Road to the pros

It’s rare for athletes to enter professional leagues after only playing their respective sport at the high school level. However, those who decide to make the jump can have it pay off sometimes. 

The most notable athlete who took this path to the pros is LeBron James, who is now one of the best players in basketball history. 

Emily Ausmus knows this, and after all that she has accomplished throughout her young career, the 18-year-old isn’t slowing down to achieve her ultimate goal – becoming one of the best in water polo.

“That’s something that I strive for, whether it’s getting, quicker, stronger, smarter, but striving for that goal will only make me a better player,” she said. “But this is also a team sport, and whether that’s still being selfless in games, I think that I want to be the best player that I can be and do that with my team. Whether that’s on the international level or just playing water polo, I think I always just want to be competitive. That’s the mindset that I’ve always grown up with and always have with me.”

The Riverside, California native is on the right path to achieving her goal. She was named to the 13-player roster for the U.S. women’s water polo team to compete at the 2024 Paris Olympics. The roster also includes veteran players Maggie SteffensMaddie Musselman and Ashleigh Johnson

Getting the call to represent her country at an Olympic Games didn’t happen by accident for Ausmus. 

She started playing water polo at 8 years old and then the senior team began keeping tabs on her when she was 12 years old competing at the 2018 Pan American Junior Championships. Her teammates and opposing players were up to seven years older than her in that tournament.

After she impressed in the competition, Ausmus continued to ascend the youth ranks at a rapid pace. 

“I kept on growing my skills and condition and learned how to work hard,” she said. “Then I started doing the Olympic development national team pretty young through the youth, junior and senior levels. I just worked my way from development all the way to the senior team when I was about 16. I was taking those baby steps and working my way up, working hard and trying to go from one team to another.”

In 2022 while still attending Martin Luther King High School in her hometown, Ausmus received her first call-up to the senior team as an alternate to train for the World Aquatics World Championships.

Ausmus said it was surreal being able to be teammates with some of her idols. 

“I’ve grown up watching Maggie, Maddie and Rachel [Fattal] and supporting them in the stands. I remember being like, ‘Wow, they’re so amazing and dominant players,’” she said. “It’s even more amazing now that I get to play with them, learn from them and get beaten by them every day.”

Preparing for her first Olympics

It wasn’t long until Ausmus went from being an alternate to being on the roster. A year later, she played in the 2023 World Aquatics Championships where she scored three goals, and then at the 2024 World Aquatics Championships, she scored another four. 

The 18-year-old said getting experience at other global tournaments before the Paris Olympics is helping her not only settle in with the team but also realize she has her teammates' trust to compete against some of the world's best players. Ausmus is learning that playing at these tournaments, players have to be optimistic and not dwell on mistakes made in matches. Instead, it’s important to focus on the next play and continue to play the game with freeness.

These little mental tidbits that Ausmus picks up in tournaments are something she has done even since her younger days, and she feels that’s why she’s able to compete at the highest level. 

“One thing that has always been in my game, personally, is absorbing all the information around me. When I first started being around the senior team, I tried to take all the information in, whether that was in the pool or outside the pool. The knowledge, intelligence and strength that it takes to play this game, I fully immersed myself in that process and tried to learn from all the veterans.”

After she graduated from high school, Ausmus decided to take a year off from her academics to focus on training for the Paris Games. She already has committed to playing for the University of Southern California after the Olympics. 

As one of four defenders on the team, Ausmus has one of the most difficult tasks in practice – guarding Steffens. 

Steffens, who is widely regarded as the best water polo player of all time, will be going to her fourth Olympic Games.

Although it’s a difficult ask for a young player like Ausmus to defend a world-class player, she admits Steffens getting the better of her is only improving her game. 

“I remember the first time I was told to guard Maggie, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s so explosive!’ Like how am I supposed to guard her when she can just either drive on me or pop for the ball?” Ausmus said. “But it’s so important for me to guard one of the best players in the world because it helps me prepare so much better for the Olympics. If I can stop Maggie or prevent her a little bit from scoring or doing such a thing, compared to other players that we get to play against, then practice is going to make perfect. But it’s good to play against all these veteran players that have little tricks in the back of their pockets that they can pull out at any point.”

“It just gives you a bit more confidence going into the Games and knowing you’ve experienced different scenarios that are so creative and you would never see other than in practice,” Ausmus added. 

The U.S. women’s team is chasing a fourth consecutive gold medal at the Paris Games, which is something that has never been done in women’s Olympic water polo. However, only half of the team from the 2020 Olympic roster is returning to the 2024 Games, meaning it’s almost a new team for the women as they try to retain their title. 

Ausmus is aware of this and knows there is an added layer of pressure for her to help the team keep its gold-medal streak alive while proving she can compete at the top level. For her, though, it’s all about having the trust of her teammates and coaches that she can make an impact. Ausmus believes she already has that and it’s been reflected in the team’s performance over the past two World Aquatic Championships. 

“Trust is definitely one of our values as a team and we’ve talked a lot about it, but it’s a tricky word,” she said. “I think trust comes with the energy that you put in the pool, the competitiveness that you bring every day. It’s something that’s built, not something that can show up overnight. I think that’s so special about our team. We all take a year off of whatever we’re doing and we build that trust throughout the year with each other.”

“We know the competition is going to be great in Paris, a lot of close games. But I think this year of training and the preparation that we’ve put in day in and day out has definitely been building that trust within our team.”

Enjoying life away from the pool

Going from hanging out in the school cafeteria to being in the same locker room with some of the world’s best athletes can be overwhelming for a teenager. But Ausmus uses two methods to keep her grounded – laughing and exploring. 

The sport has taken the water polo phenom to different parts of the world, ranging from Qatar, Chile, Japan, Serbia, and soon, France. 

Ausmus believes the opportunity to explore other countries’ cultures, foods and landmarks is another way her hard work is paying off, and it’s something she’s not taking for granted. 

“I’m so fortunate that I’ve been to many places and experienced many cultures and food, which is my favorite thing to do,” she said. “It really opens up your eyes to how fortunate we are to play the sport and be able to explore these different countries, cultures and values that people have around the world. I’m really grateful the sport has allowed me to explore that.”

Ausmus makes sure she brings a piece of every country she visits back home. For example, a hobby of hers is to collect a magnet from each country she goes to so she can give it to her parents. 

When she’s exploring the world with her teammates, Ausmus said there’s always an elephant in the room – the age gap.

It’s a clash of two different generations between Ausmus and the veteran players on the team, but it’s something they all have fun with. 

“We joke a little bit about it in the locker rooms and stuff,” Ausmus said. “Sometimes, I teach them little slang and they’re like, ‘What is that?’ It’s so funny to bridge the gap with them because they will introduce me to old songs that I’ve never heard of before, or I introduce them to TikTok dances, little things like that. It’s so great to learn from what they’ve grown up with and what I’m currently growing up with.”

Another time Ausmus recalled that showed the age gap in the team was when Flavor Flav announced he would help sponsor the women’s team. She remembers the excited and surprised faces on some of the veteran players, but Ausmus’ expression was more of a confused look – simply because she didn’t quite know who Flavor Flav was. 

Luckily for Ausmus, her teammates gave her a rundown on who he is and why it’s a big deal for them. But even if Ausmus still didn’t know who the iconic rapper was, she said she was very grateful for his contributions. 

The 18-year-old knows having these kinds of moments with her team will only make them stronger at the Olympics, but most importantly, it will continue her development in a positive direction. 

“The actions that the players take inside and outside of the water, whether that’s professionalism or learning your craft, I think I’ve really learned from them this past year,” she said. “Them teaching me that working hard consistently was a huge lesson for me. I think, for me, I thought as I grew up I was thinking that I was already working hard and putting in a lot of hours and my time into the sport. But when I joined this team, I realized how much hard work it really takes to even have the opportunity to be on this team and to represent your country. I think they’ve taught me that, but they don’t even realize it because it’s through their actions.”