Women's Water Polo: Gilchrist, Musselman lead Team USA

RIVERSIDE — In terms of the progression of their water polo careers, they are in very different places.

Newport Harbor High product Kaleigh Gilchrist won the NCAA title with USC as a junior. After helping the Trojans finish third this year, she graduated from college on May 16, the same day she turned 22 years old.

Maddie Musselman is finishing up her sophomore year at Corona del Mar High, after earning Newport-Mesa Dream Team Girls' Water Polo Player of the Year honors this year for the Sea Kings. More than six years younger than Gilchrist, Musselman turns 16 on June 16.

But they are two players chasing a common goal. They want to make the U.S. Olympic women's water polo team.

As a shorter-term goal, they want to help the U.S. senior national team play well this week at the FINA Intercontinental Tournament. To that end, mission accomplished so far.

Gilchrist scored twice and Musselman had a goal, an assist and three steals as Team USA beat Venezuela, 17-1, in a quarterfinal match Friday night at Riverside City College. Two-time Olympian Kami Craig scored four goals for the Americans, who play China in a tournament semifinal on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

"It's always a good opportunity to play with great players," said Gilchrist, who has been one of the top scorers for Team USA in the tournament. "Every game we just want to get better and better, because we are a pretty new group together. The goal is always to win, but individually and as a team, get better."

Gilchrist said she felt "pretty accomplished" to graduate college. Her future goals in sports are ambitious: to win an Olympic gold medal in water polo and be a world champion in surfing. Yet, don't count her out with the motivation that she possesses.

"[You want to] set the bar high," Gilchrist said. "Those are the ultimate goals, so might as well make them as high as they can get. We'll see how it goes. This summer's going to be an important summer for me and this team, so hopefully it goes well. [I can] get a couple of [surfing] contests in, I think, in late August and see how that goes."

U.S. senior women's national team coach Adam Krikorian said he wanted Gilchrist to play for him last summer, but it didn't happen. Gilchrist said she wasn't ready or committed back then, but this year she is, and it's to her team's benefit. Krikorian called Gilchrist an extremely smart player and a pleasure to be around outside of the pool as well.

"We had a good talk a couple of months ago," Krikorian said. "If you want to be an Olympic gold medalist, I'm not telling her to not surf ever, but there's a certain commitment that comes with chasing that dream. She said she's willing to commit to that, so hopefully that continues. I might have to steal her surfboard a few times over the next couple years, just to make sure we can keep her."

Musselman, meanwhile, is the youngest player on the roster. She also is one of just two high school players, along with Laguna Beach's Makenzie Fischer. Yet, she has shown she can perform. She scored the game-winning shootout goal in Team USA's 12-11 win over Canada on Thursday, which helped the Americans win Group A.

Musselman also was involved plenty on Friday night. As Newport Beach resident Keith Yonkers called the action, she won all four of the quarter-starting sprints. She could have scored again late in the contest, but looked for the pass despite being open. Her shot eventually skipped high of the cage.

"At this level, I'm always looking for other people," Musselman said. "I'm like, 'Oh, I need to pass the ball, I need to do this and that.' Just being more aggressive, I think I need to improve on, and being more aware of what's around me. I didn't know I was open, and I should have known that."

But Musselman, like Gilchrist, has shown she can step up on the international stage in the past year. When asked if Musselman had a chance to make the Olympic team in 2016 as an 18-year-old, Krikorian did not dodge the question.

"Everyone here in this pool, I wouldn't have them training with us if I didn't believe there was a chance for them to make it in 2016," Krikorian said. "Everyone has a chance to make it … Right now, is she there? No. But can she be there after two years? Yeah, it's a possibility. She's certainly going to have to put in a lot of hard work, and she's going to have to develop quite a bit in order to get that chance.

"The beauty with Maddie is that she understands that. I get the sense that she's really going to enjoy this process."

By making the semifinals of the eight-team field, Team USA qualifies for the FINA World League Super Final tournament next month in Beijing. First, in this tournament, the Americans may have to tangle with Canada again in Sunday's championship match.

Gilchrist and Musselman will be ready. On Thursday night, Musselman's CdM teammates Eliza Britt and Bridgett Storm were there to watch the exciting shootout win.

"During the game, I don't really think about that, but it's just always fun to know that I have people supporting me while I'm doing this," Musselman said. "It pumps my energy up, to know that people are here to watch."

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