Tuesday July 19th, 2016

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It has happened twice now, neither instance of ad-libbed wording slipping past Aria Fischer’s ears. Once it came during coach Adam Krikorian’s unveiling of his roster for the U.S. women’s water polo competition at the upcoming Rio Olympics; again it happened as he introduced his players at a fan event in Florida. In both cases Krikorian worked his way up the roster by jersey number, past Fischer and her No. 9, until arriving at No. 11, Makenzie Fischer—and, as Krikorian put it, “Aria’s older sister.”

“That’s my favorite thing now,” 17-year-old Aria says. “I was so used to being introduced as Makenzie’s little sister, so when she gets introduced as my older sister it’s just the best.”

Next month in Rio the Fischer sisters will be introducing themselves to an Olympic audience on an American team looking to repeat as gold medalists and become the first squad to top the women’s water polo podium twice since the sport made its debut in Sydney in 2000. The prospect of doing so together is both significant—“It’s gonna be incredible to share the experience,” 19-year-old Makenzie says​—and commonplace. After all, the sisters have been sharing the pool on teams since they first took up the sport as grade schoolers. “So it’s pretty natural and normal,” says Aria. “This team is just extra special because it’s the highest level.”

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Rio will in fact mark the second consecutive Games in which the U.S. women’s water polo team has featured a pair of sisters, after Jessica and Maggie Steffens won gold together in London in 2012. (The program’s 17-player roster this year has also featured sisters Sami and Kodi Hill, though only Sami is on the 13-player roster for Rio.) On the men’s side, sibling teammates have included the Kooistras in 1956, the McIlroys in ’64 and the Campbells in ’88.

Like the Steffens sisters—whose father, Carlos, was an All-American and national champion at California and represented Puerto Rico in the Pan Am Games—the Fischers’ connection to the sport is generational. Their father, Erich, scored seven goals for a fourth-place U.S. team at the 1992 Olympics after having won a national title at Stanford, where he met their mother, Leslie, a player on the school’s club team.

“It’s such a unique, niche sport,” Krikorian says, “that if the mother or father was involved in playing, there’s a really good chance that the kids play as well.”

But in their early years growing up in Laguna Beach, Calif., the girls knew and understood little about the athletic career their father hardly mentioned. Only from their mother did they learn that he played something called water polo, as something called an Olympian. “We didn’t know what it was,” says Aria, “but I was like, ‘I wanna be like my dad. I wanna be an Olympian.’”

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The girls’ first loves were basketball and soccer, in which they idolized Mia Hamm, while their father initially held them back from following his path. Before taking up water polo, Erich decided, each of the girls would have to prove proficient in lessons at a local swimming club. “They needed a strong base of swimming and treading water,” he says now, or else they risked spending more time splashing to stay afloat than picking up the sport.

When Makenzie was 10 and, a year later, when Aria was nine, they met their father’s standards (and arbitrary freestyle times), earning their forays into the sport that would become their passion. Erich coached them through middle school, and it soon grew common for family dinners to morph into tabletop strategy sessions, with silverware and salt and pepper shakers employed as player stand-ins. “Sometimes that was fine,” says Erich, a partner at the supercomputing technology company Critical I/O. “Sometimes it probably would have been better for me to knock it off.”

Yet his daughters remained in water polo’s thrall. The kind of competitors that would race each other to recognize a song on the radio or for the prime spot on the family sofa after dinner, they relished an outlet in which they both quickly excelled, albeit differently. Aria is “a little bit more of a bruiser,” says Erich, who compares her to the Energizer Bunny. “Makenzie is more of a long, fluid player.” The contrasts benefit their personalities; Makenzie is more outwardly laid-back and reserved while her younger sister bares her every emotion on her sleeve—or more appropriately, bathing suit.

“They’re almost like exact opposites in the way that they carry themselves,” Krikorian says. “I’m usually having to light the fire with Makenzie, and I’m usually having to put out the fire with Aria.”

The U.S. Olympic women's water polo team.
The U.S. Olympic women's water polo team.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

What the sisters shared was a common goal of playing in the Olympics, together. But Rio seemed an unlikely and accelerated target. Only Makenzie would be done with high school by 2016 (she delayed enrollment at Stanford this past year to focus on making the Olympic team), and while she was helping the U.S. senior team win golds in the 2014 FINA World League and ‘15 Pan Am Games, Aria had not yet cracked through to the senior national squad. In fact, when meeting with youth program players in 2013, Krikorian had been frank with Aria, then 14. Her chances of making the team for Rio, he told her, were slim to none. “Her facial expression gave me a good idea that maybe those chances were a little better,” Krikorian remembers. “She was in near tears, but also looked like she wanted to punch me out.”

The ensuing years offered glimpses, but it was over the past year that Makenzie says her sister “came out of nowhere” to warrant inclusion on the senior team. During this year’s FINA World League Super Final, Aria scored four goals; she notched 11 during the team’s undefeated eight-game qualification process. (Makenzie scored six and a team-best 24, respectively, during the same competitions.) “She matured a lot and got really strong,” Makenzie says of Aria. “She can beat me up. Easily.”

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This much Makenzie knows firsthand. Having recently switched from attacker to defender she is now pitted against her sister, a center, on a daily basis on practice. The results in games have been positive, evidenced by Aria’s development into an Olympian and Makenzie’s growth into one of the team’s central pieces, but the process has been understandably contentious. While Krikorian admits to “poking the bear,” harping on one’s success in their battles to inspire the other, the sisters have need little to spark their competitiveness. “If I try to tell her what she’s doing is illegal,” Makenzie says​, “she’ll freak out and tell me what I’m doing is illegal. Which it never is.”

After one too many off-hour spats, they reached a compromise: They may discuss general water polo tactics whenever they wish, but anything regarding their individual play against one another must be left in the pool. “I’m not gonna change the way I play,” Aria says. “But I also don’t want her to be mad at me, so I just said don’t talk about it.”

And so they have remained all smiles out of the pool, perhaps none wider than June 15, when Krikorian made his selections for the roster in Rio. Because he met with the players individually in order of their age, Aria entered his office last, after Makenzie had already learned her fate. When she exited the meeting and saw her sister, her smile gave away the news to her older sister, who wrapped her in a hug. “I was just really excited that we both made it and we’re gonna get to share this,” Makenzie says. “And a little relieved that there wouldn’t be any awkwardness.”

In Rio, where the Fischers will be the U.S. team’s youngest and third-youngest players, there may be no awkwardness but there will be anxiety—at least in the stands, where Erich says he becomes more nervous as a parental spectator than he ever did as a competitor. He has now shared with his daughters stories from his own time as an Olympian in Barcelona, both as entertainment (turning around at the opening ceremonies to find himself nose-to-chest with Karl Malone) and warning (before his first game, he was nearly exhausted from anticipation alone).

Their experience will be one relatively few can relate to but one their father knows well, as he does the effect it will have on them. “The life of an Olympic-level water polo player is not an easy one,” Erich says. “You go through that together and it definitely bonds you.” Even if talking about some of it must remain off-limits.

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