The world’s toughest water polo roster to make is set. USA Water Polo announced its 13-member Olympic women’s team Thursday.
The U.S. women are the defending Olympic champions, and have won a medal at every Olympic water polo event. The squad won silver in 2000, bronze in 2004 and silver again in 2008, before gold in 2012.
Entering the 2016 Games, the Americans hold the World Championship, World Cup and World League titles as well, making them the first nation to carry all four major championships at the same time since women’s water polo became an Olympic sport in 2000.
Headlining the roster is Maggie Steffens, a two-time FINA World Player of the Year and the 2012 Olympic tournament MVP. She led all scorers in London with 21 goals while competing as the youngest player on her squad. Later that year she earned her first Player of the Year honor; two years later she became the first woman to receive the award twice.
She’s now the U.S. team’s leader and captain at 23 years old.
It’s one of the youngest rosters the U.S. has ever assembled. It features no one in their 30s, which is a first for any U.S. Olympic men’s or women’s water polo team since 1972, according to sports-reference.com.
The youngest member of the squad is 17-year-old Aria Fischer, who becomes the youngest U.S. Olympic water polo player since 1964, and youngest-ever U.S. Olympic women’s water polo player, according to sports-reference.com. She’s joined on the squad by her older sister, Makenzie, who’s 19. Their father, Erich, was a member of the U.S. men’s water polo team that placed fourth at the 1992 Olympics.
Another teenager is Maddie Musselman, who received an Olympic berth on her 18th birthday.
The oldest woman on this squad is Courtney Mathewson at 29, who was also a part of the gold-medal winning 2012 team. Kami Craig, who will turn 29 on July 21, is the team’s most experienced player, as Rio will mark her third Olympics. Melissa Seidemann is the only other woman from the 2012 Olympic team.
In goal for the Americans will be Ashleigh Johnson, a 21-year-old who will become the first black woman to play water polo for the U.S. Olympic team. She’s also the only player on the roster not from California; Johnson is a Florida native. The other goalie is Sami Hill.
Rounding out the squad are KK Clark, Rachel Fattal, Kiley Neushul and Kaleigh Gilchrist, who hopes to be a surfer at the 2020 Olympics.
Jessica Pegula, the highest-ranked American man or woman, was upset in the third round of the French Open.
Elise Mertens, the 28th seed from Belgium, bounced the third seed Pegula 6-1, 6-3 to reach the round of 16. Pegula, a 29-year-old at a career-high ranking, had lost in the quarterfinals of four of the previous five majors.
Down 4-3 in the second set, Pegula squandered three break points in a 14-minute game. Mertens then broke Pegula to close it out.
Pegula’s exit leaves No. 6 seed Coco Gauff, last year’s runner-up, as the last seeded hope to become the first U.S. woman to win a major title since Sofia Kenin at the 2020 Australian Open. The 11-major span without an American champ is the longest for U.S. women since Monica Seles won the 1996 Australian Open.
Mertens, who lost in the third or fourth round of the last six French Opens, plays a Russian Anastasia in the fourth round: Pavlyuchenkova or Potapova.
Earlier, ninth-seeded Russian Daria Kasatkina became the first player to reach the fourth round. She won 6-0, 6-1 over 69th-ranked American Peyton Stearns, the 2022 NCAA champion from Texas.
Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion, is the lone American woman left in the bottom half of the draw. She plays Kazakh Yulia Putintseva later Friday. Gauff, Bernarda Pera and Kayla Day remain in the top half.
Friday’s featured men’s matches: Top seed Carlos Alcaraz versus 26th seed Denis Shapovalov of Canada, and No. 3 Novak Djokovic against No. 29 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain.
A year from now, they hope to vie for medals in the City of Light. But on this day, four U.S. hopefuls for the 2024 Paris Olympics and Paralympics competed on “Top Chef” World All-Stars at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, the first cross-promotional moment across NBC Universal’s One Platform for the Games.
As Parisians and tourists traversed the Champ de Mars, Olympic champions gymnast Suni Lee and sprinter Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone and Paralympic champion swimmer Mallory Weggemann and medalist sprinter Hunter Woodhall bundled and huddled and did everything possible to stay warm between rain showers.
Then came the 30-minute frenzy. Each athlete was paired with a cheftestant for what the Bravo series calls a wall challenge: the chef and the athlete each attempted to make the same dish while separated by a divider, unable to see what the other was doing. The duo whose dishes have the closest appearance and taste win.
It’s little surprise that Weggemann prevailed. At 33 on the day of filming, she’s a decade older than the rest of the athletes.
When she was 18, Weggemann lost movement from the waist down while receiving epidural injections to treat shingles. Four years later, she swam at her first Paralympics and won her first gold medal.
“I understand that when I go onto a [filming] set like today, and I’m rolling rather than stepping, that looks different,” she said. “Not everyone who’s going to watch ‘Top Chef’ is a sports fanatic, and so they maybe don’t watch the Olympics and Paralympics, but in that moment, we got to bring them into the movement in a way that we maybe otherwise wouldn’t. I’m not oblivious to the fact that as a woman with a disability in that moment, I also have the power to change perceptions because not everyone in our society has exposure to disability.”
Weggemann has already been to three Paralympics and earned five medals. She did the “Top Chef” competition while three months pregnant. Baby Charlotte arrived March 16. Her goal is to be on the podium in Paris and be able to see her husband and daughter in the stands.
Woodhall, who won three medals in Tokyo in his Paralympic debut, visited the French capital with his then-fiancée Tara Davis, who placed sixth in the Tokyo Olympic long jump. Their Texas wedding was a month after the “Top Chef” filming.
“In Tokyo, we weren’t able to be there for each other,” said Woodhall, referring to COVID-19 travel restrictions for those Games not allowing spectators. “Paris is so exciting because we’ll both be able to really be in the moment and support each other through both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.”
McLaughlin-Levrone had husband Andre Levrone Jr., a former NFL practice squad wide receiver, by her side in Paris. Before “Top Chef,” she had a whirlwind spring and summer, getting married in May and then twice breaking her world record in the 400m hurdles. At the top of her sport, McLaughlin-Levrone had a decision to make in the fall and winter offseason: continue in the hurdles, where she has accomplished everything, or venture into another event, the 400m without hurdles, to test herself.
“That world record has stood for so long, and no one’s come even close to it,” she said of the flat 400m, and its 37-year-old world record, while in Paris. “So we definitely want to be able to try that and see what we can do there as well.”
Now, McLaughlin-Levrone is set to return to Paris next week for her first outdoor race since August. It will be a flat 400m. She also plans to race the 400m at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in July, and possibly at August’s world championships in lieu of the hurdles.
The gymnast Lee became one of the unexpected golden stories of the Tokyo Games. After Simone Biles withdrew from the meet, the Hmong American from Minnesota seized the all-around title, the biggest prize in her sport.
She hasn’t performed in international gymnastics since. Lee matriculated at Auburn and competed for the Tigers. But NCAA gymnastics involves different routines, competitions and scoring than Olympic gymnastics. It’s such a contrast that, traditionally, joining a college team has often meant retirement from the Olympic level.
The afternoon before the “Top Chef” filming, Lee walked inside the Accor Arena in the Bercy neighborhood, the site of the 2024 Olympic gymnastics events. A competition was taking place that included the Brazilian who took silver behind Lee in Tokyo.
“I am a little nervous to get back out on the bigger stage,” Lee said then. “Going to that meet actually was really important to me because I think I needed the help of re-motivating myself and seeing what I’m getting back into, watching the competition, just getting used to that atmosphere again.”
Two months after that experience, Lee announced she would leave Auburn after her sophomore year to return to elite training for a 2024 Paris Olympic bid.
The “Top Chef” integration helps launch summer Paris Games-related fanfare, including national and world championships in many Olympic and Paralympic sports and events to mark the one-year-out dates from the Opening Ceremonies (July 26 for the Olympics, Aug. 28 for the Paralympics).
“Top Chef,” in its 20th season, previously featured Olympians before the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games and then again before Tokyo. Host Padma Lakshmi noticed a common trait.
“Their attention to detail is extraordinary,” she said. “Having that Olympic training, and really listening to what your coaches want, and what the parameters of the contest is, is something that they’re skilled at doing day in and day out.”