Local trio headed to Rio

LOS ANGELES — Maddie Musselman celebrated her 18th birthday Thursday, but it was far more than a numerical milestone that was a cause for celebration for the former Corona del Mar High girls’ water polo star.

The transition into adulthood was perhaps symbolic for the UCLA-bound Musselman, considering the company in which she found herself at the LA84 Foundation.

Musselman and former Newport Harbor High and USC star Kaleigh Gilchrist were both named among the 13 players for the U.S. Olympic women’s water polo team that will play in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this summer.

Newport Beach resident Maggie Steffens, the team captain who currently lives with the Gilchrist family, returns for Team USA, as does Coach Adam Krikorian. The assistant coaches, Dan Klatt and Chris Oeding, are both former Olympians themselves and also have local connections. Klatt is the UC Irvine women’s water polo coach and Oeding is a former Corona del Mar High star.

Team USA will be going for its second straight gold medal this summer, opening the Olympics against 2012 finalist Spain on Aug. 9.

Krikorian quoted the late Muhammad Ali prior to announcing the team, “The man who has no imagination has no wings.” Musselman and Gilchrist, 24, have both taken flight since first training with the U.S. senior national team in late 2013. Both will be making their Olympic debuts.

“It’s kind of ironic,” said Musselman, who found out a couple of weeks ago that the Olympic announcement would be on her birthday. “You never know, because I hadn’t been named to [the team] yet. I was like, ‘That could be a really good birthday present or a really bad birthday present.’ But obviously, it was a positive one. This day is really special. We have a team retreat [to Santa Barbara] after this, so I can celebrate my birthday and celebrate being on the Olympic team.”

Musselman had fun at the announcement ceremony, taking pictures with the other players with UCLA connections and even doing an “eight-clap.”

She is the second-youngest player on the team, which boasts nine first-time Olympians among the 13 competitors. The squad is young; as Krikorian pointed out, the average age is just 23 years old. Kami Craig is the only returning three-time Olympian.

Yet that hasn’t stopped Team USA, the top-ranked team in the world, from winning every international competition in recent months, including the FINA World League Super Final last weekend in China. Team USA is also the reigning world champion.

Steffens, a former Stanford standout who was the 2012 Olympics MVP, is a key piece. So is her housemate, Gilchrist. Unable to sleep and still feeling the jetlag from the China trip, the pair hit the beach in Newport early Thursday morning.

“Kaleigh lives upstairs,” said Steffens, 23. “I texted her, and I was like, ‘Kaleigh, are you up yet?’ … She went for a surf. I still haven’t ventured into that world, but I went for a run this morning just to get ready for the day. I ran along the boardwalk, and felt pretty grateful on that run to be living where I’m living right now.”

They weren’t friends in their Stanford and USC days, but they have grown closer in the last couple of years. Steffens also feels thankful to play on such a talented team.

Team USA has amassed a 28-2 record so far in 2016.

“There’s a lot of competition,” Steffens said. “Each game is going to be extremely tough, but I think we just need to focus on ourselves and living up to our standards, playing the way that we know how to. That’s what we’ve trained for. We’ve prepared for the Olympic Games, and we hope to be our best in that moment. We can draw confidence from our hard work and our preparation.”

Gilchrist has sacrificed a lot in this journey, putting a promising surfing career on hold. She recently signed up for a World Surf League event in Japan in October, but she’s hoping by then she’ll be an Olympic gold medalist. For now, water polo continues to come first.

“It’s just a dream come true,” Gilchrist said of making the Olympic team. “The emotions are definitely kind of all over the place … Looking back on it, three years kind of flew by actually. It’s been hard, tough for sure, but the girls and the sport make it all worth it.”

One of the first people she was proud to tell was her father, Sandy, who himself is a former Olympian. Sandy Gilchrist swam for Canada in 1964 and ’68.

“He’s super-proud, and he’s definitely been my No. 1 supporter through all of this,” Kaleigh said. “It’s been cool to chat with him and hear about his experiences.”

As for Klatt, this will be his third Olympic experience, as he also competed for the Team USA men in 2004. He’s looking forward to the pursuit of another gold medal as an assistant coach.

He said if the team can play as well as it played in the Olympic qualification tournament last March in the Netherlands, it has a great chance. Klatt said that was probably the highest level he’s ever seen a

Musselman, Gilchrist and Steffens will do their best to continue that level of play all the way through Rio. A gold medal would definitely be special.

For Musselman, just as special as celebrating your 18th birthday and representing Team USA, all at the same time.