USA Water Polo Women’s Olympic Team Announcement (Jonathan Moore/USA Water Polo) | Credit: Jonathan Moore

Three players from Santa Barbara stepped forward to receive gold medals with the U.S. women’s water polo team at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. All three — Kami Craig, Kiley Neushul, and Sami Hill — have since retired from the national team.

The end of an era? No way. 

Like the roses at the Old Mission garden, top-caliber athletes keep blooming out of the Santa Barbara water polo community, and a new trio — Paige Hauschild, Jamie Neushul, and Amanda Longan — is bound for this summer’s postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

They are among just five newcomers who made the elite Olympic team, joining eight Rio veterans. It was an emotional moment for each of them when they met one-on-one with Coach Adam Krikorian two weeks ago and he confirmed their status. “I was crying tears of joy,” Hauschild said. “To represent Santa Barbara on an Olympic scale is such an honor. It speaks volumes about our club coaches and our high school coaches.”

Hauschild, 21, is the youngest player on the team. A defensive standout on a rangy 5′11″ frame, she graduated from San Marcos High and helped USC win the 2018 NCAA championship as a freshman. Trojans coach Jovan Vavic said, “Paige is a future Olympian, probably three, four-time Olympian; as long as she wants to play water polo, she will be an Olympian. She’s just a tough, tough kid.”

Toughness also defines Neushul, whose parents, both water polo coaches, have raised three national team players. (The youngest, Ryann, has to wait her turn after being left off the Olympic roster.) Jamie followed in the wake of her older sister Kiley at Dos Pueblos High and Stanford, where she won three NCAA titles.

Longan is from Moorpark but played on Santa Barbara’s 805 Water Polo Club with Hauschild and Neushul. She was USC’s goalkeeper in 2018 and will back up superstar Ashleigh Johnson on the U.S. team.

“The gold medal is what we’re all working for, but our team puts the emphasis on the journey,” Hauschild said. In their case, it’s an extended journey. Following a three-month break because of the COVID-19 lockdown, the women’s national team resumed training at Los Alamitos on June 1, 2020, launching a year of preparation for the Olympics all over again.

Whether Tokyo would stage the Games was unclear for most of the year. Even last week, Hauschild said, “People are posting things that they’re not going to happen. We try to ignore them.” And to her, the most important aspect of the past year could never be canceled out.

“I enjoy every day at practice,” she said. “If you don’t enjoy the people you see every single day, you need a new calling.”

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The American women are scheduled to begin their new Olympic experience on July 24, a day after the opening ceremonies, when they face Japan. (Because of the time difference, the game will be televised the night of the 23rd in the U.S.). Having won gold medals in 2012 and 2016, and every other major international title since 2014, they are overwhelming favorites to finish at the top of the podium again.

Hauschild is not taking anything for granted. All she has to do is remember the night of July 27, 2019, after the U.S. women’s team won its third straight FINA World Championship in South Korea. Several players were celebrating in a nightclub where a balcony collapsed. Hauschild suffered a laceration on her arm and received stitches. Teammate Kaleigh Gilchrist had a wound that required surgery. Two South Korean men were killed.

Hauschild said, “We are very grateful the team came out of that safely.” Their journey continues.

TRACK FINISH LINE:  Heptathletes from Santa Barbara placed eighth and ninth overall at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon. Juanita Webster-Freeman of the S.B. Track Club secured No. 8 by placing fourth in the last event, the 800-meter run, in a time of 2:13.39. Finishing right behind her was Hope Bender, the former Big West champion from UCSB, in 2:13:61. 

Bender returned to UCSB to train and serve as an assistant to Gaucho coach Cody Fleming. She was aiming to break through the 6,000-point barrier but received a setback two months before the trials when she was spiked during a race and suffered a partially torn Achilles tendon. Fleming said she was hurting throughout the seven-event heptathlon but “just kept grinding away” and scored 5,867 points, 20 behind Webster-Freeman.

Carpinteria sprinter Vincent Rinaldi’s last race in the California State Championships was derailed by an untimely twinge in his hamstring. He finished a second slower than his best time in the 200-meter prelims. Earlier, Rinaldi came within an eyelash of qualifying for the final of the 100. His electronic time in the prelims was 10.788 seconds, two-1,000ths behind the final qualifier’s 10.786.

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