By Greg Mescall
Every year you could fill 10 cruise ships with all the teenage athletes destined for stardom in their respective sports. That thought was on my mind in the summer of 2007 on a pool deck in Bakersfield, California, when I first encountered 14-year-old Kiley Neushul. As this point in the minds of many it had already been confirmed: This relatively new teenager was going to be a star. It didn’t matter that she was competing against some of the best college players in the country at the Women’s 20 & Under National Championship or even more experienced players at the Women’s National Championship—all in the span of about five days. Skeptics take a hike, this was a name to know.
Then she got in the pool.
Moving through the water with the ease of a veteran she scored, she assisted, she defended.
You realize she belonged.
To call what stirs inside Kiley Neushul a competitive fire would be a misnomer. It’s something much more powerful—like some sort of futuristic engine running on a variety of fuels. She competes for everybody, including herself. Close friend having a rough week? Now that’s a problem for the defense. Relative not feeling well? Here comes a hat trick. Opponents talking trash to the media? What a terribly bad idea on their part.
“It’s evolved over time. Sometimes it was like, ‘Today this person isn’t having a good day; I’m gonna fight for them right now, and this is the only way I know how to do it,’” says Neushul referring to the challenges of daily training. “Sometimes it’s family, and I’m always fighting for my family.”
Her ability to fight and succeed didn’t just manifest overnight; it has long been in the works. Raised in a water polo brood by longtime players and then coaches Peter and Cathy Neushul, the sport was at the forefront from an early age. Originally Neushul wanted nothing to do with water polo and took part in everything else, including swimming, basketball, golf and soccer. But whatever the athletic challenge, winning always was a priority.
In fact, Neushul’s desire to compete and succeed dovetails with some of her earliest memories. “I just watched a family video. I was five years old and had to swim 50 meters of breast stroke, and my face is stone-cold serious. I can remember these swim meets; I was so nervous. I would win by 10 seconds,” she says with a laugh. “Every little thing mattered to me when I was younger, [but] I still want to do well. Whenever a challenge comes up to me and it’s a big moment, I’m back in that five and under race. You know you can win; all you have to do is play. But then sometimes I don’t even think about that before a game; I just think the ice cream will taste a lot better if you win.”
Maggie Steffens has been Neushul’s teammate at both Stanford University and with the USA Water Polo National Team. She, too, was saddled with massive expectations at a young age and knows a bit about what’s driving Neushul.
“I truly believe her preparation: physically, mentally, and emotionally, is what allows her to not only meet expectations, but to exceed them,” Steffens says. “Everyone knew she was bound to do great things at a young age and I still believe it now. Someone doesn’t become the player Kiley is by just showing up to the pool or by being born into a water polo family. They have to prepare every day and every night to be the best. They have to want it and breath it. Kiley has been doing this since a young age.”
Age Group Water Polo
Less than a month later she was back in the water at the USA Water Polo Junior Olympics playing in multiple age groups. The 14-year-old helped the 18 and under Santa Barbara squad to a national championship and was named a first-team All-American.
You get why they were excited in Bakersfield.
As a teenager on the club scene Neushul was just excited to be asked to compete. The workload of playing with a variety of teams all in the same week never seemed to bother her.
“I remember feeling like, ‘Thank you so much for letting me come, I’m so happy.’ They need me to play opens, 20s, JOs [Junior Olympics]. That was a big summer for me,” Neushul says. “My whole youth career I had scrimmaged against the boys. Girls are different, they know how to play against girls. For me, playing against the older girls was a huge deal.”
Her work in the water is what draws raves from coaches and teammates alike. “Kiley does it all. She’s one of the few athletes that can have such a positive impact on every phase of the game. Her combination of speed, agility, skill and strength is extremely rare,” says Olympic Team Head Coach Adam Krikorian. “It’s a byproduct of the work ethic she brings to training every single day.”
John Tanner, her coach at Stanford University, offered similar praise: “Every time you think you’ve seen all of what Kiley has to offer, she’ll do something you just haven’t seen before. I think her creativity and athleticism, combined with a rock solid core of fundament skills, is an extraordinary combination. She’s one of the most fun players I’ve ever seen.”
High School Water Polo
A few weeks later she starts her freshman year at Dos Pueblos High School near Santa Barbara. She proceeds to lead her water polo team to four straight CIF-Southern Section titles, cementing it as one of the greatest in girls’ high school water polo history. Four straight years she’s named Player of the Year. In her final high school game she scores nine goals in a 16-10 title victory over Foothill. She has a thing for finishing strong.
You are definitely understanding the hype.
There have been other highly successful teams in girls’ high school water polo. In the last 15 years the teams at Laguna Beach, Monte Vista, San Ramon Valley and an earlier Foothill High School squad come to mind, all loaded with National Team pipeline athletes. But few have throttled the competition the way Dos Pueblos did. They were so often referenced, the acronym “DP” was heard across pool decks statewide.
Her best memory from the high school days outside of wearing out the goal in her final match was a game from her junior year. Trailing 7-3 at halftime with fellow Olympian Sami Hill in the cage, Dos Pueblos mounted a massive rally. But it’s not what Neushul did that stands out for her. Instead she remembers younger sister Jamie, just a freshman, shining in the spotlight.
“This 110-pound little girl scores the last two goals in the biggest game of the year. The freshman scores the last two goals,” Neushul says, still finding the moment remarkable years later. It was a reminder of what it feels like to be in a big moment, and it involved one of her favorite things: her family. Seeing her sister turn that in performance was just more competitive fuel for Neushul.
As she added club titles and high school championships, the fervor around the teenage star began to build. She was rapidly ascending through the National Team pipeline, and the idea of becoming an Olympian was gaining steam. But if she ever started to buy into the hype, her parents were there to set her straight.
“My parents are humbling; my mom is humbling. Anytime I got a big head she would smash me down right away,” says Neushul smiling. “I think she played a big part in my development as a person.”
It turns out she would need it.
In the summer of 2010 Krikorian took two prodigies to Christchurch, New Zealand, for the FINA World Cup. One was Maggie Steffens and the other was Neushul. The two teenagers were contemporaries in every way. Both widely lauded, leading two powerhouse high school teams in different parts of California. Both hailing from water polo families with high expectations. But while 2010 marked the genesis of a prolonged run for Steffens that continues to this day — and includes two Olympic Games Gold medals and two MVP awards — things were different for Neushul. She was the alternate for that event in New Zealand, getting the bulk of her work during practice.
And while Steffens tied an Olympic record in her very first game in London in 2012, scoring seven goals in a win over Hungary, Neushul watched from afar having not made the team. It was the first stoppage in what had been one uninterrupted avenue of green lights. For a person always on the lookout for motivation, 2012 brought it in spades.
“I wanted to go to the Olympics ever since I was seven years old. That’s the first time I remember I wanted to go,” Neushul says. “I was very young the first go-round [leading up to 2012]. I didn’t make it, and I was hard on myself for a few months.”
Krikorian added some perspective as well—and saw how the setback worked in Neushul’s favor.
“In 2010, she was a very young but talented player. Kiley stepped into a very competitive environment with a team full of veterans. It was a challenging experience for her and for me quite honestly,” he recalls. “Her ability and skills were impressive for someone that young and comparable to anyone on that team, or quite possibly the world, at that time. When she came back on the team her skill and strength was improved but was what was more evident was her maturation as an athlete and a person. She was better equipped mentally to handle adversity and has grown to embrace and thrive in those moments. Her growth and her journey as a whole has been so admirable and has given me so much joy to watch.”
College Water Polo
From there it’s off to Stanford University. The defending NCAA Champions. She’s relentless, scoring 58 goals to lead the team and claiming her first NCAA title in 2012. While others are preparing for London, she’s named the Cutino Award winner, water polo’s version of the Heisman trophy as the best player in the country. By the time she graduates she’ll add two more NCAA crowns and another Cutino Award. She doesn’t leave another final game to chance, either, scoring five goals—including the game winner—in a 7-6 victory over UCLA.
You begin to think they may have underestimated her all those years ago.
The start of Neushul’s college career mirrored the finish: An NCAA title and top player honors. Yet in every other way the beginning and ending couldn’t have been more different. Intent on acclimating herself with another older group of athletes, Neushul was the ultimate facilitator. As much as you can be while leading the team in scoring. “That team was really connected,” she remembers. “I was a follower on the team. [My feeling was] ‘I just want to help you guys out.’”
The postseason awards came, but not from anything Neushul actually did in the NCAA Tournament, as she remembers it. She scored just three goals in three games, well off her average, as the Cardinal won the title: “I didn’t play very well in that tournament, I made my bones earlier in the year for Cutino. If that tournament counted I wouldn’t have won it.”
As her college career progressed, Neushul matured. Not just in the water, but outside the pool as well. Always the glue of any team she was on from a water polo standpoint, she was able to find her spot not just at Stanford but also with Team USA.
“Stanford forced me to change my thinking of ‘team.’ I’ve always been a facilitator in the water,” says Neushul. “I was never really in that environment where I felt super comfortable with the 2012 [national] team. At Stanford I was with older girls and [they stressed] we have to have a good time out of the water. Once I was able to connect out of the water, it made connecting in the water more fun.”
And the same thing that was unfolding at the Avery Aquatic Center where Stanford calls home was happening at the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, California—site of National Team trainings. Neushul had gone from one of the youngest who was, in her words, “probably annoying” to the older athletes to a mainstay. As she closed the door on her teenage years, she ended up being right in the perfect age range for a revamped team featuring a few veterans and a host of newcomers.
She became a go-to player for Krikorian and a vital piece of the Team USA engine. The summer of 2013 was up and down as the squad recalibrated to kick-off a new quadrennial but by 2014 they figured out how to fly—and Neushul was one of the main pilots. An unprecedented run of Gold medals began, including the 2014 FINA World Cup, 2015 Pan American Games and 2015 FINA World Championship, not to mention several Super Final crowns. All the uncertainty in the lead-up to London seem to be removed—and the Olympics were in the sight.
Her college career meanwhile ended in complete euphoria. It held so many of her favorite things. A win for Stanford, in their home pool at Avery, a venue that seems to still give her goosebumps with a mere mention. Redemption from that tournament four years earlier where she didn’t play her best. And of course, family. A year after sister Jamie didn’t play in the NCAA final victory due to injury, they were able to share the moment together.
Olympic Water Polo
It’s the summer of 2016 and she’s standing on a temporary stage on top of a sandy beach in Brazil with an Olympic gold medal around her neck. The clock is approaching midnight as she explains to NBC host Ryan Seacrest how her team went undefeated in Rio and trailed for less than a minute over two weeks. In those Olympics she scored 10 goals and made five times as many plays that don’t show up on a scoresheet.
You understand what it is to watch the development of greatness.
From afar what the United States accomplished in Brazil looked simple—almost too easy at times. For starters, they trained fanatically to make it look that simple. They also had adversity to handle. From a green swimming pool that occasionally grabbed more headlines than their victories to the more serious matter of the tragic passing of Krikorian’s brother Blake, the event wasn’t without challenges.
As far as Neushul is concerned it was the Olympic Gold medal that really confirmed it. People have done and will do the other stuff. The high school and club victories, the college titles, but once you add in Olympic Gold, the dance floor gets much smaller. It’s a fairly select group that can do all of that—and in such convincing fashion.
It’s hard to believe she was sweating out even making this team. Whether it was the experience of years earlier or superstition, not until she met with Krikorian to find out she made the Rio team did she know it for sure.
Neushul unpacked the memories of this moment deliberately like unfolding newspaper clippings from another century. “I’ve always put pressure on myself. [But] the environment we created as a team, every day was pressure. Yes, I played a lot of minutes, but I thought I wasn’t going to make it up until the last second,” says Neushul.
The more she talked through it, the more she explained why everyone else figured she was a lock. “I know my role, nobody plays my role. I played a lot of minutes. Did a lot of things behind the scenes, did things when I had to,” Neushul says. “The competition every day at practice was intense. Any little thing I did wrong, I thought, ‘I really have to perform tomorrow.’ You need to one up yourself.”
She did all the things the team needed, and the dream she had as a 7-year-old came true.
Neushul has found an endless number of ways to self-motivate, but no group carries more weight than her family. In Rio it was the latest chapter of Kiley delivering for all the Neushuls. Whether it was her grandparents who she lived with in southern California during training who couldn’t attend due to her grandfather’s skin cancer treatments or her parents, with water polo in their blood, who helped launch this journey years ago.
“My mom and dad have the hearts of Olympians. It was very special to be the first one in my family to go to the Olympics,” she says. “I knew if I got the opportunity to go, I was going for Gold. That’s how I’ve been raised. As Maggie always says, ‘Chase the Gold Standard.’ That’s what defined my family, the Gold Standard. Things aren’t always pretty, but it confirmed I’ve given my best effort in training.”
She added, “now I have the best you can achieve in sports. It was really emotional. I started crying when I saw my family, my teammates. A lot of the motivation came from family.”
Neushul’s story didn’t stop in Rio. It continues now, on an occasionally patchy Facetime connection in between practices for her newest team, C.N. Sabadell, a professional club just outside Barcelona, Spain. Neushul’s taken a breather between her two daily practices to recount her water polo life, especially the last 10 years. In Spain she’s had to learn to mesh with another group, including athletes she was just battling at the Olympics.
The next major competition for the United States is around the corner, the 2017 FINA World Championship in Budapest, Hungary. And Neushul is taking nothing for granted, continuing to work at her game, fight for those close to her and stockpile motivation.
Down the road she has eyes on more education and perhaps a career in public health, but first there is at least one more Olympic Games in her future. Welcome words to her Team USA coaches and teammates.
“She loves the small details that produce big results and takes a tremendous amount of pride in perfecting her craft on a daily basis,” Krikorian says. “As much as I or her teammates expect from her at times, it never seems to meet the expectations she has for herself. This approach continues to push her to new heights no matter the past successes she’s experienced.”
“I guess it can be summarized that she is the first one you want on your team and the last person you want to play against,” says Steffens. “Team USA is lucky to have someone like her, someone who has made such a positive impact and who is making the sport of water polo even better.”
Tanner brings it full circle: “Everyone just sees the flashing young players. How many of these 13-year-olds are playing their junior year in college? They haven’t lived up to that, or people have ignored them or they are in a position where they can’t take advantage. Kiley, I feel like she’s getting even better.”
You know she’s only going to get better.
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