A Journey to the Olympic Gold, Twice!
Written By: Elaine Morgan Cutting
Photographed By: Giuseppe DeMasi
Hair & Makeup By: Heather Balaam Olympic Gold Medalist
From the first match at the 2016 Rio Olympics, USA Water Polo Attacker, Olympic veteran and Orange County native Courtney Mathewson knew the USA team was going to go home with the gold. What she didn’t know, was how soundly they would defeat their competition, quite literally blowing them out of the water. It was an exciting follow up from a monumental first-time gold victory in the 2012 London Olympics and for Mathewson, it was the culmination and perfect ending to her long and wildly-successful water polo career.
Mathewson began swimming competitively at five years old. Her friend was on the team so she wanted to join, and she enjoyed every moment. Three years later, Mathewson was introduced to water polo and it was love at first sight. Admittedly, she was most attracted to the co-ed aspect of the activity, but she was also intrigued by a sport played in the water, so she signed up and immediately excelled. “I love how competitive it is,” says Mathewson. “It’s fast-paced and aggressive, but it also has a skill and an art to it, if played at the right level.”
From there, Mathewson’s love and dedication for the sport increased, and there was no doubt that she had a knack for it. She competed in Jr. High and club teams, and by her freshman year at Canyon High School, she was already receiving letters from universities. However, there was only one school that Mathewson’s heart was set on—UCLA. In fall of 2003, she was registered as an official Bruin, where her competitive water polo career continued to grow. While she was on the team, UCLA women’s water polo won the school’s historic 100th national championship, and Mathewson knew her love for the sport would go beyond the collegiate level.
The road after college to the 2012 London Olympics was a long and strenuous one. She was one of the youngest members on the USA team. Training was long and rigorous and Mathewson was pushing herself every day. “Water polo was everything I thought about,” says Mathewson. “I designed my life around it. My family, my husband; it was just water polo and what can I do to prepare myself that I would be in good physical shape.”
However, just before taking off for the beginning of the 2012 Olympics, disaster struck in the form of a torn ulnar ligament and flexor in Mathewson’s left arm, leaving her severely injured. Deep in denial about the extent of her injuries and unwilling to give up her spot on the Olympic roster, Mathewson played through the pain of her recovery and made it to London, where the team took gold for the first time in USA women’s water polo history. Despite the elation of this incredible victory, Mathewson was disappointed in her performance. “You always dream of how you want to perform at the Olympic games and I think this was a huge setback for me,” she says.
So, Mathewson began the journey again, reaching towards the 2016 Olympics in Rio. With a gold medal already in place, the coaches were stepping up their game and this renewed determination showed itself in practice. The women trained hard for 18 months, six and a half hours a day, six days a week, constantly pushing past physical and mental boundaries. Training consisted of intensive weight lifting, running, heavy swimming, team and individual meetings, psychology classes and, of course, polo strategy. It was exhausting work, but Mathewson took it one day at a time. “My teammates and our coaching staff are the ultimate inspiration,” says Mathewson. “You’re putting your body and mind out on the line just to get pounded every single day… if you don’t give 100 percent, then you’re not making your teammates any better. You’re battling every single day because you want to improve yourself and your teammates.”
This battle was well fought, and by the time the USA women’s water polo team made it to the Rio Olympics, they already had the gold in their sights. “We were just better prepared, more focused, more determined,” says Mathewson. And this determination showed up in every single game. They beat every opponent spectacularly, crushing their opposition by as high as 10 points. In the gold-winning game against Italy, team USA won 12-5. “At the beginning, we said we played really well,” said Mathewson. “Then on reflection it was more like ‘No, we actually dominated everyone at that tournament’ and I think that was just a testament to the way we prepared.”
After this all-time career high, and after 22 long years of the intense sport, Mathewson is finally finished with competitive water polo and after intense reconstructive surgery on her shoulder, it seems her body agrees with her. But, with two Olympic gold medals locked safely away, Mathewson is happy to try something new. Currently, her sights are set on returning to school to gain her teaching degree and go into special education. More immediately, Mathewson and her husband are expecting a baby girl in September and they couldn’t be more excited for this next stage in her life. “I feel really good about the success I’ve had and it’s very fortunate to be part of all the teams that I was,” says Mathewson. “It’s nice to close that chapter and move on to something else.”
Playing Tourist: With a tight schedule at the Rio Olympics, the team didn’t get a lot of time for sightseeing. But Mathewson was grateful for the brief opportunity to visit Christ the Redeemer. “It’s breathtaking in person,” she says. “You always see pictures of it, one of the wonders of the world, and then to actually see it in person, it gave me the chills.”
Travel Bug: Mathewson’s professional polo career has instilled a deep love of traveling. She is a proud sufferer of the “travel bug” on which she blames her polo career. “That’s something water polo has given me that I would have never done if I had a normal 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job,” says Mathewson. “I’ve had the privilege of traveling all over the world and seeing some really cool spots.”
Let’s Go Ducks! As an Anaheim native, Mathewson and her husband are huge Anaheim Ducks fans. Since his family has season tickets, they attend games often and show their support proudly.
Canyon High School
220 S Imperial Hwy
Anaheim, CA 92807
Courtney Mathewson: Two Olympic Runs, Two Gold Medals, One Deep Determination