Williams inspires US water polo team with play, mentality

LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. (AP) — Alys Williams thought she was done. She was the last cut for the best women’s water polo team in the world, and it was a long time until the Tokyo Olympics. It was time.

Only, it wasn’t Williams’ ending. It was written by someone else, and that stayed with her long after she thought it was over.

“It felt a little unfinished in a way,” she said.

So Williams went back to the U.S. national team, determined to chase down her own conclusion. Since women’s water polo was added to the Olympic program in 2000, no player has made the American team after she was cut when the roster was finalized for the previous games, according to USA Water Polo.

That very well could change when the U.S. announces its Tokyo team next month.

“She’s just been so incredibly inspiring for, literally for the last five years. Every day,” said U.S. coach Adam Krikorian, fighting back tears when Williams’ name is brought up.

The 26-year-old Williams kept going, through grueling practices at Los Alamitos. She kept going, through the trauma she experienced during a mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas. She kept going, after the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the Olympics for another year.

“Of course, her story is telling,” captain Maggie Steffens said. “But what people don’t know is I think we would all feel the same way about her no matter what had happened because of who she is, how she treats this game, her love for the game, her respect for it, the way she connects with us as a team. She really does bring unity and love to our group.”

Williams got into water polo through her father, Robert, who played at Long Beach State. He was coaching at Newport Beach Club when Alys tried the sport when she was 8. She said she didn’t like it very much at first, but it grew on her over time.

Did it ever.

Williams played college ball at UCLA, scoring 145 goals and helping the Bruins reach three NCAA finals. She took a redshirt year in 2016 to train with the U.S. team, but it didn’t work out.

After she was cut, Williams kept practicing with the Olympic team. Then she paid her own way to watch as the U.S. made history in Rio, becoming the first country to win two straight gold medals in women’s water polo.

Williams and Kodi Hill, who also trained with the national team during that cycle, were watching the final against Italy when Krikorian inserted Kodi’s sister, Sami, in goal. Alys and Kodi started crying.

“I was partly crying because I was so excited for them. They’re about to win a gold medal. Sami got to play,” Williams said. “And then I partly was crying because I was bummed that I wasn’t in the water with them, which I didn’t realize till later. It was hard to watch, but also I was proud.

“I had no hard feelings. It was just like ‘I wish I was in there.’”

After her experience at the Olympics, Williams went back for her senior season with the Bruins and then played for CN Sant Andreu in Spain. Before she headed over to Europe, she attended the 2017 Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas with then-boyfriend Cody Moore and a group of friends.

Williams and Moore were walking out on the final night of the country music show when they ran into Moore’s cousin. Williams wanted to see Jason Aldean anyway, so they decided to stay.

During Aldean’s performance, Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd from a suite in a high-rise casino hotel, killing 58 and injuring hundreds more in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Williams said they thought the shots were fireworks at first, and then they heard people screaming to get down on the ground.

“Cody and I thought that there was multiple shooters on the grounds. You had no idea where it was coming from,” Williams said. “Everybody was telling us to stay down, stay down, stay down, but in our eyes, we’re like, I’m not going to sit here if there’s shooters walking around with guns. We want to get out of here, and so we got up and ran.”

Williams and Moore made their way out of the concert, alternating between running and ducking for cover. They went inside a nearby hotel, but then they heard more screams and ran away again out of concern there was another shooter.

They found shelter at the Tropicana Hotel, where they were eventually picked up by Sami Hill and Melissa Seidemann, another teammate who also had come to town for the concert.

Williams said she obsessed over the news for a week, wanting to know more about what happened and why. But she quickly returned to training and then joined her pro team.

Right after she moved to Spain, Williams was constantly looking for places to take shelter if something happened. Time and her Christian faith helped her move on.

“I spent a lot of time just studying my faith and getting closer to that part of me,” she said. “I mean, obviously, it’s been an important part of my life since I was a little girl, but especially after that, it was kind of the only thing I could turn to.”

Williams and Moore got married in November. Moore, who also played at UCLA, is a teacher and coaches water polo at Newport Harbor.

Williams isn’t sure what she wants to do when she hangs up her cap for good. She has been doing some coaching, taking her back to what she remembers from when she started in the sport.

While Williams’ teammates heap praise on her at every opportunity — “She’s just one of the most humble people I know and a hard worker, too,” Kaleigh Gilchrist said — Williams herself doesn’t think anything she has done is all that remarkable. None of it.

For her, it’s just what she does.

“In my eyes, every time something bad happens or I get cut or I don’t make a team, it’s like the only option is to keep moving,” she said. “In my mind, like there’s nothing else for me to do other than keep working, try to make the next team or move on.

“So when you ask, (if) it’s a higher level of strength, to me, it’s just that’s the only level I have. You know, that’s the only option for me.”

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Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap

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More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/olympic-games and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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