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Gold medal-winning water polo team returns home to cheering friends, family
SANTA ANA – Twelve-year-old Zach Cwiertnia of Villa Park started school Tuesday but left early. The die-hard water polo fan and player received the blessing of his mother to cheer for his Olympic heroes.
Cwiertnia joined a group of about 50 friends, family and supporters of the U.S. women’s water polo team, greeting the Olympic gold medalists on their return from the Rio Games.
Donned in a red, white and blue U.S. water polo cap and an American flag around his shoulders, Cwiertnia helped the group chant “U-S-A! U-S-A!” as the Orange County players on the U.S. squad and a few of their teammates emerged at John Wayne Airport.
“They’re a dominant team. They’re amazing,” said Cwiertnia, who was joined by friends Reagan, 11, and Tyler Bagnol, 15.
“(The team) makes me want to improve myself even more than I usually want to do.”
Cwiertnia and others presented the players – including Courtney Mathewson (Canyon High), Maddie Musselman (Corona del Mar), Kaleigh Gilchrist (Newport Harbor), Rachel Fattal (Los Alamitos) and sisters Aria and Makenzie Fischer (Laguna Beach) -- with purple, flower leis.
U.S. players Melissa Seidemann, Maggie Steffens and Kami Craig and assistant coaches Dan Klatt (UC Irvine) and Chris Oeding (Corona del Mar) also were part of the homecoming.
“This is the icing on the cake coming home to this,” Gilchrist said.
Mathewson placed her Olympic gold medal – her second with the U.S. team – around the neck of a Cwiertnia, who gasped in shock.
“It was cool to see all the young kids,” said Mathewson, who is retiring from the U.S. team. “I hope we can inspire them to achieve greatness.”
Musselman was greeted by her younger sister, Ella, 14. The Corona del Mar freshman watched her sister at the Games and cheered again Tuesday with her friend, Kira Hoffman.
“It was cool seeing them fulfill their dreams and what they worked four years to (achieve),” Ella said. “I’m so proud.”
Musselman and Makenzie Fischer were surprised by the gathering.
“I wasn’t expecting that many people so it was really cool to see everyone come and support us after a good win in Rio,” said the UCLA freshman, who earned all-star honors in Rio.
“The goal of our sport is to keep growing and to keep inspiring little kids.”
Makenzie added: "We know people are watching at home but it's cool to see the people that we've impacted."
Lindsey Harris, 12, and friend Ashley Heeren, 12, wore their recently-won Junior Olympics first-place medals for the Olympians. The Rossmoor duo plays for Huntington Beach Water Polo Club and admires Fattal, who attended Los Alamitos High.
“Some of them started (playing) at my age, so that just means that if you work hard, you can be one of the greats,” Heeren said.
Aria believes the greatness came from team work.
"We went to Rio looking for a gold medal and we came home with it," the Laguna Beach senior said. "We played great and we played as a team."
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