Kami Craig’s gold medal glittered in the sun Monday by the side of the Santa Barbara High pool, the place where her water polo career shifted into high gear.
“It feels so comfortable to be home, just sitting here, looking out over the pool,” said Craig, a key member of the U.S. women’s water polo team at the London Olympics. “I’m incredibly proud to come home with a gold medal and be able to honor Santa Barbara County and Santa Barbara High. I couldn’t be happier than to share this with my family, friends, past teammates, and coaches. I love being here.”
Craig is the second former S.B. High Don to bring home Olympic gold. Volleyball star Karch Kiraly collected three gold medals, in 1984 and 1988 with the men’s indoor team, and in 1996 in beach volleyball.
Craig, who turned 25 a week before the opening of the London Games, also earned a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She said that was a significant event in the formation of this year’s champions. She and other returning players remembered how close they came, losing to the Netherlands 9-8 in the Beijing final.
“Winning silver instead of gold doesn’t take away from the experience of what the Olympics is all about,” she said. “But it’s definitely sweeter to have gold. I think if it wasn’t for our going through the process of winning silver, then I wouldn’t be able to appreciate what the gold means. To be so close and not quite get it, it makes it even better to get it this time around.”
It is the first legitimate gold medal won by any American water polo team dating back to the sport’s Olympic debut in 1900. (A specious championship was claimed by the U.S. in 1904 at St. Louis — no foreign teams were entered.) Since the start of women’s Olympic water polo in 2000, the U.S. has won medals in every tournament since 2000, but never a gold until now.
This year’s team faced a crisis in the semifinals. It was leading Australia 9-8 with a second remaining when a freakish call awarded Australia with a game-tying penalty shot. Craig said she and her teammates were ready to deal with the setback. “The cool thing about this specific team — my girls — is that we weren’t going to let anyone take the experience away from us. We were very focused. We knew there would be distractions and adversity and obstacles, and we knew that the refs could either call it our way or not call it our way. We just took it a possession at a time. And when that happened and it went into a tie, we said, ‘Okay, overtime. Let’s do it.’ ”
Craig set up one goal and scored another in extra time, as the U.S. women beat the Aussies, 11-9. The final turned out to be their most lopsided win, an 8-5 victory over Spain.
Craig is not yet looking forward to a repeat Olympic performance at Rio de Janeiro in 2016. “I’m going to take it one year at a time,” she said. “I’d definitely like to stay in shape for the next year and try out for the world championship team in Barcelona.”
She takes a beating at her offensive position two meters in front of the goal, but the violence has not fazed her since the first time she played with a boys team in Santa Ynez.
“We had a lot more TV viewers watching water polo, and people got surprised a little about how physical the game was, but it’s the way it’s always been,” she said. “My first week of water polo practice, you get your suit pulled, you kind of get kicked around, and you think, ‘Can I deal with it, or can I not?’ I decided to deal with it. It comes with the sport, just like football or rugby. It’s part of the game, and I wouldn’t change it.”
Two young players from Dos Pueblos High may be in the Olympic picture in four years — Stanford’s Kiley Neushul and UCLA goalie Sami Hill. “They’re doing great,” said Craig, a two-time NCAA player of the year at USC. “I’d love to get more S.B. girls on the team with me.”