Erica L. Ayala

Alys Williams went from Rio alternate to Tokyo Olympian

United States v ROC - Tokyo 2020 Olympic Waterpolo Tournament women
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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.

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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. 

Team USA Water Polo Practice Session
LOS ALAMITOS, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 23: Alys Williams #12 of USA Women’s Waterpolo passes the ball during practice on February 23, 2021 in Los Alamitos, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

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. 

Londen Olympics / Water Polo: Final Women
2012 London Olympics, Water Polo: Final Women Team Usa Gold Medal Celebration (Photo by Tim De Waele/Getty Images)

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


To stay updated on the biggest news in women’s sports at the Tokyo Olympics (and beyond), be sure to follow On Her Turf on InstagramTwitter, and bookmark the On Her Turf blog.

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).

A’ja Wilson’s Olympic debut is business as usual

United States v Japan Women's Basketball - Olympics: Day 7
0, 2021 inPhoto by Aris Messinis - Pool/Getty Images
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If the only storyline you know heading into the medal round of the women’s Olympic basketball tournament is that Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are attempting to win a fifth gold medal, you are missing out.  

Because the biggest storyline of these Games so far is 2020 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson. The key to Wilson’s success may lie in part with the mentorship of U.S. head coach Dawn Staley

Staley – who is also the longtime coach at South Carolina – made Wilson – who grew up in nearby Hopkins – her recruiting mission in 2014. Staley believed team success would rely on her ability to recruit homegrown players. 

Wilson’s debut at South Carolina was far from expected, but it was just what Staley and Wilson needed. In her first game, the top prospect recorded only four points and coughed up three turnovers while shooting 2-for-7. Staley made a decision that solidified their bond. She pulled her star recruit from the starting lineup. 

“From that moment, we’ve been like this, no matter what,” Wilson told Forbes while interlocking two fingers. “I was 17 years old. For me, I had to kind of bite the bullet and say, ‘She knows what’s best, this is the reason I came to South Carolina,’ and go from there.”

It’s that trust that made Wilson believe Staley when she told her young post player to reject the ‘gold or bust’ mentality in her first Olympic Games. Instead, the three-time Olympic gold medalist told Wilson to stay in the moment. 

“She would just say, ‘Stay in the moment,’” Wilson said. “‘Don’t let it escape you because you’re so worked up or you’re so ready to play. Just enjoy it,’” Wilson said as reported by The Athletic

“I think what she has going against her is that this is her first Olympic Games, and she can’t treat it that way,” Staley said to the media on July 26. 

Staley reminded her young star to be herself. She empowered her to be the same A’ja Wilson that carried South Carolina to the 2017 NCAA National Championship. To be the same A’ja Wilson who led the Las Vegas Aces to back-to-back WNBA Finals and won the 2020 season MVP award. And Wilson has done just that. 

Four games into the Olympic tournament, Wilson is leading the team in points per game (17.8) and is tied with 2020 WNBA Finals MVP Breanna Stewart in player efficiency (23.8). She trails only Stewart in rebounds per game. 

The efficiency hasn’t come easy. Wilson has been open about her struggle with mental health, as well as her family’s importance to her success. The 2018 first overall draft pick chose to play for her hometown college South Carolina instead of Connecticut, North Carolina, or Tennessee. In her fourth WNBA season, she has never chased big money by playing overseas in the winter offseason. 

So, how is Wilson coping with being nearly 7,000 miles away from home without her family in the stands due to COVID limitations in Tokyo? She calls on her inner circle, literally. 

RELATED: On Her Turf at the Olympics: The burden on Black women

“I lean on my crew, my family the most,” Wilson told the media on July 29. “My parents are like, ‘Call us! We don’t care if it’s 3:00 am,’ I need that. Those little things there help me separate and understand … everything’s okay, I can get through this.” 

Wilson is doing more than surviving, she is thriving. 

She is the fourth leading scorer in the entire Olympic tournament, per FIBA. She is tied with three other WNBA players – Emma Messeeman (BEL, Washington Mystics), Astou Ndor (ESP, Chicago Sky), Las Vegas Aces teammate Park Ji Su (KOR) – for first in tournament double-doubles. 

BASKETBALL-OLY-2020-2021-TOKYO-AUS-USA
USA’s A’ja Wilson goes to the basket past Australia’s Bec Allen (L) in the women’s quarter-final basketball match between Australia and USA during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama on August 4, 2021. (Photo by THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images)

 Apart from medals or records, Wilson relishes her chance to play under Staley again and hopes she’s given the opportunity to “catch up with her in gold medals.”

She has done things that I dream of doing, and to see how far she’s come with USA Basketball and just shattering that glass ceiling is something that I’m going to always be inspired by,’ Wilson told The Athletic in February.

Wilson and the U.S. women’s national team continue their quest for gold Friday, August 6 against Serbia. You can stream the game here!

Follow Erica L. Ayala on Twitter @Elindsay08


To stay updated on the biggest news in women’s sports at the Tokyo Olympics (and beyond), be sure to follow On Her Turf on InstagramTwitter, and bookmark the On Her Turf blog.

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).

Alix Klineman and April Ross face Switzerland in Olympic beach volleyball semifinals

BEACH VOLLEYBALL-OLY-2020-2021-TOKYO-GER-USA
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Alix Klineman and April Ross took down Germany’s Maggie Kozuch and Laura Ludwig to advance to the Olympic beach volleyball semifinals. A win will put the U.S. duo in contention for gold. A loss will have Klineman and Ross fighting it out for bronze. 

“Staying motivated is really easy at this point, at this stage of the game. I mean, we can pretty much taste a medal,” Klineman said after the match

Ross has been here before. The Costa Mesa native has two Olympic medals in three previous Olympic appearances. Should she and Klineman oust Anouk Verge-Depre and Joana Heidrich of Switzerland on Thursday morning in Japan (Wednesday night in the U.S.), Ross will compete for her first gold medal since the 2012 London Games. 

Jen Kessy and Ross won silver in 2012, falling to Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor in an all-U.S. gold medal match. Ross went on to win bronze with Walsh Jennings at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Klineman and Ross have only dropped one set through five matches and are the last remaining U.S. team in the women’s beach volleyball tournament after Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes fell to Canada in the round of 16 after a controversial video review

The other semifinal will feature Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho of Australia vs. Anastasija Kravcenoka and Tina Graudina of Latvia. 

Follow Erica L. Ayala on Twitter @Elindsay08


To stay updated on the biggest news in women’s sports at the Tokyo Olympics (and beyond), be sure to follow On Her Turf on InstagramTwitter, and bookmark the On Her Turf blog.

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).