Karen Musselman remembers watching her then-4-year-old daughter Maddie display a will to win in the pool and on the soccer field that can't be taught. And even if it could, most 4-year-olds wouldn't be able to execute it.
"Some kids were just having fun [playing soccer], but Maddie wanted to win," Karen said. "When they're little, there's always one child who gets it and keeps scoring and scoring. At first, it was so cute. And then it was, 'Maddie, stop!' And then it was the coach saying, 'Maddie, don't kick it in the goal anymore.' It started out cute, then she was a machine."
Maddie Musselman, now 18, is one of three prodigious teens, along with teammates Makenzie Fischer, 19, and Aria Fischer, 17, who are representing the United States at the Rio Olympics as members of the women's water polo team. Like Aria, Maddie made the decision to withdraw from high school to train full time.
Though living in Southern California, home of USA Water Polo, afforded them the advantage of living at home, there was still the matter of leaving friends, teachers, teammates and high school life.
For Maddie's father, Jeff -- a Harvard grad, former major league pitcher and now vice president in the offices of a sports agent -- it meant a research project on the pros and cons involved in enrolling a girl with Ivy League potential and medical school aspirations in an online school.
"Initially, you don't want to get too far out in front of things. 'Are we being crazy athlete parents, pushing too hard and too far?' But as we learned more about the nontraditional school approach and that it was acceptable to the highest-level academic institutions, it was not that big a risk," Jeff said.
For Maddie, it was simply a case of following a natural progression that began with demonstrating obvious athletic ability in soccer and swimming as a young child, then following her sister Alex, who went on to compete for UCLA, into water polo.
"I grew up swimming my whole life, but I wanted to play water polo because my sister did it," said Maddie, who helped the U.S. win gold at the FINA World League Super Final in June with 11 goals in six games. "I think what I really like is the creativity, the mental and the physical part of it. I also liked how competitive it is and that it's a team sport."
Ross Sinclair got an early glimpse of Maddie's ability when she was a 9-year-old enrolled in a Newport Beach ocean safety summer program for which he was an instructor. Sinclair also coached her in a junior lifeguard state competition. "I remember explaining to her, 'This is where you need to enter the water, this is how you read currents for a buoy swim,'" he said. "She was wide-eyed and just got it and went out and won for us. I never had a 10-year-old get it like that."
By the time Maddie joined Sinclair's water polo team at Corona del Mar High School, her natural ability was unlike anything the coach had seen. "Just the way she moved in the water and fundamentally, she was on another level and I knew she was going to be something special. She had it written all over her," Sinclair said.
He was impressed most with her maturity as a student of the sport. "You could show her a video of a guy or girl shooting and tell her to adjust just the littlest detail, and she would pick it up right away," Sinclair said. "It was awesome. Really, it was amazing."
Maddie's parents, both East Coast natives, laugh about their three girls being attracted to and excelling at water sports. Karen, who played soccer at Rutgers, said growing up in Southern California also offered their daughters -- their youngest, Ella, also plays water polo and will start high school in the fall -- the opportunity to interact with former Olympians.
"When we were growing up, you never met an Olympian," Karen said. "Here, they're everywhere, at special camps, training with the kids."
That good fortune included having proximity to Olympic coaches like Adam Krikorian. He won 14 national championships as a player and coach at UCLA, coached the Americans to gold in the 2012 Olympics and will be the U.S. coach in Rio. Krikorian became aware of Maddie when she was just 15 and invited the young prep star to participate in a senior team training session.
"I was trying to give some young players an outlook on our future and the first thing that drew me to Maddie was that when you looked into her eyes, you could be speaking to a group, but you could see that focus and determination and drive," Krikorian said.
"Knowing that and seeing that, I remember telling her, 'It's OK to dream.' Sometimes we're afraid to dream, to throw ourselves out there and be a little vulnerable, not knowing if we're going to accomplish our dreams [or] come up short. It's a scary proposition."
It would appear just as scary for Maddie and the Fischer sisters to make some difficult decisions: Maddie and Aria to withdraw from their respective high schools to join the senior team and train full time, and Makenzie to defer her freshman season at Stanford.
For Maddie, the decision came in small increments, first traveling with the team on selected trips while trying to keep up with school her sophomore year, then making the leap to leave high school prior to her senior year. "Never in a million years did we think she'd make the Olympic team at that point," Karen said. "We just thought, this will be a great experience and maybe she'd have a chance to go to the Olympics in 2020."
Jeff said: "We just talked constantly about the experience. We told Maddie, 'Have a good time, work hard, enjoy it because you're doing things kids your age don't normally have the chance to do.'
"The idea was not to create unreasonable expectations, but [Krikorian] left the window open, which for Maddie was huge. She's a competitor, relentless, fierce. When she heard [making the roster of the senior national team] was a possibility, as she normally does, she gave her ultimate effort."
Missing classes while enrolled in high school, Karen said, was more stressful than the decision to leave for an online curriculum. Maddie agreed. "It's what I want to do. It's not a huge deal for me," Maddie said. "It's an easy commute [to training] and it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to train, do school, hang out with friends. It's a wonderful life, very cool."
Maddie also had a ready role model in Maggie Steffens, who was 17 when she first joined the U.S. national water polo team and 19 when, as the youngest member of the team, she led the U.S. to the Olympic gold medal and was named the FINA Player of the Year.
Steffens recalled having lunch with Maddie and Makenzie Fischer three years ago after both made their first senior team roster. "Just to let them know, 'Hey, I'm here for you guys. I went through something very similar. I know it's tough to leave behind your friends,'" Steffens said. "They didn't move away from home, but it's still a feeling of moving away. And it's also scary because you're now surrounded by people eight years your elder, so it's completely different.
"You're no longer talking about high school football games, you're talking about what you need to do to accomplish this huge goal. So to be able to talk to Maddie so early on and just let her know I'm there for her was really important because there were girls who did that for me."
Making it that much easier for Maddie to be accepted quickly were her easygoing personality and immense talent. "At times, Maddie is somebody who can easily be very focused and serious, but when the time comes, she's very lighthearted and can crack a joke," Steffens said. "And that's a gift she has because no matter what type of person you are, you can relate to her pretty easily."
That and her obvious physical gifts set her apart, said Krikorian, who also cited Maddie's willingness to try different things. "Many times you come across athletes, young and old, who are afraid of trying something new -- a certain drill, a certain way to shoot or play the game -- and deal with some failure. They want success immediately," he said. "But from Day 1, it was so clear to me that Maddie had that ability to overcome that fear and try different things, even if she may look silly doing it the first few times."
Krikorian points to Maddie's lob as an example. It's a world-class weapon for the U.S. that Krikorian calls one of "so many little things she has learned and developed and added to her game over the last two years that have made her the complete player she is."
Her high school coach said he is not surprised in the least. "It's tough to leave high school and go pursue something like this, but she's the type of unique person who can balance everything," Sinclair said. "I always tell her that her age is just a number: It's ability [that matters]. And she plays like she's 25 and has two Olympics under her belt. She is a very driven individual. She's just something special."