RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Kami Craig felt sorry for Maddie Musselman. She was sure Musselman would be bored while rooming with her on a trip to China with the U.S. women’s water polo team.
Then she noticed something about the precocious teenager.
“Just her attention to detail,” the 29-year-old Craig said. “She’s incredibly organized. I watched her how she unpacked her bag and set things out. … The way that she handles herself so professionally.”
Well beyond her years.
Musselman, who turned 18 in June, went from long shot for the 2016 Olympics to key contributor for an athletic American squad favored to win a second straight gold medal. Oh, and she managed to graduate from high school along the way, taking online classes between grueling training sessions in Southern California.
Before she starts at UCLA in the fall, she strides onto the Olympic stage beginning with Tuesday’s opener against Spain.
“Just to be able to get the experience, to get the opportunity to play at this level has been definitely eye-opening,” Musselman said Sunday after practice at the Flamengo Club. “I’ve learned countless things, countless lessons in the pool and out of the pool, and it’s just been amazing.”
Musselman is coming off an impressive scoring spree against Russia, collecting 12 goals as the U.S. swept the three-game series to run its win streak to 16 since a 5-4 loss to Australia on May 31. The 5-foot-11 attacker scored 13 times when the U.S. went 8-0 on its way to the title at an Olympic qualification tournament in the Netherlands in March.
“I’m so excited for her to be here and have the opportunity to compete because she’s a really special player,” Craig said. “She’s fast. She’s got great legs. She’s got an awesome shot and at such young age to have the confidence and step up in the moments that she does is pretty incredible.”
Musselman, the middle of three daughters for former major league pitcher Jeff Musselman and his wife, Karen, was a swimmer growing up in California and also played soccer. But once she played water polo, she was hooked. Her sister, Alex, also was into the sport and went on to play for UCLA, adding to the draw.
“Obviously you want to follow your older sister,” a grinning Musselman said, “so I was like I’ll play water polo, and I fell in love with it.”
While Jeff Musselman credits Maddie’s teachers in school for her studious, meticulous approach, Maddie herself said her father plays a key role in her success in water polo.
The 53-year-old Musselman was selected by Toronto in the sixth round of the 1985 draft out of Harvard. He made his major league debut with the Blue Jays in September 1986 and went 23-15 with a 4.31 ERA in five years in the majors.
“When we were going through all (these) different sports trying to find what we love, he was right there with us, saying ‘Oh, I’ve been there, I know what you’re experiencing,'” Maddie Musselman said, “and he provided just lessons that we wanted to learn, and just gave us that confidence that you know you might not be good at every single sport, it’s just finding what you love and playing it.”
Jeff Musselman said he knows very little about water polo, but compares Maddie’s situation to joining Toronto when he was 23. Not only was it his first time in the majors, but he made it to the Blue Jays during a successful period for the franchise. He had his best season when Toronto went 96-66 in 1987, going 12-5 with a 4.15 ERA in 68 games.
“Being around that, I think was very helpful to be able to share my experience,” said Musselman, who works for sports agent Scott Boras. “You know it’s the same game, just more people watching.”
A lot more people in the Olympics, but the U.S. is confident Musselman will rise to the occasion.
“Her tenacity and her competitiveness is something that we all love to see in practice and compete against in practice,” U.S. captain Maggie Steffens said, “but we are darn happy to have it on our side when we’re in competition.”