MIAMI — The whistle sounded and the women’s water polo players for Team USA and Spain swam to the middle of the pool. The referee threw the ball into the water. The players converged. The sellout crowd at the Ransom Everglades Aquatic Center cheered.
Welcome to the swim-off, a barreling sprint that opens each water polo match.
In a rematch of the Tokyo Olympic gold-medal match, the U.S. won 9-7 over Spain in the first of five international friendly matches for the Americans in December. It was the U.S. team’s first competitive action since securing its place in the Paris 2024 Olympics when it won the Pan American Games gold medal over Canada on Nov. 4.
In Paris, the U.S. will attempt to continue its Olympic dominance. The Americans have won three straight gold medals and haven’t missed a podium since women’s water polo became an Olympic sport in 2000, also earning two silver medals and a bronze. FINAL SCORE:USA beats Spain 9-7. The Americans scored seven goals in the second half. USA will face Spain in a rematch on Saturday. Great atmosphere in Miami. #Paris2024 | #Olympics pic.twitter.com/pXeB70Cfh6 — Lukas Weese (@Weesesports) December 7, 2023
But this is a different Team USA. Several players will be Olympic rookies, mixed in with experienced veterans like Maggie Steffens — Team USA’s most decorated women’s water polo player, who helped capture the three-peat.
One of those rookies is Ryann Neushul, trying to make her first Olympic roster. But she isn’t like most Olympic rookies. Her sisters — Kiley and Jamie — also played water polo and won Olympic gold. All three went to Stanford and achieved greatness on the Cardinal’s illustrious women’s water polo team.
By making the Paris 2024 team, Ryann, 23, would accomplish a childhood dream: to follow in the footsteps of her sisters and represent Team USA at the highest level in water polo, all while hoping to extend the country’s already-unprecedented gold-medal streak.
It’s hard to escape water polo in the Neushul household.
Ryann’s parents — Cathy and Peter — played collegiate water polo at UC Santa Barbara. Peter was on UC Santa Barbara’s lone championship men’s water polo team. In 2015, Cathy started the Santa Barbara “805 Water Polo Club,” which allows athletes ages 4 through 18 to develop as water polo players.
Being around the pool deck and in the water, Ryann caught the water polo bug. At 5-foot-6, she’s not the tallest player, but she compensates with her innate determination.
“Size doesn’t matter in the water,” Neushul said. “You get in the water and you just play.”
Neushul looked up to her older sisters. Seeing them in the pool provided Ryann with the foundational knowledge of what it took to be the best. Neushul recalls as a 10-year-old watching Jamie and Kiley play against Newport Harbor, a competitor to Dos Pueblos High School in the CIF Southern Section Division I championship game. Newport was leading Dos Pueblos, 7-2, just before halftime.
“They’re not going to let us lose this game,” Ryann said of her sisters.
Dos Pueblos defeated Newport Beach that day, 8-7. Jamie, a freshman in high school, scored the tying and game-winning goals.
Flash forward to Kiley’s last NCAA championship game at Stanford. Ryann was in attendance, taking in the finale of a stellar collegiate career. She pointed to Kiley drawing an exclusion (water polo’s term for a foul), giving Stanford an advantage. On the ensuing power play, Kiley passed to Jamie, who tossed it back. Kiley blazed the ball past the goalie for the score.
Ryann was awestruck. Kiley scored five of Stanford’s seven goals en route to the 7-6 victory over UCLA. It was Kiley’s third NCAA championship. For Ryann, it was a source of inspiration. She wanted to follow the path her sisters carved. To be dominant water polo athletes. To play in the biggest matches.
“I want people in the stands to be like, ‘Ryann Neushul isn’t going to let her team lose by eight goals,’” Neushul said.
John Tanner sat in his office at Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center, where he is entering his 27th season in charge of the Cardinal women’s water polo team.
Mentioning Ryann Neushul makes Tanner grin. He still sees the little girl on the pool deck watching her sisters or being the lightning rod of energy at team events.
Tanner first spoke with Ryann on the pool deck at Cal State Bakersfield. She was 9 years old.
“She came up to me and said, ‘Hi, JT, I’m Ryann,’” Tanner said, marveling at her intellect and confidence at such a young age.
He brings up her first NCAA championship win in 2019. It was an exclusion, where players often pass the ball to set up a scoring chance. Instead, Neushul took the ball, fired it into the net and scored. No hesitation.
“How we carry ourselves contributes and even leads our confidence,” Tanner said. “Just no shortage of belief in herself.”
Tanner was an All-American water polo player at Stanford. He became a scout coach for the U.S. national team in 1988. Ten years later, after coaching the U.S. team to gold at the 1991 World Cup, he returned to his alma mater. He assumed the women’s water polo head coach role. In Tanner’s fifth season on the job, Stanford won its first NCAA championship. It began an avalanche of accolades for Tanner’s program. Nine NCAA championships. Fourteen Olympians. Stanford hasn’t finished outside the top three in the nation in any of his seasons as coach.
These achievements are a by-product of the excellence Tanner forged at Stanford for over two decades. The training, the expectation and the competition prepared Stanford athletes like the Neushuls for the national team.
“The freedom to choose your major, the freedom to make decisions in the water has molded me into the player I am today,” Neushul said of Tanner’s team culture.
For those water polo athletes wanting to make the Olympics, Tanner meets with them individually. He writes down a detailed plan of the steps necessary to be considered for the team.
Neushul remembers that meeting with Tanner. A collaboration between coach and athlete with the hope of accelerating the path to the Olympic goal.
“He is extremely meticulous,” Neushul said. “He says, ‘I’m efficient with your time, so you will be efficient with my time.’ We are all sacrificing to be here.
“He does not just care about the players for what they do in the water. But he cares about them as a human being and what they can do in the future for the world.”
On the morning of the international friendly against Spain, Team USA trained for two hours. The athletes dove into the pool, swimming laps for their 15-minute warmup. Then, the players practiced passing.
Adam Krikorian, Team USA’s women’s water polo coach since 2009, called his players over to the far end of the pool. Krikorian’s tenure with the national team includes three Olympic gold medals, five World Aquatics championships and four World Cups.
In short, a dynasty.
“The one thing I’ve enjoyed is just the energy and the positivity that all of our new players have brought to this process,” Krikorian said. “It inspires you to be better, and it kind of brings you back to that time — for me, 14 years ago — when I first started this job and it gives you a little boost of energy.”
Krikorian instructed his players to practice the 6-on-5 formation. As the players passed the ball and the defenders locked onto their assignments. There was a set amount of time per drill. Ashleigh Johnson, Team USA’s goalie, was counting down.
With Team USA, Neushul is taking on a more defensive role, a contrast to the offensive presence she brought while at Stanford. But Neushul doesn’t mind. She sees herself as a bridge between the gold medalists and the newcomers on the national team, adaptable to help the team win. The passing and communication is on display during the U.S.…