The USA women’s water polo team is one of the most dominant outfits in Olympic sport. The two-time defending Olympic champions have won every world title since 2015 and, while a pre-lockdown loss to Australia and the stresses of COVID-19 have thrown up a host of challenges, star defender Melissa Seidemann is quietly confident of yet more success…
Teams rarely appreciate losing, but veteran USA women’s water polo defender Melissa Seidemann is certain that January’s defeat to Australia came at just the right time. She and her team-mates had won 31 successive matches in 2018, 37 in 2019 and their opener in 2020. All this on the back of 12 successive triumphs at major championships.
But such relentless winning had started to come at a cost.
“We were beginning to change why we were playing as a group,” admitted Seidemann, who has been an ever-present in the team after bursting onto the scene a decade ago. “It was no longer to always try and win. We started to feel like we were protecting something, and it was kind of eating away at little bits of our team.
“The team didn’t focus on it much. But it came to a point where it was being so publicised that the group was like, ‘Shoot, we can do this, we could not lose a game. Should we try?’.”
Naturally, the changing room in Brisbane following that defeat was a strange place to be. Players were unsure how to deal with “frustration and sadness”, emotions which for so long they had held at bay.
The subsequent disruption to life worldwide, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has given Seidemann and her team-mates plenty of time to ponder. And while the rare loss has long since been processed – Seidemann cannot wait to take on the “incredibly talented Australians” again – lockdown living has thrown up a whole new set of obstacles to overcome.
The California resident, who graduated from Stanford University in 2013 with a degree in psychology, is candid enough to admit to feeling considerable “stress and anxiety”, particularly through the early stages of the pandemic. But while her years of training as an elite athlete equipped her with the tools to tackle this, she maintains several more long-term sporting concerns.
“Today it [COVID-19] is dividing us more than anything, just because everyone is going about it differently – not good or bad, just a little bit differently. Everyone’s family structure is a little bit different, so everyone has to handle their routine and their time differently,” Seidemann said.
“Obviously, no one goes on this journey without wanting to win, so that’s still on our minds, but for us, it’s going to look so different than it ever has in the past.”
The 30-year-old is hopeful that the squad will reconvene in the flesh full time later this year or early in 2021 and, when they do, she believes they can turn the whole experience into a unifying one. As one of the standout senior players, along with captain Maggie Steffens, Seidemann knows she will bear some responsibility to ensure it is so.
Being a team leader within a culture she helped build is not something she finds easy.
“I’d be lying if I said yes, but I don’t dislike it; it just makes the experience so different,” Seidemann said with a quick laugh. “One of the things we value in our programme is everyone’s individuality and ability to contribute as a leader. We expect our young players to come in and use their voice and have a say in what’s going on.
“It’s tough for someone like me, who has seen all the transformation of the team and feels pretty confident in the culture and the foundation we have created, but at the same time we do want our team dynamics to change based on the athletes.”
World champions in 2015, 2017 and 2019, FINA World Cup winners in 2010, 2014 and 2018 and FINA World League victors every year since 2014, Seidemann and the USA have won everything there is to win. Even among all this silverware, though, the two Olympic Games triumphs stand out.
“The one thing that comes to mind when I think about how they were the same is just how prepared our team was,” Seidemann said. “In 2012 we had some incredible leadership, some athletes who had been there before and knew exactly how to prepare for the Games, so I went in feeling completely confident that we had all the information we needed and we’d done everything we could.
“And I felt that same way in Rio, but for different reasons. In Rio we had a younger group, a lot less experience, but we worked tirelessly. There was no minute left un-played.”
A self-confessed “wide-eyed rookie” in London, Seidemann had a very different personal experience in Rio de Janeiro. Her mother suffered a stroke on the plane en route to Brazil.
“The Games for me, I was just trying to survive. It’s hard to relate my experience to what actually happened with the team,” Seidemann said, the emotion still raw in her voice. “To be frank, it was something that we trained for. We trained for adversity. I had done enough work with my sports psych that I could compartmentalise what was going on. It was only since the Games ended and really this whole time that I have been trying to sort through what happened.
“It makes it hard to talk about and share what happened – that was such a high point for our team, back-to-back golds. So many athletes had so much success at those Games, but for me personally, my emotions didn’t match that.”
Her mother is in a wheelchair for life and “very unlikely” to be able to get to Tokyo to see her daughter go for a third successive gold. But she will be represented by her husband and will know that her daughter is ready for whatever comes.
“It’s a different dream now. In this last quad [four years] I have done a lot of evaluating [as to] what water polo means to me. I’ve always been the stubborn athlete who won’t let my sport define me, but the closer I get to the end of my career, it’s so crazy to look back and think how many pivotal moments of my life have been defined by water polo,” Seidemann explained.
“Looking forward to 2021, it’s not so much about athletic success, but all the little successes that go into a journey like this.”