February 27, 2024

MIAMI — The whistle blew and the women’s water polo players for Team USA and Spain swam to the center of the pool. The referee threw the ball into the water. The players fell together. The sold-out crowd at the Ransom Everglades Aquatic Center cheered.

Welcome to the away swim, a water sprint that opens every water polo match.

In a rematch of the Tokyo Olympic gold medal game, the USA beat Spain 9-7 in December in the first of five international friendlies for the Americans. It was the U.S. team’s first competitive action since securing its spot in the 2024 Paris Olympics when it won the Pan American Games gold medal over Canada on Nov. 4.

In Paris, the USA will look to continue its Olympic dominance. The Americans have won three straight gold medals and have not missed a podium since women’s water polo became an Olympic sport in 2000, and have also earned two silver medals and a bronze.

But this is a different team USA. Several players will be Olympic newcomers, mixed with seasoned veterans such as Maggie Steffens – Team USA’s most decorated women’s water polo player, who helped conquer the three-peat.

One of those newcomers is Ryann Neushul, who is trying to make her first Olympic roster. But she’s not like most Olympic rookies. Her sisters – Kiley and Jamie – also played water polo and won Olympic gold. All three went on to Stanford and achieved greatness on the Cardinal’s illustrious women’s water polo team.

By making the Paris 2024 team, Ryann, 23, would fulfill a childhood dream: to follow in her sisters’ footsteps and represent Team USA at the highest level in water polo, all while hoping to achieve the country’s already unprecedented gold medal to extend. stripe.


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 enables athletes from 4 to 18 years of age 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 makes up for it 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 at her older sisters. Seeing them in the pool gave Ryann the foundational knowledge of what it took to be the best. Neushul remembers watching Jamie and Kiley play Newport Harbor, a rival for Dos Pueblos High School, in the CIF Southern Division I championship game as a 10-year-old. Newport led 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 8-7 that day. Jamie, a freshman in high school, scored the tying and game-winning goals.

Flash forward to Kiley’s final NCAA Championship game at Stanford. Ryann was in attendance, taking in the finale of an outstanding collegiate career. She pointed to Kiley making a layoff (water polo’s term for a foul), giving Stanford an advantage. On the ensuing power play, Kiley passed to Jamie, who threw it back. Kiley blasted the ball past the keeper for the score.

Ryann was amazed. Kiley scored five of Stanford’s seven goals en route to a 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 games.

“I want people on the court to be like, ‘Ryann Neushul is not going to let her team lose by eight goals,'” Neushul said.

Ryan Neushul


At 23 years old, Ryann Neushul is the youngest Stanford star to make headlines with the US National Team. She hopes to help Team USA win its fourth consecutive gold medal next summer. (Tyler Schank/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

John Tanner sat in his office at Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center, entering his 27th season in charge of the Cardinal women’s water polo team.

Mentioning Ryann Neushul makes Tanner smile. He still sees the little girl on the pool deck watching her sisters or being the lightning bolt of energy at team meetings.

Tanner first spoke to 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 her first NCAA Championship win in 2019. It was a shutout, where players often pass the ball to create a scoring chance. Instead, Neushul took the ball, fired it into the net and scored. No hesitation.

“How we carry ourselves contributes to and even guides 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 US National Team in 1988. Ten years later, after coaching the US team to gold at the 1991 World Cup, he returned to his alma mater. He accepted the role of head coach for women’s water polo. In Tanner’s fifth season on the court, Stanford won its first NCAA championship. This started a flood of awards for Tanner’s program. Nine NCAA Championships. Fourteen Olympians. Stanford has not finished outside the top three in the nation in any of his seasons as coach.

These accomplishments are a byproduct of the excellence Tanner has forged at Stanford for more than 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 shaped me into the player I am today,” Neushul said of Tanner’s team culture.

For those water polo athletes who the Olympic Games, Tanner met with them individually. He writes down a detailed plan of the steps needed 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’s extremely meticulous,” Neushul said. “He says: ‘I am efficient with your time, so you will be efficient with my time.’ We all make sacrifices to be here.

“He doesn’t just care about the players for what they do in the water. But he cares about them as a person and what they can do for the world in the future.”


The morning of the international friendly against Spain, Team USA practiced for two hours. The athletes dove into the pool and swam laps for their 15-minute warm-up. After that, the players practiced passing.

Adam Krikorian, Team USA’s women’s water polo coach since 2009, called his players 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.”

Team USA women's water polo


Adam Krikorian (squatting) instructs Team USA at the 2023 world championships, including Maggie Steffens (No. 6) and Ryan Neushul (No. 8). (Albert ten Hove / BSR Agency / Getty Images)

Krikorian instructed his players to practice the 6-on-5 formation. As the players pass the ball and the defenders lock onto their assignments. There was a set amount of time per drill. Team USA goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson was counting down.

With Team USA, Neushul takes on a more defensive role, a contrast to the offensive presence she brought while at Stanford. But Neushul doesn’t care. She sees herself as a bridge between the gold medalists and the newcomers in the national team, adaptable to help the team win.

As the 6-to-5 practice continued, Neushul moved to another pool. There she worked with Steffens on defensive tactics. For Steffens, there is nothing left to prove in water polo. A three-time Olympic gold medalist, a four-time world champion, a three-time Pan Am gold medalist and a four-time World Cup winner, she is in aggravated water polo status. She still loves the game. She embraces the competition. Most importantly, the 30-year-old Steffens enjoys mentoring younger players like Neushul.

“She’s like a little sister to me,” said Steffens, also a Stanford graduate. “She’s doing a good job of finding her own identity. She is willing to fight and I can feel her heart thousands of kilometers away.”


Trailing Spain 3-2 at halftime, Team USA showcased its high-scoring offense in the second half. In the third quarter, the USA outscored Spain 4-1. In the fourth quarter, the USA took a four-goal lead that it never relinquished.

Neushul, Steffens, Jewel Roemer (also from Stanford), Denise Mammolito, Kaleigh Gilchrist and Rachel Fattal scored in the second half. Roemer led Team USA with two goals. As the final horn blew, the women hugged and exited the pool. According to Krikorian, matches against the top nations in the world are essential preparation for Paris 2024. Unlike previous teams, which had several returning players, this version of Team USA is navigating new terrain. They are not that talented, according to Krikorian. Not so experienced.

“This is a brand new team,” Krikorian said. “We didn’t do anything.”

This is why Team USA does the rigorous training. Players are gone for several months at a time — training in Long Beach, Calif., playing games in Florida and overseas in Europe. To be prepared for the giant Olympic stage.

(Top photo of John Tanner and Ryann Neushul celebrating Stanford’s 2019 NCAA Championship: Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)


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