Kami Craig looks exceedingly good in silver — as she and her U.S. women’s water polo teammates proved at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing — but she’d really look fabulous in gold. This time around, Santa Barbara’s golden girl is hoping to bring home a gold medal from the London Games.
The Noozhawk Talks series is written by Leslie Dinaberg, who will be following local athletes on their way to the 2012 London Olympics.
Craig and her teammates are revved and ready, with the extra motivation that they’ve won a number of gold medals at other events, but have yet to capture that elusive gold at the Olympics. Most experts agree this could be their year; the team has been winning both at international competitions and in exhibition matches against likely Olympic foes.
The squad has had two near-misses. The U.S. team’s potential tying shot was blocked in the final seconds against the Netherlands in the finals at Beijing four years ago. And at the 2000 Sydney Games, the Americans lost at the buzzer to host Australia.
No one is more motivated to win this time than Craig. As one of the top centers in professional women’s water polo, she’s at the peak of her game. Before turning pro in 2011, Craig came off a banner senior year at USC, where she led the Trojans to a national championship. The 2005 Santa Barbara High graduate holds the school record for single-season goals (123) and most goals scored in one game (nine), and she is the most accomplished women’s player in Santa Barbara Aquatics Club history.
Training for the Olympics feels different this time than it did for Beijing, says Craig, who turns 25 this month.
“This time around, I have a little bit more experience,” she told Noozhawk. “I’m not the youngest on the team anymore. I can share that experience with girls who are coming in for their first time. It’s really exciting.”
One of the girls she mentored is also a local, Sami Hill, a Dos Pueblos High School standout who took a leave from her UCLA team for the experience of training with the Olympic team, as Craig did from USC in 2008. (Hill gained the experience but not a spot on the squad heading to London.)
Giving back to up-and-coming athletes is important to Craig, who lives in Long Beach for training, but returns home to Santa Barbara as often as she can. Last season, she even trained with the girls at Santa Barbara High for a few weeks.
“They are so much fun,” she said. “I got to work with them and scrimmage with them and against them, and then came back for the alumni game. They’re just a bunch of good girls, and they look up to you.
“It was fun to come back and play in the high school pool and just be with a bunch of high school girls. It felt like yesterday that we were all playing there and having fun and enjoying the game.”
Craig is more confident as an Olympian now, but she’s still working every bit as hard as the first time around. A typical training day starts with a three-hour morning practice, including weight lifting, swimming, working on drills and tactics. Then she heads home for a big lunch and a few errands, then back in the pool for another three-hour practice. After a big dinner, she says it’s lights out by 9:30 p.m. so she can get enough rest before repeating the routine the next day.
“You need a good support group around you to help accomplish everything you need to take care of with such limited time off,” Craig explained.
Fortunately, she has such a team. Her boyfriend; her parents, Dale and Steve Craig; and her brothers, Jeff and Tony, all will be in London to cheer her on.
Water polo has taken Craig all over the world, but “typically it’s the bus ride to the hotel and then hotel to the pool,” she said of her travels. “Most of the time we get a day off where we can go out and walk around and we tend to do all of the most touristy things … You get enough of a feeling to know this is somewhere I would definitely want to come back to, but that’s about it for now.”
When Craig does have free time, she still heads for water, enjoying surfing instead of being in the pool, as well as hanging out with friends, many of whom are also her teammates.
“Water polo is a very small world,” she laughed. “All of the girls who are on the national team today I have played with, or played against growing up — whether it was on a club team or in college. We have girls who play at Stanford, who played at UCLA, USC, Michigan, Cal. We’ve all competed against each other and now we’re all playing together for the U.S.”
While she is certainly a celebrity in the world of water polo, Craig is appreciative of the hometown support.
“We don’t get a lot of coverage in Santa Barbara, so when we do it’s really cool,” she said. “I know that a lot of people are looking out for us and cheering us on.”
Count us among the fans who will be watching proudly and rooting for Craig here at home.
U.S. Men’s Water Polo Update
Santa Barbara native Terry Schroeder, coach of the U.S. Olympic Men’s Water Polo team, recently named Jeff Powers, another Central Coast athlete and former Olympian, to the squad.
Powers, 32, grew up in San Luis Obispo and was an All-CIF defender at San Luis Obispo High before going on to play at UC Irvine and for professional teams in Hungary, Italy and Greece.
“When I was a kid I dreamed of being an Olympian,” he told Noozhawk. “But back then I thought it would be in swimming because that’s the sport I was doing. Once I started playing water polo, I dreamed of playing it in the Olympics.”
The significance of another chance is not lost on him.
“I was excited to get another opportunity to represent this country, and extremely happy to get an opportunity to avenge the gold medal-game loss in 2008,” he said.
Powers scored six goals in Beijing to help the Americans capture the silver medal in 2008 and also played in the 2004 Olympics.