US water polo star prepares for Paris Olympics as husband battles lung cancer
COSTA MESA, Calif. (AP) — The phone call struck Maddie Musselman at her very center, confirming the worst fear for the U.S. water polo star and her soon-to-be husband, Pat Woepse.
Pat’s nagging cough, the one that chased him around for weeks, including on a swim across the English Channel on his 30th birthday, was a symptom of an aggressive form of lung cancer.
Immediately, there were all sorts of decisions that had to be made, about doctors and hospitals and treatment. But one decision was made right away, even before it became a conversation.
Maddie was going to the Paris Olympics to help the United States try for an unprecedented fourth consecutive gold medal.
“Pat, from the beginning, was like, ‘You’re not stopping playing water polo. I love watching you play,’” Maddie said with Pat sitting beside her on a couch in their Southern California apartment.
She just had to figure out how. How do you play water polo at the highest level, when you can’t play water polo all the time? How do you park your life at the edge of a pool?
“I know how much it means to her. I know how hard she works, how invested she is,” he said. “So given the opportunity to watch her play and have success, it’s like there’s nothing better in the world to me than watching that.”
ON THE BRINK
Musselman was 15 when she played in her first game with the national team in 2013. Mature beyond her years, to go along with a 5-foot-11 frame and impressive athleticism, she quickly became a key performer in an emerging dynasty.
Musselman, one of three daughters for former major league pitcher Jeff Musselman and his wife, Karen, scored 12 goals when the U.S. won its second straight gold medal at the 2016 Olympics. She was the tournament MVP when the U.S. won again at the Tokyo Games, finishing with 18 goals.
She is more than just a scorer, but her offensive ability stands out — even among the world’s best players. Facing China in last year’s world championships, she kicked a pass to her right hand and then flipped the ball over the charging goaltender while fighting off two defenders.
After swimming back to the center of the pool for the resumption of play, Musselman had a bemused look on her face, almost as if she couldn’t believe the move actually worked.
“She helps make the game look beautiful,” U.S. captain Maggie Steffens said.
Lifted by Musselman’s stellar play, the U.S. is on the brink of history. No team — women or men — has ever won four straight water polo titles at the Olympics.
That all seemed meaningless after the results of Pat’s biopsy came in.
A LOVE STORY
Musselman met Woepse when Kodi Hill, one of her teammates at UCLA, married Ryder Roberts, one of his water polo teammates with the Bruins, in January 2022.
Woepse got Musselman’s phone number from Hill after the wedding. He gave her a call, but she let it go to voicemail because she didn’t recognize the number.
Two years later, Woepse smiled as he recalled stumbling through his message.
“No, it’s great,” Musselman interjected. “It’s like my favorite.”
“She called me back and I’m very lucky,” Woepse continued.
It worked right from the start. They bonded over their shared Catholic faith — something they have leaned on even more amid Woepse’s cancer diagnosis — and water polo. They started making plans.
Woepse loves to travel, so he joined Musselman in Hungary for the 2022 world championships. After the U.S. won the title, the couple stayed in Europe for vacation. They also explored Japan after last year’s world championships in Fukuoka.
Woepse proposed to Musselman on Newport Beach in June. They moved in together in August, and Musselman borrowed a dress from a family friend when they decided to get married on short notice Sept. 30.
“It was always really easy dating Maddie, which is amazing,” Woepse said.
It was all very easy for Musselman, too. She had been told that she was picky when it came to relationships, but she found what she was looking for in the affable Woepse.
“When we went on that trip to Europe after Budapest, I was like, ‘This is awesome. I could spend the rest of my life with this guy,’” she said.
A CANCER DIAGNOSIS
The cough Pat had in Japan lingered after he moved in with Maddie, so he saw a doctor and got a chest X-ray. Following more tests, he learned in September that he had NUT carcinoma — a rare diagnosis that “seems to be a random, unprovoked event,” according to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Massachusetts.
“Once you get the confirming call, it was tough,” Woepse said. “I was with my family and Maddie, obviously surrounded by everybody that loves me, so that was a pretty powerful moment.”
Musselman, 25, took a couple of weeks off from training after they got the biopsy results, staying right beside Woepse as they figured out the next steps. They flew to Dana-Farber to consult with one of the doctors who discovered NUT carcinoma in the early 2000s.
Woepse enrolled in a clinical trial that involves a mixture of two types of chemotherapy and a pill designed for his particular form of cancer. Along the way, Woepse and Musselman made a point of avoiding any prognosis for his long-term health.
“It’s so rare, there’s not a lot of data points that can point to positive and negative cases,” he said. “So that doesn’t mean anything to me. And for us, really, it’s about us. It’s about me. So you can be the outlier, in my opinion.”
Woepse’s cancer diagnosis was relayed to the U.S. women’s team in a variety of ways. Musselman met with coach Adam Krikorian days after the biopsy results came in, and teammate Kaleigh Gilchrist acted as a messenger while Musselman was away.
It was an emotional time. Part of California’s small water polo community, Woepse’s connection to the U.S. team runs deeper than his relationship with Musselman.
“He is without a doubt one of the best humans that I’ve ever met,” said Rachel Fattal, who played for UCLA while Woepse competed for the school. “And they are both incredibly strong, and together, they’re as strong as they come.”
When Musselman rejoined the national team for training, she was nervous. It felt different. Everything felt different.
She met with the team. She shared what she knew, and what she didn’t know — namely, how much she was going to be able to play. There was sadness, Musselman said, and “so much support and love.”
“They really needed to see me in person,” she said through tears, “and kind of open the door for: We’re here for you, we want you to be here as much as you can, so when you are here, what do you need from us?”
As it turns out, that was what she needed.
‘DAY BY DAY’
There is no plan when it comes to Musselman and the Olympics. She is part of the U.S. team for the world championships in Qatar, scoring during Thursday’s 32-3 victory over Kazakhstan. She is in training when she can, and she is with Woepse when she needs to be.
She is in almost constant communication with Krikorian.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” Krikorian said. “I don’t know how to go about this. We’re literally taking this — as I told her from the beginning — we’ve got to just take it day by day, week by week.”
While Musselman prepares for Paris, Woepse is focused on the same thing.
“I’ve never been to an Olympics,” he said. “It’s my only goal right now to make it to Paris and to watch her play.”
AP Summer Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games
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