Alexander: Riverside County will be well represented in Olympic water polo (2024)

The path to Paris, and the 2024 Olympic Games, is different for everybody.

For two Inland Empire water polo athletes – the second and third to ever make a USA Olympic women’s water polo squad from Riverside County – the paths were particularly different but the shared experience could help make the upcoming games even more special.

Emily Ausmus is 18, a 2023 graduate of Martin Luther King High and IE Varsity Player of the Year as a senior. She used this past academic year as a gap year to pursue her Olympic dream and join a roster of adults, and will head to USC this fall, where her brother plays on the men’s team.

Tara Prentice is 26, a two-time All-American at UC Irvine who played first at Great Oak High and then Murrieta Valley, followed by a year at UCLA before transferring to Irvine. She failed to make the roster for the pandemic-delayed 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, but the experience of competing for a spot and the motivation it provided helped get her on the squad now.

They are part of a select group of 13, the U.S. Olympic roster announced at the end of May. And the list of U.S. water polo Olympians from Riverside County is an even more select group. First came Hemet’s Coralie Simmons, who won a silver medal in 2000 in Sydney, is a member of the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame and just completed her eighth season as Cal’s women’s water polo coach.

Believe it or not, Ausmus and Prentice weren’t just thrown together by geography. Yes, they and teammate Jordan Raney share a place in Long Beach, where the Olympic team’s training base has been located. But, as Prentice noted in a phone conversation this week, she and Ausmus go further back.

“It’s funny. I used to coach at SoCal (Water Polo Club) where Emily played, and I’ve known Emily since she was like 11 or 12,” Prentice said. “I actually coached her for a game at one of her JOs (Junior Olympics) when she was playing at SoCal.

“So before we started (Olympic) training, I actually talked to her and her family and said, ‘OK, let’s live together. Let’s have some fun this upcoming year.’ And, I mean, Emily and I had a great time this year living together, and I’m really thankful that we’re going to the Olympics together, too. It’s going to be a great experience.

“… She’s very mature beyond her years. I feel like there’s conversations I’ve had in the house where I’ve forgotten that she hasn’t even headed off to college yet.”

Hanging with the adults

It should go without saying that Ausmus is not your typical 18-year-old. She has been part of seven U.S. squads in international competition over the past two years, including the FINA youth world championship in Belgrade in 2022, where the U.S. finished first; the 2023 senior world championships in f*ckoka, Japan (fifth place); the 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile (first place) and the 2024 world championships in Doha, Qatar (first place).

Additionally, she was an alternate for the 2022 senior world championship in Budapest, part of the traveling party and able to observe just what it takes to succeed. That was just after her junior year at King. Then again, as a 12-year-old she was playing in the Pan Am junior championships against players seven years older, which was where her skills and savvy first drew the attention of Olympic team coach Adam Krikorian.

“There’s a lot of ups and downs that people don’t see,” Ausmus said. “The year in 2022, 2023, even the year of training, you’re in the grind every day and you’re just trying to get through it and do your best every day. … There’s a lot of emotions and it’s a lot to handle at such a young age. But I think that my teammates really helped me, especially my two roommates. They’ve really helped me through that, especially the mental side.”

Yep, Ausmus can hang with the adults. With the Olympic team she is a defender, a new position, and consider that it’s only a 13-woman roster and this is the No. 1-ranked team in the world going into Paris.

“Her improvement is just so rapid,” Krikorian said Saturday after a 14-6 exhibition victory over Italy at Mt. San Antonio College. “Part of it (is) because she’s so young and she’s just been so open to learning. She’s open to playing different positions. Right now we have her in a defending role, which she’s never really played before. So, it’s a credit to her, her willingness to be vulnerable in some respects.

“… When you’re going through this for the first time, you just can’t comprehend the level in which you’re playing at, and every experience is just a brand new experience for her. It’s wonderful for the rest of us that have been doing this for a long time, because we – it’s easy for us to go through the motions in moments. And that wide-eyed approach and that curiosity that she displays is rejuvenating.”

There is something to the idea of the youngster bringing an infectious spirit to the group. But it works both ways. This is a roster that includes six returnees from the 2021 gold medalists in Tokyo. Five of them also won gold in Rio in 2016, and captain Maggie Steffens won in London in 2012 as well and is attempting to be the first four-time Olympic water polo gold medalist, male or female.

Ausmus has found herself defending Steffens, still considered one of the best players in the game, during practices. That’s an education in itself.

Finding the drive

Prentice, one of seven first-time Olympians on the U.S. roster, set the Big West record for career goals (242) at UC Irvine – and, not incidentally, earned a bachelor’s degree (with a double major in Criminology, Law, & Society and Psychological Sciences) and two Master’s degrees (Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Demographic and Social Analysis).

After her first try at making the Olympic team in 2021 came up short, Prentice talked of being “devastated.” But the experience helped prepare her for this quest.

“I was surrounded by so many great players that I just was able to really learn about the importance of work ethic, the importance of competitiveness,” she said. “It was the first time I was in a national team environment, so I just felt like I was so excited and just wanted to be like a sponge, soak everything up and try the best I could.”

She said she owed it to herself to try again, and maybe the memories were what drove her.

“I think a lot about growing up and the love I had,” Prentice said. “I grew up swimming at the YMCA. That was kind of my first experience in team sports and athletics. And I remember, just the simplicity – I would do a swim race, my dad (Samuel) would be on the other side with a parka, waiting to wrap the parka around me after my swim race and telling me, ‘Good job, OK? Hey, I think you can do this better. You can do that better.’ And I was just really motivated, really excited.

“You know, I had a lot of ups and downs, a lot of unknown moments, and I just think a lot about the little kid and how much I love the sport, how much I love the sense of community and being able to push yourself.”

Responsibility and gratitude

How many Olympic athletes, regardless of sport, have similar stories, and similar parents who supported, facilitated, encouraged? For Prentice, it was Samuel and Michelle; for Ausmus, Shan and Shawn.

As Ausmus put it, it’s about “taking responsibility and ownership and (saying), ‘OK, I want to do this, Mom and Dad. Can you help me?’”

And then, once immersed in the process, it’s about realizing that part of the deal – much of the deal, actually – involves, as she put it, “being more responsible.”

Prentice frequently talks about “gratitude” in interviews.When we talked, she explained that it references her appreciation for the sacrifices and contributions others made to allow her to pursue her sport.

“I just think I’m very fortunate that I get to wake up every single day and be surrounded by so many people that inspire me,” she said.

“I feel like you always hear that saying: You want to put yourself in situations or environments that make you happy and bring the best out of you, but I feel like I’m just a reflection of all the people around me. I’m surrounded by so many great people and just so many great experiences. So I just find myself sometimes, you know, whenever it’s hard or whenever it’s a difficult moment, I just have so much gratitude because I just know I have a lot of support around me and a lot of love around me, and I’m just very fortunate.

“Yeah, I know, I feel like I do speak about gratitude a lot,” she continued. “But I truly mean it. I just have a lot of love for those around me.”

Maybe part of gratitude is paying it forward. The kids who line up for postgame autographs are liable to get more than just a scribbled signature, because Prentice remembers being on the other side of such exchanges.

“It’s such a simple thing, but making sure to not only sign autographs or check in with the kids but just ask them, ‘Hey, what club do you play for? How old are you? What school do you go to?’” she said. “You never know how far your interaction will go with some kid.

“The way you want to be treated is how you should also be treating others. You know what I mean? Just try to be nice to people.”

(Except in the pool.)

jalexander@scng.com

Alexander: Riverside County will be well represented in Olympic water polo (2024)
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