Golden Girl

The probability of a human athlete becoming an Olympic athlete is 0.0013%. The chance of an Olympic athlete becoming a gold medalist is a tiny fraction of that already highly improbable percentage. Just making it into the Olympics is a monumental feat. Once there, the athletes experience an intense array of emotions that tell the story of herculean human effort that will most likely fall short of the prized, elusive gold medal. It takes a combination of superhuman skills and mental fortitude to clinch the gold sphere.

Amanda Longan is an Amazonian woman in the most admirable sense. This Oaks Christian School and University of Southern California (USC) alum – made the cut for her first Olympics in Tokyo 2020/21, and together with her USA Women’s Water Polo teammates, returned home with the coveted gold medal.

As the American flag was raised in Tokyo and the anthem played, what preceded was an emotionally-charged piece of history: As each team member placed the gold medal around each other’s necks, their facial expressions conveyed a sense that the rivers they swam in were extraordinarily deep. Their emotionally-charged eye contact, and the messages they whispered to each other, told the story of a group of young women who had gone into battle and been tested in ways that only they understood.

I ask Amanda what she was experiencing emotionally as her teammate, Alys Williams, placed the gold medal around her neck. Her eyes fill up with water as she expresses the poignancy of that moment: “It was particularly special to have Alys give me the gold medal. I’ve always respected her character and how hard she works. She is so inspiring and always wants the best for everyone. As Alys held the medal up in front of me, that’s when it struck me that this was happening. There were so many emotions that came through. When we sang the national anthem and I watched the USA flag being raised – that was the most powerful minute of my life.”

Amanda’s journey to the Olympics involved boatloads of sweat, discipline and commitment. Being a star water polo player at Oaks Christian School was the bedrock. She started playing in her freshman year in 2011, and credits her high school coach, Larry Felix, for believing in her and for steering her to new heights. She describes how the voyage began:

“Larry Felix backed my story all the way. He saw my potential and my work ethic, and when I didn’t know how to use my length effectively, he showed me. He also advised that I go to one of the best clubs to train – and that was 805 club polo in Santa Barbara. I give him so much credit for those important starting years.”

At age 15, Amanda vividly recalls standing in her kitchen at home when her dad asked her what her dream was. She replied without hesitation,

“I want to play water polo in the Olympics!”

From that moment on, a united dad and daughter team strategized on realizing the dream. Amanda’s high school days were saturated with the rigorous academic demands of Oaks Christian School, water polo practices, and regular weekly trips to 805 club polo in Santa Barbara. Determined to learn from the best players, she’d drive back from Santa Barbara and head down to Pepperdine University to train with Olympic Men’s Water Polo silver medalist, Merrill Moses. Amanda’s life changed radically once she made the all-in commitment towards her Olympic goal, and she clarifies what the change looked like:

“My social life evaporated completely. There was no time for any of that. I am grateful to Oaks Christian for the academic workload because the standard they set made my transition to USC and the life of a student athlete – much easier. When Covid-19 struck us all in 2020, and by then I was playing at national team level, we only socialized with our teammates because of the risks of being in contact with people out of that safe inner circle. So from an already diminished social life from age 15, my social circle became even smaller in the last two years. We were so conscious of the training time we would miss if any one of us gave the virus to one of our team members, so we were extra cautious.”

What I learn as I spend a few days with Amanda – is the power of her positivity, and her ability to view things with a refreshingly optimistic lens. She confirms that with these words:

“I view the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics as an extra special experience because as a team – we were navigating such uncertain times with extra layers of complications. We had to figure our way through the unprecedented times – and Tokyo 2020 will go down in history. There has never been an Olympics like it with no spectators, no family and loved ones to support us while we were there, so we all had to dig really deep. I think it’s really cool that I got to be a part of such a unique and historically significant Olympics. In our small sport of water polo, we had to be each other’s biggest cheerleaders, and there’s something special about that.”

“Tokyo 2020 will go down in history. There has never been an Olympics like it with no spectators, no family and loved ones to support us while we were there, so we all had to dig really deep.”

Amanda’s life is filled with valuable relationships. She is exceptionally close to her nuclear family. Dad, Jon Longan, is a 6-foot-8-inch Californian firefighter whom she affectionately calls ‘big guy.’ Mom is Kim, and sisters Shelby and Andi have a huge place in Amanda’s heart.

“When we were children,” she enthuses, “our family would always go on active vacations where we rode our dirt bikes and ATV’s. Oftentimes my dad’s firefighter buddies would join us with their kids, and it was so much fun. We’d go out into the desert where the cell phone reception wasn’t great, and that forced us to disconnect from our work and our gadgets. My dad led the way when it came to having us outdoors and active. As we grew older and played team sports, dad had us playing tennis and basketball in our backyard, and then when I started water polo in 2011, we would play that too. Dad liked having us working in the yard as a family unit. We’d be on the tractor or pushing the lawnmower. He liked us to be productive and active outdoors. He wasn’t a proponent of lying around the house playing on our gadgets.”

After graduating from high school, Amanda was awarded an athletic scholarship to USC and substantially contributed to making them the best team in the USA. She started there in 2015 and shone in her role as USC’s water polo goalie. In 2016 in her freshman year, she and her teammates had a 26-0 winning streak, and they went on to clinch the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship title in a titanic tussle against Stanford University. Their determination was especially evident when they scored the winning goal six seconds before the end of the game.

Thereafter, USC’s demolition of their opponents continued for a history-making 47th consecutive victory where they officially set a national women’s record and maintained their dominance as the best team in the country.

In 2018, Amanda and the team torpedoed their way to another NCAA Championship title in dramatic fashion, claiming a 5-4 thrilling game over No.2 in the country, Stanford University.

In 2019, USC Women’s Water Polo were in a figurative boat that hit some unforeseen rocks – a reminder to them of life’s unpredictability. Their head coach was Jovan Vavic.

In the spring of that year, the college admissions bribery scandal exploded. USC’s Jovan Vavic was fired on the day that the news hit the world’s press. According to a superseding indictment, Vavic was allegedly accused of accepting $250,000 in bribes in exchange for designating two prospective students as water polo recruits, facilitating their admission to USC. Amanda explains the shock and the drama:

“We were in Hawaii for a training trip when all of this blew up. We were three hours behind Californian time and I received a phone call early in the morning – informing me that Jovan had been arrested. I was confused, and when I checked my phone, it had several texts that said, ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with you right now’. At that point I thought that somebody might have died.”

“Our coaches called us into a meeting,” she continues, “and educated us on as much as they knew at the time. I was shocked. This was my senior year, and we were about to start conference games, so the timing was serious. We were suddenly without our head coach, and when we attended practices it all felt so weird and uncomfortable. Despite all of that, we put everything we had into the season, and made it into the NCAA finals. This was our chance to win back-to-back NCAA titles but we lost by one goal and it was heartbreaking. There was such a mixture of emotions, and from a human and skills level perspective, we missed Jovan.”

We discuss what makes a great team at national level. Amanda clarifies,

“Everybody who makes it to that level is at the top of their game. They have the skills, and their talent is the base that got them into the team of 13 players. But what makes a team really special is the chemistry between the players, and the communication between each of them. That synergy is what takes a team to another level, and the respect that the players have for each other. When all those elements are combined, the team becomes super supportive of one another and everyone has each other’s back. That’s when the magic happens.”

USA Olympic Women’s Water Polo wins Gold Medal in Tokyo 2021. Courtesy Jeff Cable/USA Water Polo

“What makes a team special is the chemistry between the players, and the communication between each of them. That synergy is what takes a team to another level, and the respect that the players have for each other.”

At Olympic level, the stakes are that much higher and the pressure intensifies. Given that USA Women’s Water Polo had already won gold medals in London 2012 and Rio 2016, they walked into the 2021 Tokyo stadium with a huge target on their back. Amanda dives into the details of how they coped:

“Coach Krikorian had done an excellent job at centering us, and we have all learned to stay calm and go back to basics with key defensive and offensive play. Bear in mind that because of Covid, minus the few series we had before, we hadn’t really played any of our opposition teams in 2020 so we went into the Olympics relatively blind – not knowing what to expect from our opponents. It is definitely true that we encountered extra pressure from our unbroken Olympic winning streak of not losing a single game since 2012.”

Amanda thinks deeply as she remembers the moment:

“Half way through the Olympics, we lost our first game to Hungary, and frankly, it was a relief. Our looming fear had happened, and we shook it off. Once again we went back to what we knew best, and we discussed how, maybe, we were playing too tightly because of our fear of losing – and it was time to shake that up a bit and play more freely. After that, it was business as usual. We looked upon it as starting from square one again. USA Women’s Water Polo is a very tough team – mentally.”

Amanda’s faith has been her stronghold throughout her life but it’s become especially strong in recent years. She explains her convictions:

“I kept pushing myself to reach the top, and while I worked through life’s problems, water polo was always that sure thing that I turned to. But I needed to know that my identity lay in something substantial – something that was beyond water polo. I recognized that it wasn’t a smart idea to let water polo be my only identity. I came to know – without any doubt – that God loves me – no matter what I do. Having that assurance is incredibly important to me and it has seen me through the tough times in life. My faith is central in my life and it is my strength.”

Being so driven and goal-oriented necessitates that Amanda be able to balance that drive with relaxation activities in which she completely unwinds. She explains without a second’s hesitation that music and dancing bring considerable joy to her.

“Without a doubt,” she emphasizes, “music and dancing are central to my happiness. Being able to dance to music that speaks to me – is such a liberating way of expressing myself. I particularly love music from the 1960s to the 1980s and that includes all genres but particularly country music, hip-hop and classic rock.”

While we were photographing the cover pictures of Amanda on the catamaran in Channel Islands Harbor, she began dancing freely to an array of songs that her Sonos player powered out. ‘Mustang Sally’ evoked a unique set of moves from our Olympian, and then she did a completely different dance to ‘Brandy’ by Looking Glass, followed by ‘Get Down On It’ by Kool and the Gang, and ‘Caught Up in You’ by 38 Special. Her dancing is always accompanied by effervescent laughter. Amanda’s strong body is moved to sway whenever she’s not strapped down in an airplane seat, and her energy is engagingly contagious. As other boats floated past us, they joined in on the dancing, and I recognized that Amanda could get a party started in Mogadishu.

She confirms all of this by saying,

“When I go out with my friends, I’m the first person to jump up and sing when it’s a karaoke night, and I’m also the first person in the middle of a dance circle. Seriously though, music speaks to me in a profound way. When I listen to country music, I think about the love I will one day share with my husband and kids. I think about how much my parents love my sisters and I. Line dancing allows one to move the body in such an athletic and artistic way. It’s my absolute best relaxation activity!”

But life isn’t always a party, and Amanda is acutely sensitive to that realization.

She speaks authoritatively about her family unit breaking up recently.

“Unexpectedly, my parents divorced while I was at USC, and it had a huge effect on me. I was studying psychology at the time, and as I tried to navigate my way through the new reality of my family breaking up, I had an epiphany that I should use my struggles and experience to take my career in a specific direction – to that of being a family and marriage therapist.”

Amanda expands:

“I wasn’t expecting my parents to divorce, and I was in disbelief when I found out. Looking back, maybe I should have seen it coming, but I blocked it out of my mind by assuring myself that there was no way it was going to happen. My younger sister, Andi, was a junior in school, and Shelby and I were away at college, so we weren’t around it as much as Andi but we all struggled with it in different ways because we were at different phases of our lives. Having gone through that experience, I feel I can positively help families in the future.”

“I kept pushing myself to reach the top, and while I worked through life’s problems, water polo was always that sure thing that I turned to. But I needed to know that my identity lay in something substantial – something that was beyond water polo. I came to know – without any doubt – that God loves me – no matter what I do.”

I ask Amanda what motivates her. She answers with certainty,

“I’ve always been very driven. It’s in my DNA. When I discovered water polo, I knew, without a doubt, that I wanted to get to the top of the sport. My older sister, Shelby, would compete with me in various activities and she describes how I would half kill myself to win. She said that I just never gave up. By 6th grade, that determination to achieve the goals I had set was evident in everything. Even when I was injured and was in a cast with a sling, I’d go to school and beg my teachers to let me take part in physical education (P.E.). I promised them that I had a note from my parents – authorizing my return to physical activities!”

We transition back to the art of positivity and viewing life with an optimistic lens. Amanda says,

“In 2020, after we returned to national team training, I partnered with Jordan Raney, a close friend in the national team, and we figured out a strategy to try new and innovative ways to improve our game. When I was up and she was down, I brought her up; then, when I was down, and she was up, she pulled me up. It was a constructive way to keep each other mentally buoyed. Whenever each one of us was in a rut, we’d make a point of getting the other person out of the rut.”

What also becomes patently clear is Amanda’s love for her country. She thrives in a country that encourages freedom of expression, working hard, the pursuit of the extraordinary, reaching for the stars, and optimism.

Since returning from Tokyo gold medaled, Amanda’s skills have been in demand nationally and internationally. She coaches water polo at her alma mater USC, runs water polo clinics across the country, and goes from airports in Florida to freeways in California to her next water-port-of-call. On top of all those commitments, she’s doing her master’s degree in Clinical Psychology at Pepperdine University. Managing that schedule requires exceptional organizational skills.

“It means,” Amanda explains sensibly, “that I’m currently looking for an apartment somewhere between Long Beach and Manhattan Beach so that I’m at a mid point between all my commitments. There just isn’t enough time in the day to spend too many hours on L.A. freeways.”

Amanda’s body requires huge amounts of nourishment to fuel her elite level of performance, so we talk about food.

“I’m a deep dish pizza girl,” she laughs, “and I LOVE sushi. Yes, I know they are opposites – but those are my go-to dishes. When it comes to what I eat, it really varies according to the amount of time we spend in the water burning huge amounts of calories. If I’m on airplanes and let’s say we are at the Olympics, we have far less water time than when we are training pre Olympics. So I eat according to my output and what my body needs. At the Olympic Village where we stayed, I’d indulge in a cheeseburger but then I’d be sure to follow up with something of nutritious value. My game day routine looks like this: I wake up to a cup of coffee. I’ll have a fig bar. After morning training, I have a P & J (peanut butter and jelly sandwich), and I’ve progressively become really diligent about drinking lots of water before a game.”

As if dreaming about what she’d like to do when she doesn’t have a myriad of commitments per week, Amanda says,

“If I could be anywhere I wanted to be right now, I’d pick Glacier National Forest in Montana. That area is absolutely stunning and it’s so wholesome. It’s the perfect place to disconnect and take in all God’s breathtaking work. Its big blue skies make me happy.”

When Amanda is home in California, being poolside is what she loves to do.

“I love putting on my two-piece swimsuit, lying in the sun, and splashing around in the water. It’s one of my favorite relaxation past-times, especially when I’m home with my family.”

“Beyond that, I love going to restaurants because it invites the art of conversation. It’s so special to sit down with my favorite people and enjoy a meal while really interacting without distractions.”

Humor plays a vital role in Amanda’s life. Her favorite movies include ‘Talladega Nights’ starring the hilarious Will Ferrell. Another go-to movie favorite is ‘Benchwarmers’ about a baseball-loving millionaire who helps three inept nerds form a baseball team. ‘Grown Ups’ is another favorite movie.

I coax the gorgeous 24-year-old Amanda into revealing her recipe for the type of man she is attracted to. At first she laughs, but then when she realizes that I’m not letting her off the hook, she answers firmly.

“I like my man to be COMMITTED and STRONG!”

If any man is currently dating Amanda, you probably already have those attributes, but just in case you never asked her the question and you want to know, we’ve asked it for you. You’re welcome.

As this April May 2022 issue comes out, Amanda is already back in full training with the national team at a military base in Los Alamitos, California.

“When I go out with my friends, I’m the first person to jump up and sing when it’s a karaoke night, and I’m also the first person in the middle of a dance circle. Music speaks to me in a profound way.”

With Paris 2024 only two years away, the essential Olympic preparation has begun. Amanda is careful in her wording because nothing in life is a surety. Her goal is to be chosen for the final 2024 Olympic squad, but much has to happen between now and then, and her humility prevents her from being presumptuous.

“I’m the biggest cheerleader,” she says. “Of course I love being in the cage but it comes down to supporting my team. I derive an immense amount of happiness from seeing the people around me triumph.”

She also points out something unique about her sport:

“We do our sport in water where there is no ground to stand on. I mean, we are not fish, and we can’t breathe in water. We have to come up for air. The environment teaches us so much – to be comfortable in an uncomfortable medium – and it’s a zone that only aquatic athletes understand.”

There’s no doubt that the popularity of water polo has grown enormously in the last ten years, and USA Women’s Water Polo is uniquely responsible for that change. This is no one-time-charm team. As of 2022 they have earned three Olympic gold medals in a row – starting with the London 2012 Olympics, followed up by the Rio 2016 Olympics, and then Tokyo 20/21. It is so extraordinarily difficult for a team to stay at the top for so long, and it’s a testament to the girls’ talent and irrepressible spirits that this feat has been maintained for so long.

Being in Amanda’s orbit is so invigorating that both humans and animals respond. While we were filming on the catamaran, a large seal popped his head out of the water, and waved his caught fish excitedly in front of his new-found-friend. Once he swallowed the fish, he started dancing in the water right next to Amanda.

This golden girl has accomplished what millions of athletes strive to achieve their whole lives – and she’s done it in the first quarter of her life with a maturity level that is rare. She’s ready to unleash more exhilarating aquatic action while continuing to contribute her inestimable gifts to the world.