LOS ANGELES -- One of Ao Gao’s strengths as a water polo player for Arizona State is her fearless play, but the courage she showed just getting to Tempe, Arizona is truly remarkable.
Gao is a citizen of China and for any athlete from the Communist country, a dream of leaving to attend college and play sports in the United States stays forever a fantasy.
“I wanted to do different things, have more balance in my life,” Gao said. “I didn’t want this full time job of water polo.”
Gao had been a swimmer since she was in elementary school and when she was in middle school her coach suggested she play water polo, something the then youngster hesitated to do.
“I was 13 and a swimmer and my coach told me I should do water polo,” Gao said. “I was pretty upset at first, especially since I couldn’t catch the ball really well. A big success for me was throwing the ball to the goalie.”
She got better and was soon on the national team, one of the youngest members.
Playing on the national team was difficult. Practice began at 8:30 a.m. went for four hours, then lunch and a quick nap, followed by three more hours of practice, then ended with video sessions.
“It was a full time job,” Gao said. “They didn’t call us professionals but I thought we were. It’s all I did.”
On one of her trips to compete was in New Zealand and Arizona State Coach Todd Clapper was a coach in that country and noticed her.
“I knew who she was because China was in our world league,” Clapper said. “It came down to her sending me an email telling me she was interested in coming and I followed up on it.”
Though both coach and student wanted to be at ASU, the coach of the national team wasn’t too keen on the idea.
“The assistant coach at the time from China was more open to players leaving where the head coach was not going to let that happen,” Clapper said. “It’s a tough national team and country to crack into as far as recruiting. I think she is the first and only one to come to the US to play from China.”
It was amazing that Gao, now a junior, was able to get to the states. She represented China in the 2008 Olympics and a year later was toiling away for the National team.
“I went to Australia to play with the national team to get more experience,” Gao said. “One girl played on the team and she had played in the US and she told me I could go to America and play. I started to think more about it.”
A year later Gao was ready to make the move and devised a plan.
“The coach didn’t want me to go,” Gao said. “So in the beginning I knew I wasn’t going to be able to go. I learned more about the details and in 2010 after the World Cup I told them I was really sick. So they told me to take a break.”
During the time off Gao took the SAT and required English classes and sent all of her transcripts to ASU. Though she was offered a scholarship, it wasn’t a given that the college would admit her.
“They came to me for a tournament and I didn’t want to play because I knew I was going to America,” Gao said. “It was kind of risky because what if everything doesn’t work out and I can’t go? It was a risk for me, but I was willing to take that risk. When I got accepted to ASU they still didn’t know but they found out and got really mad. They came to the house and talked to me and my mom, telling me to come back to the team. I felt like I was being harassed.”
Once at ASU, Gao assimilated remarkably well, though there were some cultural differences.
“You would tell her what you wanted and she got it,” Clapper said. “There were some cultural differences. On the Chinese national team you are either a hero or a zero in terms of shooting. If you shoot and it was a risky shot and if you missed you may not play again the rest of the game. I had to tell her that I wanted her to take shots that are not high percentage shots sometimes. I wanted her to take risks.”
While she picked up the college game pretty quickly, there were some things that were harder to adjust to.
“The hardest thing was the food,” Gao said. “I missed the food.”
Gao returned to her country to play in the 2012 Olympics with the understanding she would be allowed to return to ASU. It was a concession the Chinese government grudgingly accepted.
Now Gao is just a regular college student and blends in with her teammates though she does have one more dream.
“I want my parents to see my graduation,” Gao said. “My mom has been really supportive and they want to see my graduation.”