If Santa Barbara were a country, it might be able to qualify a women’s water polo team for the Olympic Games and possibly contend for a medal.
But we would have to persuade Kami Craig to stick around for her fourth Olympics in 2020.
Craig’s retirement from the U.S. national team was celebrated last Sunday at the Santa Barbara High pool, where American women, No. 1 in the world, displayed their dominance in a 14-3 victory over Australia. She made a “Kami-o” appearance in the first half, roughing it up with the Aussies for three minutes before she pulled off her U.S.A. cap for the last time.
It was a homecoming not only for the 31-year-old Craig, who played for the S.B. High Dons en route to her stellar collegiate and international career, but for three current U.S. players: Kiley and Jamie Neushul, former Dos Pueblos High standouts, and Paige Hauschild, a San Marcos graduate. Amanda Longan of Moorpark, the backup goalkeeper to Ashleigh Johnson, played on the Santa Barbara 805 club with the hometown women. That’s a formidable group around which to build a team.
Maggie Steffens of Danville, California, probably the best U.S. player not from this area, said, “I have a little bit of a crush on Santa Barbara people.” Steffens spoke glowingly about all of them.
On Craig, with whom she teamed for Olympic gold medals in 2012 and ’16: “I remember watching her at USC, thinking, ‘I want to be like Kami Craig; she’s so amazing.’ Then I got to play with her, and I realize she’s still doing it — she’s still inspiring people, still being a role model for people to do what she’s done. She doesn’t just represent our team — she represents Santa Barbara; she represents strong women; educated, intelligent people; fun, happy people. I feel fortunate to have gotten so much time to be her teammate and friend.”
On the Neushuls: “Kiley is easily one of the best players in the world; she has such an intelligent mind. She’s reading the game so much faster than anyone in the water, a step ahead of everyone else. I got to play with Jamie at Stanford and now on the national team, and Ryann [the youngest Neushul sister, a national team reserve]. You can tell they live and breathe a passion for water polo and also for community. Every second they play, they represent Santa Barbara to the best of their ability.”
On Hauschild: “Watch out for her. People should be ready to hear her name many times moving forward. She’s dynamic; she has speed; she’s driven. I’m excited to see her blossom even more. Hopefully we’ll make it to Tokyo.”
Craig’s hallmark was her power at the center position. U.S. coach Adam Krikorian called her “arguably the best center of all time … a beast in the water, so strong and so explosive.”
She started out as a swimmer in Santa Ynez. “Some boys said she had a perfect body for water polo,” said her mother, Dale Craig. “After swimming along that black line, it looked pretty fun.” There were no expectations from Kami’s mother or her father, Steve. “We are not athletic,” Dale said. “I don’t know how to swim.”
Kami’s parents and older brother Jeff were on hand Sunday, as were Chuckie Roth, her first club coach when she was 12, and Mark Walsh, who coached her at S.B. High.
“I’ll never forget Mark Walsh sitting on the deck and doing my time for me,” Craig said. “They were always willing to put in the extra time to get us where we have to go. There’s always a pool to play in, always people to play against. I left in the morning for school, didn’t get back ’til 10, and my mom knew I was playing water polo somewhere.”
The Neushuls have water polo in their DNA, as both their parents played the sport. But Walsh observed it was not entirely freakish the way Kami Craig turned out. “Steve is a strong guy, an oilman [he retired last year from the Chevron operation in Indonesia]. He’s got huge hands. And Kami has Dale’s soft side; she’s so nice out of the water.”
The Craigs sent their daughter to Santa Barbara High because of the school’s resources to help children with learning disabilities. Kami had been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, hyperactivity, and dyslexia as a child. “Santa Barbara was the foundation for her to get to college,” said Dale, a retired preschool teacher. Water polo played a part in her progress, helping her to calm down and focus. “Without that, I don’t think it would have been pretty,” Dale said.
Throughout her career on the national team, Craig was “consistent and professional on a daily basis,” Krikorian said. Kiley Neushul remembers how inspiring it was to see Craig prepare for her third Olympics: “The hard work, dedication, and intensity, a two-and-a-half-time Olympian, to go through that grueling process again — she never faltered.”
Craig was in inspirational mode at halftime of Sunday’s match, when the U.S. had taken a 4-0 lead over Australia despite ragged play on both sides. “Let’s clean it up, ladies,” she declared. After the Aussies made it 4-1, Kiley Neushul took her words to heart, firing a buzzer-beating goal and setting up Rachel Fattal for another score to spark a U.S. runaway.
Craig now puts her energy into motivational speaking and mentoring young athletes. She is cofounder of a water polo program, Camps4Champs, with former Olympic teammate Kaleigh Gilchrist.
Meanwhile, the U.S. team moves on without her, heading to the FINA World Cup in Siberia next month, with an eye on Tokyo in two years.