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Maddie Musselman proves she ‘can really do it all’ for U.S. women’s water polo

Maddie Musselman plays water polo at the Tokyo Olympics.
U.S. attacker Maddie Musselman passes during a 15-11 victory over the Russian Olympic Committee in the women’s water polo semifinals Thursday.
(Gary Ambrose / For The Times)

Pick a sport, any sport, and it was likely to have been played by the inhabitants of Maddie Musselman’s childhood home.

Her father was a left-handed pitcher with the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets known for his slider and curveball. Her mother won two varsity letters in soccer at Rutgers. Her older sister was a part-time starting goalkeeper for the UCLA women’s water polo team.

Maddie initially swam and played soccer growing up in Newport Beach before signaling her intentions in middle school. In her sixth-grade yearbook, she was quoted as saying she wanted to be an Olympic water polo player.

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The U.S. men’s water polo team is in position to improve on its 10th-place finish at the Rio Olympics, but the team still isn’t where it wants to be.

That dream came true, and now she’s on the verge of fulfilling another.

Musselman’s four second-half goals powered the U.S. women’s water polo team to a come-from-behind 15-11 victory over the Russian Olympic Committee on Thursday in a semifinal of these Tokyo Olympics, putting the Americans one win away from a third consecutive gold medal.

The Americans will play Spain in the championship on Saturday at the Tatsumi Water Polo Centre after their supremacy in the sport has been severely tested. The U.S. lost to Hungary, 10-9, in the preliminary round, representing the Americans’ first loss since falling to the Netherlands in the gold-medal match in 2008 in the Beijing Olympics.

It appeared that U.S. dominance might be further ebbing when the Russians, capitalizing on the Americans’ shoddy fastbreak defense and shots that repeatedly caromed off goalposts, took a 7-4 lead late in the first half. Goals by Musselman and teammate Melissa Seidemann in the final 39 seconds before halftime prevented the need for a massive comeback.

Aria Fischer tries to block a shot by ROC's Anastasia Fedotova during water polo at the Tokyo Olympics.
U.S. center Aria Fischer, left, tries to block a shot by ROC’s Anastasia Fedotova during the first half Thursday.
(Gary Ambrose / For the Times)

U.S. coach Adam Krikorian joked that at the game’s midpoint he thought of the scene from “Old School” in which a half-naked, frazzled Will Ferrell loudly implored his teammates to keep their composure in the locker room.

No freakouts were necessary. The Americans matched the Russians goal for goal in the second half before taking a 12-11 lead on Aria Fischer’s goal with 5 minutes 5 seconds left. It was the start of a game-ending 4-0 run in which the U.S. held the Russians scoreless over the final 5½ minutes.

Musselman led her team with five goals and Maggie Steffens added three, increasing her career total to 70, the most by anyone in Olympic competition. Musselman’s scoring outburst partially obscured her strength as one of the most versatile athletes in the pool, a sharpshooter who also generates blocks and steals to spark her team’s counterattack.

Maddie Musselman plays water polo at the Tokyo Olympics.
U.S. attacker Maddie Musselman passes against ROC on Thursday.
(Gary Ambrose / For The Times)

“Something that’s really special about Maddie is she can really do it all,” Steffens said. “She draws a lot of attention and she’s somebody that is huge for our team and you saw, she got some big goals for us, some big stops, and really lit a fire in the team that we needed. So all I’ll say is I’m very grateful that she’s my teammate because she’s special.”

Growing up in a home where the chatter could resemble a 24-hour sports-talk radio station, Musselman naturally absorbed insight into what it took to become an elite athlete. She cherished the goals she scored on her older sister, Alex, and followed her to UCLA before spending the last two years away from the team to focus on the Olympics.

Her impressive hodgepodge of skills is at least partly a function of hailing from a family of diverse athletic pursuits.

“My dad played a throwing sport, my mom played soccer,” Musselman said, “and I think that energy and competitiveness shows in the way that I play.”

Krikorian, the former UCLA water polo coach, noted the effort and discipline that have made Musselman one of the best players in the world are a function of her determination, not her lineage.

“I always give her dad a hard time,” Krikorian said, “because I always say Maddie’s the better athlete out of the two.”

Jeff Musselman spent five seasons in the major leagues, compiling a 23-15 record with a 4.31 earned-run average, before a heart attack ended his career at 29. Now he works as a sports agent alongside Scott Boras in Newport Beach.

Maddie, 23, won gold with the U.S. in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro and plans to return to UCLA for one more season of college water polo, but only after draping another medal around her neck.

“We’ve had a lot of success but this team hasn’t done anything yet, we haven’t won a medal yet,” Musselman said, “and I think we’re looking forward to the opportunity of fighting for one.”


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