Kiley Neushul had a plan. She was going to play for the U.S. women's water polo team in the Tokyo Olympics, and then move to Italy.
Then the games were postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Neushul — one of the best players in the world — had to make a decision.
She chose the rest of her life.
“I don’t know if I would have been in the right headspace to continue on,” Neushul told The Associated Press on Wednesday in her first public comments since her decision. “I think, you know, I’m working full time for a company now. I'm studying full time. So I’m able to pursue other things that I’ve always been interested in. And I think for me personally, I’m in a good place. And that’s what matters.”
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While Neushul is moving on, her absence creates a giant hole in the lineup for a powerhouse U.S. team going for a third consecutive gold medal this summer. Known for her efficient movement in the water and her clutch play in several big games, Neushul was a key performer for the U.S. on each side of the pool.
“She’s an incredible athlete,” said Melissa Seidemann, who also played with Neushul at Stanford. “She’s an incredibly gifted teammate. And it’s definitely been an adjustment, I think, in a lot of ways. But, you know, we’re all happy for her to make that decision that (makes) her life better. I think we still feel her presence, so that’s important.”
Asked how he plans to replace Neushul, U.S. coach Adam Krikorian said: “It's impossible.”
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“She's one of the best players ever to play the game, and we don't have anyone like her," he said.
“It's cliché, but it's next player up, and it's got to be a multitude of athletes that are stepping into that role.”
Neushul, 28, comes from a water polo family. Her mother, Cathy, is a coach and physical therapist. Her sisters Jamie and Ryann are trying to make the U.S. team for Tokyo.
Kiley Neushul helped lead Stanford to three NCAA titles, and she won the Cutino Award in 2012 and 2015 — the top honor for a Division I water polo player. She made her first appearance with the U.S. national team in 2013, and she had 10 goals in during the team's run to gold in Rio.
While Neushul isn't going to suit up for the U.S. again, the sport remains a big part of her life. She said she swims “almost every day when it's warm,” and she plans to play again for New York Athletic Club at some point down the road. Her husband is a coach for Pro Recco, one of the top pro teams in the world. Neushul has been helping coach a group of under-12 boys and girls at the Italian club.
“I love water polo. It's a part of me. I can't deny that in any way,” she said on a Zoom call. “But playing, I don't know, I was ready to move on.”
Neushul is working on a degree in computer information systems with a focus in software development through DeVry University's partnership with the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee. She is planning to finish in September.
That's what occupies her days now, along with learning Italian. But she remains in touch with her former team through her sisters and her longtime friends. After she made the decision to step away, she said she called each of her teammates to let them know.
“I respect every one of them. And like I said, I mean I wouldn’t have been able to make it through the trainings without them,” Neushul said. “I would say the one thing that I miss is their ability to push me to the limit and I miss that competition that I think I’ll search for my entire life, because that was an arena in which I felt really comfortable competing and I was able to express myself 100 percent.”