cut.

Gilchrist, 32, and Musselman, 25, will both be seeking their third Olympic gold. The labyrinth over the years has led them back to the team in search of further glory for Team USA.

Gilchrist, a former Newport Harbor High and USC standout, is the oldest player on this year’s team, which includes seven first-time Olympians. Her sweeter than fiction story largely involves how she has preserved through injuries, including those resulting from a balcony collapsing as she was partying with a teammate in South Korea in 2019.

“I don’t think anyone would have predicted her to be a three-time Olympian, herself included, but it’s a credit to her perseverance and intelligence,” U.S. coach Adam Krikorian said. “She’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever coached, and it’s just her professionalism and maturity. She’s kind of the silent worker.”

Olympic women's water polo team captain Maggie Steffens answers questions from the media during Thursday's press conference.
(James Carbone)

Musselman, who starred at CdM and UCLA, has been one of the best players in the world for a while now. She earned Olympic MVP honors at the last games in Tokyo.

She’s always had a mature mind set, but she also enjoys having fun with her teammates, and sometimes that means performing in TikTok videos.

“I don’t know what I’m doing, but it’s fun,” Musselman said. “I watch all of them do it … I have to dance, and I’m not a great dancer. I didn’t grow up dancing, doing any of that stuff, so to put myself in that position, I feel like I’m trying something new. It’s fun having the younger generation teach us how to do it.”

Musselman also has the fearless nature in the pool that comes with life circumstances, after getting married to former UCLA water polo player Pat Woepse last fall, around the same time he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer.

Pat is doing well with his treatments, Maddie said Thursday, and still hopes to go to Paris to watch his wife play.

United States Olympic women's water polo team head coach Adam Krikorian during Thursday's press conference.
United States Olympic women’s water polo team head coach Adam Krikorian answers questions from the media during Thursday’s press conference.
(James Carbone)

“I feel like I’m playing the most free I’ve ever played,” Musselman said. “I obviously care about missing [shots] and when I don’t do well, but it’s easier to brush off my shoulder and move onto the next moment. There are bigger things.”

Team captain Maggie Steffens, a three-time gold medalist, also returns to guide Team USA. Goalkeepers Ashleigh Johnson and Amanda Longan are talented returners as well, along with former Los Alamitos High and UCLA standout Rachel Fattal.

Some may be left feeling like everything is changed. There are also seven Olympic newcomers, including defender Jordan Raney, 18-year-old defender Emily Ausmus, former UC Irvine standout Tara Prentice and current Princeton star Jovana Sekulic.

Stanford attackers Ryann Neushul, Jewel Roemer and Jenna Flynn are also first-time Olympians.

Newport Beach native Kaleigh Gilchrist answers questions from the media on Thursday.
Newport Beach native Kaleigh Gilchrist answers questions from the media after being announced as a member of the U.S. Olympic women’s water polo team on Thursday.
(James Carbone)

Team USA actually lost by a goal to Italy in the quarterfinals at last July’s World Aquatics Championships in Japan, ending its bid for a fifth straight world title, but did come back to win this year’s World Championships in Qatar in February and also performed well in exhibition matches earlier this year.

“Those five months following World Championships were enormously important parts to this evolution of our skill development,” Krikorian said. “We got better, we got closer as a team and developed a better understanding of how we want to play. And we got healthy, too, to be quite honest … There’s a little more water under the bridge now, for us.”

Rarely if ever down bad on the scoreboard, Team USA remains a favorite to make it back to La Défense Arena with a title on the line.

“What are the odds that she was playing that concert, in Paris, the same week we were there?” Gilchrist said. “It’s kind of crazy how that all worked out.”

Olympic women's water polo team captain Maggie Steffens, left, takes selfies with her teammates.
Olympic women’s water polo team captain Maggie Steffens, left, takes selfies with her teammates during Thursday’s press conference.
(James Carbone)
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