Some athletes are born, some are made, and some refuse to acknowledge they are either — they just keep working.
Sun Devil water polo player Gao Ao is one of the latter. This sophomore attacker has been to the very edges of the earth mentally, physically, figuratively and literally, and has managed to hone her craft in the process.
However, she simply states her accomplishments as if they aren’t actually life-changing events that most athletes dream about — like being an Olympian.
“I wasn’t even very good at swimming,” Ao said. “I was really slow actually.”
That was back when she started playing water polo at age 13 — after she had spent her childhood in Chinese work camps.
Maybe it was her determination to never return to those desolate camps that spurred her skill or childhood trauma that drove her onward, but by the time she was 15 her name was prominent among the whispers about the formation of a women’s Chinese national water polo team.
“They didn’t choose me at first because I was too young and too short,” Ao said. “I almost gave up. But I went to a different city to try out and they picked me, though I was still the youngest and the shortest.”
Ao’s coach at the time took her under his wing and she traveled to Canada for her first tournament. Though she didn’t play much, it was the beginning of a year full of tournaments and travel.
“Our second big international game was the World Cup in China,” Ao said. “I scored during each game, but we still lost because it was such a young team.”
Ao’s second year on the team brought in a new coach who was unlike anyone the young women were used to.
“He yelled a lot,” Ao said. “He was a perfectionist, I think.”
In a country that prides itself on meticulousness, Ao’s coach even exceeded cultural standards. If girls made even a small mistake they were benched. If they were supposed to score during a match and didn’t, they were yelled at and then benched. It was unnerving for Ao, who had just turned 16.
“I was afraid to make mistakes, and then I got really bad because I was too afraid,” Ao said. “I just lost myself. I think I forgot how to play.”
Ao remembers sitting on the bench and feeling safe because there she was anonymous and would not be picked on. But being invisible meant she was not on track to make the Olympic team.
“My old coach, he was still with the team and he took me aside and told me I wasn’t going to make the team,” Ao said. “I thought, ‘After all this training, now you tell me I can’t'…I decided there were six months left [to try to make the team] so I’ll try my best and have no regrets.”
She threw herself into training. She made herself adjust to her new coach because the consequences of not doing so meant she couldn’t play.
“I was back to normal and made the team,” Ao said.
The Chinese water polo team came in fifth at the Olympic Games. It was only the fourth year of the team’s existence. Ao was 18 years old and went on to graduate high school.
By 2010, Ao was wearing thin. She was back in China and the team’s practice schedule consisted of brutal 9-hour sessions with only Sundays off. She decided in August 2010 she would play her last tournament with the Chinese National Team.
“I didn’t tell anyone on the team because I was afraid I wouldn’t actually leave,” Ao said. “But I wanted to finish strong.”
Ao was the top scorer for the tournament and with the final buzzer, she was thrown into a world she wasn’t accustomed to, one that didn’t involve water polo.
“When you spend so long in a sport and then suddenly stop…Well I just couldn’t give up,” Ao said. “I told myself that my education was so important now and in China if you are an athlete, your whole life is the sport and once you are too old or lose skill, you are forgotten about and you are all alone with no education or job.”
She decided to come to America, where she now lends her experience to the Arizona State water polo team.
“It’s different, but I especially like the attitudes,” Ao said. “In China, we do know we like each other, but western girls show their love. You cheer for each other more. It’s good.”
She also likes the emphasis on education at Arizona State.
“Its easier for me to balance everything,” Ao said. “This program focuses on student-athletes. They make you study and get your education.”
Ao has had requests from her old team in China to come back, but she is again calm, rational and matter-of-fact about her choices. It is clear she was a key player there, just as she is here, but she wants to keep moving forward.
“I think they want me to come back and make a miracle for them,” Ao said. “But there is no miracle if you don’t train hard, if you don’t sacrifice.”