July 26, 2012
By Scott Ball
A case could be made that Heather Petri is the greatest Cal Olympian of all time.
Of course, there is men's swimmer Matt Biondi, who won 10 medals during the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, and women's swimmer Natalie Coughlin, who won 11 medals at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, among many other greats.
But women's water polo standout Petri is about to compete in her fourth Olympic Games and has stood on the medal podium during all three of her prior Olympic experiences.
No other Golden Bear athlete has competed in four Olympics, and Petri has not only been successful on the world stage, she has also been a trailblazer in the sport of women's water polo. The Orinda, Calif., native was one of the youngest players on the USA National Team when the Americans won a silver medal in the inaugural Olympics for women's water polo in Sydney in 2000. Four years later in Athens, she helped Team USA to a bronze medal, and at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Americans captured another silver.
Now Petri is the veteran of USA Olympic team and is traveling to London with another former Cal standout, Elsie Windes, in a quest for the gold medal.
"I am ecstatic to be able to share my international experience with someone who had a similar collegiate experience as I did," Petri said. "While Elsie and I never played at Cal together, we still have so much pride in our school and our experiences as a student-athlete. With so many current members of the national team from Stanford, it is nice to have some Blue and Gold support next to me. Elsie has been my weightlifting partner and always swims right next to me in workouts. I rely on her when I am struggling and know that a fellow Bear has my back."
Petri and Windes earned their way to London when Team USA captured the gold medal at the Pan American Games in October of 2011 with an epic, come-from-behind 27-26 victory over a Canadian squad that featured another Cal standout, Emily Csikos.
Petri lettered at Cal from 1997-99 and returned to finish her degree and eligibility in 2001 after competing in the 2000 Olympics. Windes, originally from Portland, Ore., made her first Olympic appearance in 2008 after a stellar career for the Bears, earning All-America honors from 2005-07.
Through her years with Team USA, Petri has had the pleasure of competing in the Olympics with three different Bears - Courtney Johnson and Ericka Lorenz in 2000, Lorenz in 2004, and Windes in 2008 - and even a former coach, Maureen O'Toole-Purcell.
O'Toole-Purcell coached Petri during the 1997 and 1998 college seasons before returning to pool and becoming a key member of the 2000 Olympic Team at age 39. Petri is now the oldest member of the U.S. women's water polo squad at age 34.
"Playing at the 2000 Olympics with Heather was awesome, and we were also teammates with Courtney Johnson," O'Toole-Purcell said. "It was really amazing. At first, it felt kind of weird being on the National Team with two players I had coached, but then it became great fun. We were definitely all on the same page from our experiences at Cal.
"When Heather first played for me at Cal, I felt she had all the tools needed to be on the National Team," O'Toole-Purcell added. "She was big, strong and a fast swimmer. She was extremely coachable, and I knew it was just up to her to put in the time and effort to be successful and she has definitely done that. She is now a seasoned veteran like I was. Heather was always a defense-first type player and a strong counter-attacker. She is a strong, tough kid who is not going to back down to anybody. Heather wears people down and that has been a part of her success, plus she has always been a great teammate."
Petri was part of the genesis of the Cal women's water polo program, arriving on the Berkeley campus from Miramonte High School when women's water polo was in its second year a varsity sport in 1997. She helped the Bears to two national runner-up finishes and a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament title in 1999.
"Maureen came into my life at the perfect time," Petri explained. "Her years of experience and enthusiasm for playing water polo was just what a kid, with only two high school seasons (about six months total) under her belt, needed. Mo seemed to see something in me as a player that I did not. She saw this kid with very raw water polo skills and was excited to show me what I needed to do to improve. The one thing that I will never forget was the day my freshman year when she told me to sign up for the upcoming National Team tryout camp. My first thought was this lady is crazy. But she simply told me you will never get better unless you `play up.' I needed experience and the best way to do that is to throw myself into the deep end with the sharks.
"Playing with Mo four years later was easy," Petri continued. "We had built respect and friendship over the years as coach and player and that translated easily into teammates on the National Team. She still pushed me as hard as ever and I enjoyed the new shared experiences in the pool and out."
Even before Petri arrived to Cal, she had been part of a groundbreaking step for women's water polo. After her freshman year of high school, she began playing on the boy's team at Miramonte. By the time Petri was a senior, she had helped formed a girl's team at her school and was coached by another Cal Olympian, Peter Asch (who won a silver medal in water polo at the 1972 Olympics). Petri ended up playing for Asch at Cal in 1998-99 and 2001.
"My experience at Cal gave me the foundation I needed to be able to improve enough to make it at an international level," Petri said. "My freshman year at Cal pushed me beyond all limits. I think that mentality gave me the ability to push harder and dream bigger. Peter (Asch) came to Cal to help coach the year Mo left to do more full-time training for the Olympics in 1999. I am sure Peter's Olympic experience helped him understand Mo's drive to make the first-ever Olympic team for women, and both of their aspirations to push to be the best undoubtedly emanated on all of us they were coaching. I never dreamed that my Olympic opportunity may come as early as 2000, but with all of Peter and Mo's examples, I knew with enough hard work and drive I could make it happen. I knew one day I could possibly be an Olympian."
Sure enough, Petri has not only gone on to be a four-time Cal Olympian, but an inspiration to future generations of women water polo players as well.