Author’s note: The U.S. women’s water polo will compete in the gold medal game against Spain at 3:30am ET on Saturday, August 7, 2021. The game will air live on USA or can be live streamed via this link.
When the U.S. women’s water polo team won Olympic gold five years ago in Rio, Alys Williams was there. Well, kind of. As the last player cut from the 2016 Olympic team, she paid her own way to Brazil and watched from the stands with tears in her eyes.
“I was partly crying because I was so excited for them. They’re about to win a gold medal … and then I partly was crying because I was bummed that I wasn’t in the water with them, which I didn’t realize till later. It was hard to watch, but also I was proud,” she told The Associated Press in May.
The experience of seeing her friends win gold motivated her to return to water polo in the hopes that she’d be named to the 2020 Olympic team.
“My choice was to come back and to enjoy this process with them one more time. And regardless of the end result, how this turns out, I think I’ve tried my best to take advantage of this. Especially in these last five years, I’m just enjoying the process,” Williams said to four-time Olympian Brenda Villa in May.
Road to Tokyo
Early last year Williams and the rest of the water polo team traveled across Australia and the Netherlands ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics until the coronavirus pandemic stalled those matches. Williams returned home to Huntington Beach, California, to train for what she hoped would be her first Olympic Games, delayed untilJuly 2021.
But the available training facilities were less ideal for an Olympic hopeful.
Williams made her way to a local community pool, doing her best to find times where none of her neighbors might pop in for a dip. Her new training facility wasn’t great for laps – it only took four strokes for Williams to swim the length of the pool.
“But it does have a deep end where I’m able to egg beater and pass and do some drills with the balls, and that’s nice,” Williams said to USA Water Polo last July. Williams said her dryland training was critical until she could resume training with the national team.
USA Water Polo returned to competition in May 2021 with exhibitions against Canada and Hungary ahead of the FINA World Super League Final in June. When the final 13-player U.S. Olympic roster was named in June, Williams’ name was on it. The defender is the first woman to be the last cut from the previous Olympic roster to make the next Olympic team, per USA Water Polo.
ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Jordan Raney explains how it feels to be the last player cut from the 2016 U.S. Olympic water polo team
Overcoming the Obstacles
Retired USA water polo player and three-time Olympian Kami Craig is thrilled to see Williams and her other former teammates return to the gold medal game, especially considering this was a four-year-turned-five-year Olympic cycle like no other.
“The amount of adversity that these athletes and the women’s water polo team had to go through is really unheard of … this is truly their own path,” Craig told On Her Turf Friday afternoon. “I was a part of the 2008, ‘12, and ‘16 Olympic teams and there’s no way that I could even imagine what this experience has been like.”
Williams and the United States had what Craig called a “rocky Olympics” – losing to Hungary and struggling in the semifinal match against the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC). The U.S. beat ROC 18-5 in pool play but had to battle from behind to win 15-11 in the rematch.
Craig is not worried about that. The hiccups are what put the Olympics into perspective and prepare you to be one of the last teams standing.
“You don’t arrive to the Olympic Games ready to play your final game. The tournament itself will continue to prepare you for the last game you play,” Craig said.
ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Where are the women? Muffet McGraw and Noelle Quinn detail current coaching landscape
The game within the Olympic Games is to settle the nerves and approach every match with a balance of confidence and humility so you learn from your mistakes quickly enough to win and advance. Current team captain Maggie Steffens alluded to this very process after the close win against ROC.
“Every game is different. Every game is unique. That was definitely intense but for me, every semifinal in the Olympic Games I’ve been a part of has been really close,” she said postgame.
Steffens scored three goals on six total attempts against the ROC and became the all-time leading Olympic scorer in women’s water polo history. Williams also contributed a goal of her own in the comeback win to place the United States in the gold medal game against Spain on Saturday, August 7.
Williams, Steffens, and the remainder of the women’s water polo team have arrived to the final game of the tournament just like every Olympic team before them. There is a legacy of success on the line.
It is a legacy of success that Williams recalls idolizing back before she made her Olympic debut.
“I felt connected to them,” Williams told USA Water Polo. “I didn’t know too much about them individually, but one person who stood out was Kami Craig. I thought she was just the coolest most badass player I’d ever seen play, and she was probably my favorite player to watch in the pool.”
Five years ago, Williams paid her own way to watch Craig be among the players to win gold in Rio. Now, it will be Craig watching Williams from her California home surrounded by old teammates and family. She has seen Williams put in the work and make the proper corrections. Craig believes it’s made all the difference for Alys in her first Olympic Games. She admires how much Williams has grown since being the last cut from the Rio squad.
“The way that she just puts her head down and grinds is something that as a teammate, you can really trust. She’s consistent and authentic and I’m just proud of her. I’m proud of all of them.”
Follow Erica L. Ayala on Twitter @Elindsay08
During the Olympics, you can also catch up on all of the major storylines in women’s sports by watching “On Her Turf @ The Olympics,” a 30-minute show that will stream for free on Peacock. Hosted by Lindsay Czarniak, MJ Acosta-Ruiz, and Lolo Jones, the show kicks off on Saturday, July 24, and will stream every day of the Games (Monday-Saturday at 7pm ET and Sundays at 6pm ET).