How a Year Away from Water Polo is Helping Maddie Musselman Build Toward Paris

maddie musselman -usa-water-polojul19
Photo Courtesy: USAWP

How a Year Away from Water Polo is Helping Maddie Musselman Build Toward Paris

Maddie Musselman decided to play it cool and see how long it would take.

For the 2022-23 academic year, while rehabbing a hip injury and resting physically and psychologically for the hectic final year’s push to the Paris Olympics, Musselman is taking time to focus on her other career. She’d relocate from sunny California, where she’d been a college star at UCLA, to Philadelphia, to attend a selective pre-physician assistant program at Temple University.

When it came time for the obligatory meet and greets with her small cohort of students, Musselman wasn’t going to blare the trumpet about her gold-plated extracurricular activity. Instead, so far from the mecca of water polo, she wanted to see just how long her “just another student” aura might last.

The answer was, well, about as long as it took to get through introductions, when one of her peers recognized the name, did a little Googling and got to break the news to the room that a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the MVP of the Tokyo Olympic Games was in their midst.

“I wasn’t embarrassed, but I was like, how did you, on the first day I showed up?,” Musselman says with a laugh. “I wasn’t going to say anything, I was going to try to be a student and not have the student-athlete label over my head, but he was just like, ‘you’re so awesome.’ And I was like, ‘thank you?’”

However much notoriety usually comes with walking through the world as one of the top athletes in her sport, Philadelphia has granted Musselman even more anonymity. It’s punctured from time to time – like when grabbing dinner on the Main Line and getting a text the next day from U.S. coach Adam Krikorian, that a starstruck Villanova water polo player had spotted her and sounded the alarm to her coach and up through the chain.

It also provides a chance to prepare for the Paris Olympics without outwardly looking like it. As the Americans chase a fourth consecutive gold, one of the team’s leaders has compartmentalized the two years leading up, with a year focused on her world outside of water polo to set up a year where she can give her maximum in the pool.

“It’s nice to have this mental break for myself, and to prepare myself for life after water polo and pull together my goals for whenever I’m done playing,” she said. “This year is kind of like that perfect opportunity.”

Growing toward Paris

It’s a term that Musselman drops often: A growth mindset. It applies to her studies, to the path of the national team, to the collision of those aspects of her aspirations. And it’s important to know that growth for Musselman as a water polo player in 2023 can come while out of the water in 2022.

Some of that is not by choice. Musselman spent six years at UCLA, around two Olympic redshirts, owing the COVID-19 postponement of the Tokyo Olympics. Her career accolades are historically voluminous: The all-time leading scorer in UCLA history with 251 goals, she was a four-time All-American. The 2022 MPSF Player of the Year was named a finalist for the 2022 Cutino Award and for the 2022 Sullivan Award as America’s top amateur athlete

Internationally, she’s been with the U.S. since her senior year of high school. The U.S. has won all four World Championships, dating to 2015, that she’s been part of. She led the way at the latest last summer, scoring 20 goals, second-most in the tournament, including five in a 9-7 win over Hungary in the final, to earn tournament All-Star recognition. She was named the 2021 Swimming World Water Polo Player of the Year. .

All that took a physical toll finally paid by hip surgery in July upon her return from Budapest. It would keep her out of the water through mid-November, time she’d already planned to fill academically. In the spring, she was awarded one of 24 Pac-12 post-graduate scholarships to attend the Temple program, a Pre-Health Post Baccalaureate Program to prepare her to work in the medical field.

Rehab has expanded her physical horizons. She’s still limited to drill work in the water and lap swimming for fitness, not the most engaging activities for her. She’s dabbled in new types of exercises – fitness classes, yoga, boxing and Pilates – that wouldn’t have been in her repertoire to get her competitive fix.

“Just kind of fun, everyday activities that I know I can take advantage of now that will keep me in shape and that are kind of fun and different to excite me,” she said. “It’s hard to stay motivated when you’re not surrounded by teammates, in my opinion. Swimming on your own is really hard. Lifting by yourself is really hard. But joining some of these classes, I feel like I’m surrounded by people that are working hard and to compete with, whether they know that or not.”

She’s still connected to teammates, for instance tuning in as a young squad went to the FINA World League Super Final this fall. She was back in California around the Thanksgiving holiday, and she’ll join the team in January for a training trip to Australia. But until the senor group reconvenes next summer, she’s free to do her own thing. That’s the dynamic under Krikorian, with so many veterans with ample interests outside of the sport who know their responsibilities to the team and when to flip the switch.

“When we come back, it’s going to be all water polo, every single day, day in and day out,” Musselman said. “And the best way to prepare myself for that is what I’m doing right now.”

A Philadelphia story

When she’s not in the classroom, Musselman has indulged in all of Philadelphia’s offerings. Sports have played a big role.

For her Californian upbringing, the Musselman family is no stranger to the East Coast. Dad Jeff Musselman is from the Philadelphia suburbs in Doylestown; he played baseball at Harvard, then in the big leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets. Mom Karen played soccer at Rutgers.

Maddie Musselman was thus a de facto Philadelphia sports fan, and she’s relished an unusually prosperous autumn of Philadelphia sports. That includes trips down Broad Street to watch the Phillies surprising run to a National League pennant and to see the NFL-best Eagles play. She also adventured to New York for the U.S. Open.

It’s all part of the adventure of being far from home for the first time, a distance that really wasn’t possible given how geographically condensed the elite water polo world of California is.

“There’s obviously some nerves that come with moving, especially to a place where there’s not much water polo – I can’t just show up to a pool deck and there’s a water polo goal and there’s a team playing,” she said. “When you’re in California, you can kind of go anywhere and experience that. But I think that’s what’s unique and special about moving to a new area.”

Musselman’s work in the classroom is in service of a laser-like goal on Paris. (On the possibility of the Los Angeles Games in 2028, Musselman demurred: “L.A. is too far out to think about,” she said. “… It’s on the horizon. It’s somewhere. It’s not a yes or a no.”) The more she accomplishes now, the less she’ll have hanging over her head in 2023 when it’s all water polo all the time.

In that way, working toward her post-water polo goals is the same as working in the pool. And if along the way she can help influence a few new fans, that’s a bonus, too.

So far, she’s making headway, one classmate at a time.

“Some people have no idea what water polo is when I explain it,” she said. “And then some people are like, ‘oh my gosh I’ve heard of that.’ Sharing the world of water polo with some new people is also kind of fun.”

Notify of

Welcome to our community. We invite you to join our discussion. Our community guidelines are simple: be respectful and constructive, keep on topic, and support your fellow commenters. Commenting signifies that you agree to our Terms of Use

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x