MACIEK GUDRYMOWICZ/ISI PHOTOS

Kiley, Jamie and Ryann Neushul are all members of the U.S. Women’s National Water Polo program currently competing for spots on the team’s Olympic roster. All three sisters played for Stanford University, where Kiley and Jamie each won three national championships. Ryann, who won a national championship at Stanford as a freshman, is currently taking the year off from school to train with Team USA. The final Olympic roster is expected to be announced in May. Below, the three sisters discuss what it’s like to all be teammates for the first time, the impact of coronavirus on the upcoming Olympics, and how they balance competing with and supporting one another. 

The Olympics are only a few months away. Where are you all mentally at the moment?

Ryann: I’m just trying to enjoy the ride, be present for it, be committed, work hard. And what happens happens. My main goal coming into this was to be true to who I am as a player and as a person. I want to look back and be proud of the effort I put forth.

Jamie: I’m getting super excited. It was nice to break into 2020 in January, and now each month just feels closer and closer. The process is grueling, but the closer you get, the more motivated you are. It’s definitely stressful, because we have a really good team with a lot of talent and a lot of returners from Rio. It definitely helps to have family on the team. Right now I’m focused on putting in the time and proving my commitment. I’m in it, and I feel like I’m earning respect from the group.

Kiley: Of course there’s pressure just to make the team, but it’s all business, everyday. And it’s going to be all business throughout the Olympics. This is an extremely competitive group, and no matter what combination of players is taken, it’s going to be a very competitive team. Right now, we’re just looking forward to the next couple of months, to just try and make this team, honestly.

The coronavirus has caused major cancellations across sports and beyond. At this moment, the Olympics are still on, but how are you coping with the idea that they might be cancelled? 

Jamie: From what we’ve heard from our coach, and what we’ve heard from the Olympic committee, it sounds like the games are going to go on, so we’re just going business as usual until it’s really, really an issue. Until we’re told that we’re not competing, we’re going to train like we are. It’s not worth spending time thinking about the Olympics not happening unless we’re 100% sure they’re not happening.

Kiley: The thought of them not happening is pretty heartbreaking. I can’t even think about that until someone in a position of power looks me in the eyes and tells me we’re not going.

How did all three of you end up at Stanford? Did you know when you were younger that was where you all wanted to be? 

Kiley: My parents really emphasized academics as well as athletics, and Stanford offered the best combination of both. It was always my dream school. There was some talk of Jamie and Ryann maybe going back east when they started looking at schools, but ultimately I think we each realized that Stanford provided the most reliable path toward a future Olympic career.

Jamie: I wanted to be like Kiley when I was younger. She was always really athletic, and that gave me someone I could look up to and model myself after. But Stanford was honestly its own thing for all three of us. Each of us separately had that goal, and Kiley and I just happened to overlap while we were there. It was special to do that together, but we were also able to forge our own path, as we were in totally different social circles and also did a lot of different things outside of the pool.

Ryann, you’re taking the year off of Stanford. What was that like to step away from school? 

Ryann: Honestly, it’s been an emotional roller-coaster ride. I was added pretty late to this training group, so I didn’t know until later than most that I was taking the year off. Which isn’t a problem, I just wasn’t thinking about it. I was really focused on my college season and getting better and taking care of my classes, and then suddenly I had to make this big decision about my future. You have to make sacrifices to play at this level. For me, that means not having that shared college experience with the grade I came in with. I still have my friends and my teammates at Stanford, and they’re not going away. And I know the decision I made was the right decision, but there’s definitely days when I think, man, I miss my school. I miss my friends. But I know this is making me a better water polo player, a better teammate, and a better sister.

Kiley and Jamie played together at Stanford, but this is the first time all three of you are on the same team. What’s that like? 

Kiley: It’s a little different because on this team there’s first just the pressure of having to make the team, and all three of us basically play the same position. We’re all attackers. There’s not a lot of competition between the three of us, though, because we are very different players, and each e of us brings something different to the table. But there’s still pressure. This is a very competitive squad, and everyday you have to show up.

Jamie: It’s definitely interesting. We technically play the same position, but we all play it in a really different way. At the same time, we view the game similarly, so it can be really fun to make those connections in the water. Kiley and I have been on a lot of teams together, so there’s familiarity there. Ryann has this really strong personality from being the youngest and wanting to carry on that legacy, so it’s fun to see her come in with the confidence she has and bring it into this group that’s super seasoned. She kind of has to scale it back some times and be more of a role player [laughs], but it’s cool to see her learning a ton and to get to make those connections in the water. It feels very natural.

Ryann: When I was growing up I went to every single game of theirs that I could. Kiley first joined the national team when she was 17, and I was 10, so I didn’t quite understand the gravity of what she was doing, but I definitely looked up to her as a kid. I definitely looked up Jamie. So now to get to play with not only my sisters, but players I looked up to, is amazing. It’s also difficult, because these are people you don’t want to let down. As a younger player, you always want to prove to your idols what you can do. You want to measure yourself against the great players in your sports. And that dynamic is just a little more interesting when two of those players are your sisters.

Do you ever take a step back and think about just how crazy it is that all of you played water polo at Stanford and now are all competing for a spot on the US team? 

Ryann: When you’re in it the way we’re in it right now, it doesn’t cross your mind because you’re just so busy getting through the day. But when you take a step back, I think it’s really cool. To all have competed at Stanford is one thing, but to also be a part of the national program together — it’s surreal to be competing at this high of a level with your family.

Kiley: A lot of sisters have gone through the national program, but I don’t think there’s ever been three at one time, which is really cool for us. We get to hang out every day together and train together. We unfortunately don’t all live together, though that’s probably for the best. It lets us have our separate time and hang out with our other teammates.

Do you think it’s changed your relationship out of the pool? 

Kiley: I think we have to hold back parts of our relationship that we never had to before. The grind is real. It’s train, recover, sleep, prepare, which means we don’t get to enjoy the same freedom we had at home. We’re a super active family, and we like doing stuff together on the weekends or in the evenings, and we just can’t do that here. It’s bittersweet, because you know that everyday you’re preparing for something bigger than yourself. But at the same time, it’d be nice to just hang out with my sisters, get a coffee, go for a run, like we used to do in Santa Barbara or at Stanford. But there’s just too many hours of training.

Ryann: The three of us are pretty tight knit, and we’re very comfortable as a family. But it’s hard sometimes because even though on paper we all did the same thing, we each have different experiences. We each have our own process. I don’t have a clear cut answer because I’m still learning how to deal with that. It’s never something I think you just have down. Every day it’s a little different, and it’s both fun and frustrating and everything that you can imagine all in one. As a family, we try to leave it in the pool. If I compete against my sisters and lose that day, no matter how I feel, I leave it in the pool. And then I come home and enjoy my time with my sisters. It’s hard, but you learn how to handle it as you go.

Jamie: It helps that we’re all in very different positions. Kylie’s obviously been around a lot longer than Ryann and I.

Kiley: Yeah, I’m old.

Jamie: So she’s a big leader on this team. And then Ryann and I are just trying to earn our stripe. If anything, we’re just supporting each other through our separate journeys. I feel the competition, and I want to beat my sisters when they’re not on my team in practice or when they’re guarding me, but in terms of the ending, the roster, competing for playing time — I feel like that’s all support. We all just hope the best for each other. We’re building each other up. The process is grueling, and there are definitely times where that’s all you can focus on, but seeing both your sisters on the pool deck definitely makes it worth it.

Ryann: I think we’re all just trying to soak it in, because we know it’s not always going to be like this. It’s become so familiar now, but next year everything will change. I’ll be back at school, and who knows where my sisters will be, or what the future will hold. This is a bond we’re going to have for the rest of our lives, so we just want to enjoy the experience because we know it won’t last.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about you as a family? 

Kiley: It’s a small sport, and when you have three kids on the national team, people obviously know who you are. We’re definitely viewed as a water polo family, and the sport is in some ways a language that we all share. But it’s not how we define ourselves. I think people assume it’s all we do, but all three of us and our parents are interested in so many different things outside the pool. We didn’t chase water polo to the highest level solely to reach the highest level. It was always about being the best people that we can be, being the strongest women that we can be. Our parents did a good job just instilling those values in us, and all of us hope that our legacy in water polo goes well beyond the X’s and O’s. That’s very important to us.

Ryann: We know it’s a great story and that it gives exposure to our sport. We play this sport because we love it, not for the media. But we also want more little girls to come out for water polo, so we’re happy to bring whatever exposure we can. It’s a hard sport. It’s widely respected, even if it’s not as well known, so we’d love for it to become more popular.

Jamie: We’re dedicated to our sport, and we’re locked in for the Olympics, but I think we’re also all excited to see how this experience helps us whenever we leave water polo and do something else. The values our parents instilled in us have helped us be successful in our sport, but they also go way beyond that. Right now, this is just a really special experience for the three of us to go through together. There’s positives and negatives to everything, but we’ll just have to wait to see what we want to carry with us, and we want to leave behind.