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Women’s water polo heads to China for competition, diplomacy

The women's water polo team will travel to China this summer as guests of the Chinese national team. The Cardinal clashed with China in February, and Stanford came out on top 15-13. (KAREN AMBROSE HICKEY/isiphotos.com)

Having conquered Division I collegiate women’s water polo, the premier domestic league in the world, the Stanford team will be expanding its horizon by heading to China for a two-week trip at the end of June. While the endeavor appears to be “just another international athletics trip” on the surface, the Cardinal squad is tasked with the diplomatic representation of both Stanford and USA water polo, as well as the country itself, in addition to winning games and sightseeing.

For a combination of reasons, including Stanford’s extremely high level of play and collaborative environment, the Chinese invited the Cardinal to their own facilities before the 2019 Aquatics World Championships.

“The Chinese national team has come to California just about every winter for the last few years, and they have really enjoyed coming here,” Head Coach John Tanner said. “They really enjoy playing in our pool, the level of competition and the camaraderie with our team.”

The Cardinal will travel to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. While in Chengdu, the team will practice alongside the Chinese national team for four days before two official matches. After the water polo, the team will spend a week traveling through the province and learning as much as they can about the Chinese culture. For Tanner, it was a no-brainer to immerse the team in the Chinese culture even though the impetus for the trip had been to just play water polo.

“I think a lot of athletes who have done really well internationally. When they go places, they don’t divorce themselves from the reality around them,” Tanner said. “When you get so enmeshed in just the competitive facet of what you’re doing, you don’t compete as well. When Stanford students have their minds occupied, and they’re in motion, they seem to play mentally and physically faster. So in a lot of ways, what we’ll be doing won’t be much different than what we do in Sanford — just in a in a very different place.”

As far as competition is concerned, the Chinese and Stanford are no strangers to each other.

“We’ve played against the Chinese national team multiple times per year, since I was a freshman,” redshirt junior goalkeeper Emalia Eichelberger said. “I think it’ll be an amazing experience to play against the Chinese team in front of a Chinese home crowd. I don’t think it will be rivaled by anything else we’ve ever experienced.”

Without all the extra layers of Chinese-U.S. relations, the fact that a water polo team would travel to China is already strange. Most high-level teams make the rounds through Europe, which has the highest level of play outside the United States.

“I know most teams, when they look to do something international, go to a place where they would feel comfortable in a culture that is similar and familiar with language that is very accessible,” Tanner said. “We like to think of Stanford as being a home of innovation, so it fits to go to a place where the history, the culture, language, food, everything is so distinctly different. We wanted to step into that and do something that is out of the ordinary.

Due to the extremely high level of water polo in California, the Chinese national team has made extensive trips here that have lasted up to three months over the past few years. This past February, the two squads engaged in an official game, and Stanford came out on top 15-13. It may seem surprising that a college team would be able to beat a national team, but the caliber of play in women’s water polo at every level in the U.S. is simply head and shoulders above that of other countries.

Combine the facts that this year’s national championship team had two gold-medal Olympians in the Fischer sisters (junior Makenzie and sophomore Aria) and China is not ranked in the top five, and now the odds look a little more balanced. Despite the February victory and the NCAA title, the Chinese will be facing a newer, almost assuredly weaker, Stanford team.

The four veteran members of the 2018-19 senior class will have graduated by then, and the Fischer sisters will be stepping away from collegiate water polo for a year as they prepare for the 2020 Olympics. Replacing them will be untested freshmen. The trip will function as a sort of forced bonding for the new team, which will need to have an excellent year if it is to defend its NCAA championship.

“This will be the first kind of building experience as a team going into next season,” Eichelberger said. “That will be a very important season seeing as we’ve lost our four seniors, and we’ll be losing the Fisher sisters as well for the Olympic year.”

“We get to take the new freshmen, so it’ll be really cool to get to play together and have good competition abroad,” junior driver Hannah Shabb said. “We will get the team bonding stuff sort of forced or compressed for two weeks. I think that’ll be really good going into next season.”

For the second week of the trip, the team will leave the pool behind and trek into the mountains of Yading Nature Reserve in the western region of the Sichuan Province. It will also take tours through the Chengdu Panda Base, which is a research center for the giant panda and other rare animals.

“We know it’s going to be hot in Chengdu, and there are challenges with the air quality,” Tanner said. “So we knew we wanted to get up into the mountains where it’s cooler and clearer. And since we’re all the way out there in the west, we wanted to go up in the Tibetan Plateau.”

“Oh, I think I’m the most excited about the mountains,” Shabb said. “Luckily, as juniors, we got to have a say in what we do the week after training, and I was really pushing for these mountains. It just looks so beautiful, and I don’t know that I [will] ever go there at another point.”

Besides representing the athletic prowess of Stanford University and seeing giant pandas, the trip will play just as important a role in the diplomatic efforts between the two countries.

“At the beginning, I didn’t really realize the scope of importance the trip would have, especially to some of these people that are really high up and have very large parts in U.S.-China relations,” Shabb said. “We have to know how to carry ourselves while we’re there.”

When all other forms of communication or negotiation may be failing, sports is a constant that often transcends political barriers. Stanford already has an oft-forgotten history in sports diplomacy with China.

In April of 1972, the Chinese national table tennis team traveled to Stanford as part of a goodwill diplomatic trip to the U.S. Including a showcase in front of a packed Maples Pavilion audience, the Chinese team’s trip was the closing bookend of ping-pong diplomacy. In 1971, the U.S. team was invited into China, and the members were the first American delegation in Beijing since 1949. The trip paved the way for President Nixon’s famous trip to China in February of 1972, which marked the restart of Chinese-American relations in the second half of the 20th century.

“We’ve talked about the ping-pong diplomacy, and how much importance that had,” Shabb said. “So this is kind of like extending that way down the line. In this day and age,  just maintaining any sort of relationship with China is really important, especially through sports. Getting to be a part of that is really pretty cool.”

With this backdrop, the team reached out to various professors at Stanford who could give context to the country they would visit, the cultures they would come across and the people they would interact with. Leading up to the trip, the team will attend seven seminars given by faculty from the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. The presentations range from the history of diplomatic relations to the culture of the more than 800 million people who live in rural China.

“I would say that the main goal of these seminars is generally to get us to realize the sheer vastness and diversity and difference between China and the United States,” Eichelberger said. “We need to throw out all preconceived notions of what we think it’ll be like. Learning about China, it’s a very unique country, and it’s something that I don’t think any of us have ever been witness to before.”

Former ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry has been working closely with the team to prepare for the trip. Eikenberry, who is Director of the U.S.-Asia Security Initiative, delivered a seminar on China’s foreign policy to the team. His wife Ching Eikenberry followed with her own, more beloved session on Chinese characters and culture, featuring a section on dumpling making.

The team will conclude its study of China by having each member deliver a presentation about a specific area of interest. While they may sound like any other school presentation, these talks, which are about ten minutes, are standard procedure for all State Department personnel before going abroad.

“It definitely feels like I’m being treated like an ambassador,” Eichelberger said. “One of the things we’re going to be doing in our training camp are these presentations. It’s a common practice when the State Department sends diplomats abroad. They do what’s called an area study about a specific topic or region or place. So each one of us will be doing one of those and giving a 10-15 minute presentation to our team.”

All of these lessons will have real-world consequences for the girls on the team, as both Eichelberger and Shabb stressed that whoever knows the most Mandarin will not be put in a middle seat on the 14 hour flight from SFO to Chengdu.

“These guys like to compete, and if seat allocation is based on who can convince the gate agent in Mandarin to give them a better seat, then all the better,” Tanner said. “To me, the biggest part of travel is showing respect for and engaging in a local culture. It makes the whole trip so much more rewarding.”

Outside of the mountains and spicy foods and water polo matches, there is still a greater meaning to the trip. If there is just one thing Tanner wants his team to take away from the trip, it is to be cognizant of how big the world is, and how much there is to learn about other cultures and people.

“I want them to have an appreciation for how much more we all have to learn,” Tanner said. “There are things that seems so distant and would be easy to just keep at that distance, but they can give you a really strong sense of appreciation for what we have and of awe for how big the world is.”

Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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