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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — From the first time freshman water polo player Ashley O’Neill set foot on the University of Michigan campus, she felt at home in its inclusive culture. Now that feeling is a permanent reality for the next four years.

O’Neill, who had an impressive 2019-20 season for the Calgary Renegades (scoring 13 goals, 11 assists, and 26 steals), began her water polo career when she was 12 years old in Alberta, Canada, with the goal of becoming a faster, more competitive swimmer. O’Neill quickly fell in love with the sport and water polo became her main focus.

“I liked seeing myself improve,” said O’Neill. “I also liked the team aspect a lot. I think that was a big, big part of it.”

Throughout her career, O’Neill found herself being pulled up to play with the older age groups. These situations helped build a determination in O’Neill to consistently push herself to a new level of play. Seeing herself become a competitive player through the support of her teammates is what ultimately motivated O’Neill to advance her career into collegiate athletics.

Growing up in Canada, O’Neill didn’t know playing sports in college was a possibility. Then, in her early years of high school, she found that college in the United States would be the best opportunity for her to continue doing what she loved while also getting the great education she had always wanted.

When O’Neill decided that was the route she wanted to take after high school, she made her first visit to Michigan in the fall.

“All the leaves were turning orange and it just felt like home,” said O’Neill. “I just felt like I could see myself here and I wouldn’t feel out of place.”

Now as a freshman at Michigan, O’Neill is continuing to use the determination she learned from all the years of being the little kid playing up a level to prove herself as a competitive player.

“I really want to get better,” said O’Neill. “So every day I’m putting in the work to try and be one of those girls that starts on the team.”

When Michigan’s water polo coach Dr. Marcelo Leonardi announced O’Neill was signing with Michigan, he described what sets her apart.

“Ashley is savvy and has a knack for either making the correct read or scoring in high-pressure moments. What sets her apart is her family values, focus on academics, and striving to be the best player for Michigan and Team Canada.”

For O’Neill, her Wolverine teammates have been everything and more in supporting her this year. Her roommate and the other freshman on the water polo team, Fiona Young, has especially been someone she has learned to lean on and experience new things with.

“Fiona has been really great,” said O’Neill. “We’re really similar, so it makes it really easy for decision-making and I don’t feel out of my comfort zone all the time.”   

For the next four years, O’Neill’s goal is to be like the upperclassmen on the team now. “The role they play in the pool, being really dominant water polo players, but then also being super helpful to everyone around them, is something I look forward to carrying on.”

Release courtesy University of Michigan (by Ellie Penn)

Collegiate Water Polo Association