NEWTOWN SQUARE, PA (CBS) — Maddie O’Reilly was born in Bermuda. So she’s always felt naturally comfortable in and around water. The Episcopal Academy sophomore has been swimming since she was six and has been playing water polo since she was in sixth grade.
But when she lined up over Memorial Day weekend, for the National Training & Selection Camps in Huntington Beach, California, to select the cadet national women’s water polo team, O’Reilly noticed something wasn’t quite right.
She stood out in a different way from the other girls, not just in the water, but outside, too.
“The other girls were making fun of me for how white I was the first day of camp, and how red I was by the end of the camp,” O’Reilly said, laughing. “Most of the girls are from California and play outside in the sun, so they’re all tall and tan. And here I am, from the East Coast playing inside with no tan at all.”
Tan or no tan, O’Reilly proved she belonged. She’s one of 28 girls from across the country who made the U.S. national women’s cadet water polo team (which includes high school-aged freshmen and sophomores).
What makes O’Reilly rare—aside from her amazing talent—is that not many from the Northeast section of the United States make the national team. O’Reilly was competing against swimmers who can play water polo 365 days a year, as opposed to the limited access swimmers have in this area of the country.
“There is definitely a difference from playing indoors on the East Coast from playing outdoors, which they’re able to do in California, because the sun creates a difficult aspect to the game,” said O’Reilly, who endured eight-hour training sessions to whittle down 70 invitees nationally down to the 28 that made the U.S. national team.
“I enjoyed playing outdoors way more than having a four-hour training session inside,” O’Reilly added. “The level of play is different from the East Coast to the West Coast.”
There is a marked difference. Most elite water polo players are from California, Texas, Florida and the West Coast. O’Reilly was one of two that made the national team from the East Coast, along with O’Reilly’s Greenwich Aquatics club teammate, Ally Furano.
“Water polo has come a long way throughout the country, but it’s definitely dominated on the West Coast,” Episcopal Academy coach Alicia Keating said. “However, there are similarly strong programs and more than 50 public schools in Pennsylvania have water polo programs.”
Keating said what sets O’Reilly apart is her strength in the water, her left-handed release, another rarity, and she’s had an opportunity to go against the top girls of the country. That’s taken her game to a higher level.
“Maddie deserves a lot of credit, because she has done a ton to create opportunities for herself,” Keating said. “Some of these girls swim and only play water polo a few months of the year, where Maddie gives a full commitment to the sport—and she really stands out.”
O’Reilly is probably the best water polo player Episcopal has ever had. The Churchmen, as a team, are also very good. They’re preparing for the prestigious Best of the East tournament this weekend—and there is a chance, a good chance, Episcopal could go deep into the tournament.
“It’s early in the season, but we have the potential to do a lot of great things, and Maddie is a big part of that,” Keating said. “Maddie is not only a leader in the pool, but she’s a good supporter of her team. She knows what it takes to be a good teammate and she knows how to compliment her teammates, and they know how to compliment her.”
O’Reilly is such a dominant force the 5-foot-5 attack scored 12 goals in Episcopal’s 18-5 victory over Pennridge on September 11.
Now back home playing for her high school team, O’Reilly stands out in another way—aside from her talent … “I went from being one of the only girls without a tan to the only girl with a tan.”
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