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Santa Barbara Athletes Overcome Adversity Through Sports

Water Polo Legend Kami Craig and Track Star Juanita Webster-Freeman Inspire Others to Rise

Paige Hauschild | Credit: Paul Wellman/file photo

As dominant as American women are while kicking a ball around a soccer pitch, they are even more so while tossing a ball around a pool. The USA Water Polo women’s national team won its third consecutive FINA World Championship last Friday, defeating Spain 11-6 in Gwangju, South Korea. 

But it took a calamity for the championship to be reported in national news broadcasts and headlines. U.S. team members were celebrating their triumph Saturday at a nightclub near the athletes’ village in Gwangju when a balcony collapsed under them, injuring several athletes, including Paige Hauschild of Santa Barbara.

Hauschild suffered a laceration on her right arm that required stitches. Her teammate Kaleigh Gilchrist needed surgery to repair a gash in her leg. Ben Hallock, a standout U.S. men’s player who was born in Santa Barbara, had some minor scrapes on his leg. Two Korean men were reported killed in the incident.

Hauschild, 19, is the youngest national team player but already is a two-time world champion, having played on the 2017 team after graduating from San Marcos High. She scored a goal that gave the Americans a 2-1 lead over Spain on Friday. Pouring in three late goals to clinch the victory was the veteran Kiley Neushul, a former Dos Pueblos High star. 

The team’s accomplishments are staggering: Six world titles overall, a 53-game winning streak, and gold medals in the last two Olympic Games. They may get recognized by their hometown media, but most of their own country, much less the world, takes scant notice. Water polo is a niche sport, a category that women’s soccer has far outgrown.

Kami Craig, another Santa Barbara star, retired from the U.S. water polo team last year with three Olympic medals, a silver and two golds. She was a powerful presence in the pool, resembling Abby Wambach of U.S. soccer fame. Craig considers the lavish attention given to the FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer as an affirmation of the efforts of women in lesser-known sports.

“I feel as a female athlete, I’m now being seen,” Craig said. “We all love sport. We love the camaraderie of a team. It pushes you beyond what you ever thought you could do. Whether it’s on the front page or not, you’re being the best you can be, and that’s what counts.”

Craig, 32, is using her experience professionally as a mentor to young athletes. “After 13 years competing at the highest level, I have something to offer to the next generation,” she said. “I want to help them expand their minds and learn more about themselves.” She will conduct a session on September 14 at the Padaro Beach Grill. (For information, visit rise-athletes.com).

From where Craig started as a wildly energetic child in Santa Ynez, she has come a long way. She was diagnosed with dyslexia, attention-deficit disorder, and hyperactivity. She found a treatment in swimming and water polo rather than medication.

“Sport has personally been a fabulous outlet,” she said. “It got all that energy out. The pool is my sanctuary.” She went to Santa Barbara High for its special education resources, excelled in the Dons’ competitive water polo program, went on to compete at USC, and became a college graduate.

Juanita Webster-Freeman is another athlete who has climbed over stumbling blocks to compete at a high level. “I have Asperger’s syndrome,” she said last week during a workout with the Santa Barbara Track Club. “It’s a type of autism. Everybody has different symptoms. Sometimes it seems I don’t know what I’m doing when I know what I’m doing. I’ve got to make sure people understand what I’m talking about.”

Photo: John ZantKami Craig (left) overcame learning disabilities to become a three-time Olympic medalist in water polo. Juanita Webster-Freeman (right) is a track-and-field athlete with Asperger’s syndrome.

Webster-Freeman, 22, came to the SBTC on the recommendation of her coach at Cerritos College, where she became a two-time state community college champion in the heptathlon. Previously she led Redlands High to two CIF Division 2 titles.

“I could see her athleticism and capability to be an outstanding heptathlete,” track club coach Josh Priester said. “There are many things I’ve had to adjust and learn to be able to coach Juanita. We are still working through it. We have to make sure that we are communicating effectively and not ‘overcoaching’ her.”

“Track and field made me become mature,” Webster-Freeman said. “It’s like a focused type of environment and helps me see what I’m supposed to do. I’m a visual person, so seeing all these things around me captivate me. I want to do all those things, practice those things. I have to do it that way. I try to perfect it.”

Webster-Freeman and Hope Bender represented Santa Barbara at the USA Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, last weekend. Bender, culminating a long season as a multi-event standout at UCSB, finished 12th in the heptathlon with a score of 5,824 points. Webster-Freeman tied for 11th in the high jump, clearing 1.78 meters (5′10″). Winning the high jump was Vashti Cunningham, daughter of former Santa Barbara High and NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham. She soared 1.96 meters (6′5″).

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