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Santa Barbarans Kami Craig, Sami Hill, Kiley Neushul Add Local Flavor to Olympic Water Polo Team

The three players on the U.S. Women's Olympic Water Polo Team talk about their excitement to play for their country and community at the Rio Olympics

Kiley Neushul fires a shot during recent exhibition game against Russia.
Kiley Neushul fires a shot during recent exhibition game against Russia. (Peter Neushul photo)

When asked for her reaction on playing for her country at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, first-time Olympian Kiley Neushul broke it down to its deepest level.

“I can’t wait to represent not just my country but my family, my town and all my teammates and coaches who have helped me along the way,” she said.

Santa Barbara is the home of three members of the U.S. Women’s Olympic Water Polo Team: Neushul, Sami Hill and Kami Craig. It’s the most local athletes on one Olympic team since the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea, when Karch Kiraly (Santa Barbara High) and Doug Partie (Dos Pueblos) played together on the gold-medal winning U.S. men’s indoor volleyball team.

The local women will be trying to win a second straight gold medal for the water polo team.

Neushul and Hill, former Dos Pueblos High teammates, are making their Olympic debuts while Craig, a Santa Barbara High alum, is appearing in her third Olympics after winning a gold medal for the first time with Team USA in 2012 in London and a silver medal at the 2008 Games in Beijing, China.

“It never gets old,” said Craig about being selected again. “You never know, there’s always a little bit of anxiety or nerves going into making a team. Even though it would be my third Olympics, just going through the process of what you have to overcome — the injuries, the change in roster, the playing time, the practices, the uniting of the team — it’s all challenging. Anything you put 100 percent heart and commitment into, it’s pretty rewarding when you actually hear those words being said: ‘Congratulations, you made the U.S. Olympic team.’”

Coach Adam Krikorian is grateful to have a player with Craig’s experience and leadership qualities on the team.

“She’s the elder statesman,” he said.  “She carries more experience than me. As a young coach coming in in 2009, she was one I really leaned on to help me and guide me. Sometimes that gets lost — the coach needs guidance too. It’s been great to have her by my side and help me along the way. I’ve enjoyed our relationship tremendously. We’ve competed against each other. When I was coaching at UCLA, I recruited her and she broke my heart and went to USC.

“She is certainly one of our big leaders,” he added. “She does a great job holding us accountable to our goals, the way we want to play and the way we want to train.”

Kami Craig posts up against a defender during the FINA Super League final. Click to view larger
Kami Craig posts up against a defender during the FINA Super League final.  (Peter Neushul photo)

Craig, 29, plays one of the toughest positions in sports — center. It’s a wrestling match in the water, as the offensive player tries to gain optimal position near the goal to run plays.

“It’s strength versus strength,” said the 5-11 Craig. “It’s a constant battle.”

Krikorian touted Craig as the best center in the world.

Craig has played the position from the first day she entered the sport. She was in the 8th grade when she attended her first practice with the Santa Barbara Water Polo Foundation.

“I didn’t have much choice,” she recalled. “I walked on the pool deck and coach Chuckie Roth said, ’You’re going to be a center.’”

Craig didn’t care. ‘Whatever that is, let’s do it,’” she said. “Right from the first practice I was a center.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Hill shares the goalkeeping duties with Ashleigh Johnson.

“She’s a stud,” said Krikorian of Hill, the All American from UCLA. “I remember her and Kiley playing at Dos Pueblos back in the day, and watching her dominate in high school and college. She’s won a lot of big games for us. “I truly believe we have the best two goalies in the world. It makes my job a lot easier.”

Goalie Sami HIll prepares to make a save during an exhibition game against Russia. Click to view larger
Goalie Sami HIll prepares to make a save during an exhibition game against Russia. (Peter Neushul photo)

The 5-11 Hill takes pride of being the last line of defense.

“I love being depended on; defense is my thing,” she said.

Hill, 24, and Neushul have played water polo together since they were kids and won three CIF titles at Dos Pueblos. An all-around athlete growing up, Hill credits Kiley’s parents, Peter and Cathy Neushul, for inspiring her to pursue water polo.

Kiley Neushul said going to the Olympic Games with her long-time friend is incredible.

“Our journey this past year and the past four years has been really special for both of us. We’ve grown a lot as people. It’s really exciting to be able to share it with somebody who knows so much about me. And, with Kami — she’s a little bit older than me — it’s the same thing. We’re from the same area. We know how special Santa Barbara is, we know how special our town is and we want to represent not just the country but Santa Barbara as well as we’re wearing USA across our chests.”

Neushul, 23, said she’s dreamt about playing in the Olympics since her childhood.

“I’ve had a dream since I was 7 to be an Olympian. It’s taken 16 years of a lot of hard work and a lot of competition. It takes a lot to become Olympian. It’s an amazing feeling.”

Krikorian said because of her dynamic play, Neushul is the player that will stand out to people unfamiliar with the sport.

“I think that speaks volumes. I don’t think anyone plays the game as beautifully as Kiley Neushul does,” he raved. “It’s so fun for fans to watch, for me to watch — the creativity and movement in the water, the explosiveness and athleticism is just phenomenal.”

An attacker, Neushul has been recognized throughout her career. She won CIF Player of the Year honors four times at Dos Pueblos and twice received the Pete Cutino Award for College Player of the Year at Stanford.

Said Krikorian: “She proved at the young age-group level that she is one of the best in the country, she proved at Stanford that she is one of the best collegiate players in the country and the last couple of years she’s proved she’s one of the best players in the world. I’m so happy for her to play at the highest level.”

Neushul will fulfill a dream when she walks into the Olympic Stadium with Team USA for the Opening Ceremonies on Friday.

“I’ve been dreaming about it for years,” she said. “I kind of have a picture in my head of what it’s going to be like.”

Team USA opens the Olympic competition on Aug. 9 against Spain. It will play China on Aug. 11 and finish Group B play on Aug. 13 against Hungary. Group A consists of Italy, Russia, Australia and host Brazil.

Noozhawk sports editor Barry Punzal can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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