High School Sports

After family tragedy, illness, Ripon water polo player finds sanctuary in the pool

Ripon coach Erik Zador said junior Lauren McGowan never misses a practice and is the only female water polo player to continue working in the pool an hour past workouts.

“She has the work ethic and drive,” Zador said. “Her attendance is impeccable and her attitude is as positive as can be.”

While some players use water polo to hang out with friends or have fun, the sport has a bigger meaning for McGowan.

“I use it as a sanctuary,” she said.

On May 23, 2013, Lauren’s younger brother, Ryan, who was 4, passed away after developing sepsis after having surgery on his intestines.

“He got sick really fast,” Lauren’s mom, Carolyn said.

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Ripon High junior waterpolo player Lauren McGowan at Ripon High School in Ripon, Calif., Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. Andy Alfaro aalfaro@modbee.com

Lauren honored her brother by writing “I swim for Ryan” on her back before each swim meet and has a picture of her brother in her binder.

Lauren started playing water polo around that time, a sport she heard about from friends. Her team plays this weekend in the Western States Tournament in Modesto.

In November 2017, when Lauren was a freshman, her younger sister, Keirsten, got really sick and has been in and out of the hospital since.

Doctors diagnosed Keirsten with hyperinsulinemia, which can cause low blood sugar. She also has motility disorder, which impacts the gastrointestinal tract, making it difficult for her to process food.

With Carolyn and husband Corey traveling to UCSF Medical Center to visit Keirsten, Lauren said it was hard to be away from her parents and sister, especially when Keirsten was having surgeries.

Lauren uses her sister’s fight when she is competing.

“When I score a goal, I think about her,” Lauren said. “When I am in pain, it helps me push through knowing how hard she is fighting.”

Carolyn said water polo has brought normalcy to Lauren’s life.

“She is part of a team and they have all been family to her,” Carolyn said. “They all step up when she needs them.”

The sport has created a good distraction, Lauren said, and helped with worrying about her sister.

At 4-feet, 11-inches tall, Lauren gets overlooked because of her size, Carolyn said.

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Ripon High junior waterpolo player Lauren McGowan during practice at Ripon High School in Ripon, Calif., Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. Andy Alfaro aalfaro@modbee.com

She is second on the team with 14 goals and leads with 13 assists.

Zador said her success has come from her coachability.

“When I am asking her to do something, she finds a way to make it happen,” said Zador, who has coached at Ripon since 2010. “She does this awesome little pop shot and is one of the few that can do it. Every time she does it, it makes me smile.”

Lauren also has Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and while she is almost done with treatment, she has had stomach pain during practice but never during a game.

The pain hasn’t stopped Lauren from constantly smiling and making memories with her teammates, like a recent trip to Napa where they stayed overnight in a hotel.

Lauren also considers herself a “jokester.”

In May, Keristen almost passed away, Carolyn said, but Lauren’s sister is now home, where she gets her medicine and nutrition intravenously.

Lauren said it’s exciting going home every day and seeing her sister.

Seeing the impact nurses have had on her family has inspired Lauren to be a nurse one day, she said.

The McGowan family has dealt with grief and sadness but water polo has helped them heal.

“I would rather have one Lauren than have 10 talented kids that don’t know how to work,” Zador said. “She is one of the most dedicated hard-working kids I have ever come across.”


2019 Western States Girls Water Polo Tournament


Downey: Northgate, Mountain View (OR), Tamapais, Redwood, West Albany (OR), Merced, Logan, Beyer

Enochs: Gregori, Bret Harte, Johansen, Golden Valley, Tracy, Davis, Enochs, Atwater, Mountain House,

Johansen: Davis Sr., Downey, Buchanan, Sonora, Ripon, Valley Christian, Newberg (OR), El Capitan

Oakdale: Rocklin, Modesto, St. Mary’s, Pitman, Tokay, Marin Catholic, Menlo-Atherton, Oakdale

Ripon: Garces-Bakersfield, Del Oro, Lincoln-Stockton, Buhach Colony, Sanger, Justin-Siena, Clovis East, Turlock

Games start at 8 or 9 a.m. on Friday and Saturday and end around 5 p.m. Semifinals Saturday morning and championship games Saturday afternoon at various sites.

Julian A. Lopez has been covering local sports for The Modesto Bee since August 2018. He graduated from Arizona State in 2016 with a BA in Journalism.