July 31, 2012
LONDON -As the 2012 Olympic competition for women's water polo begins in London, the United States will be looking to medal for the fourth consecutive time since women's water polo became an Olympic sport at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Former Cal water polo standout Heather Petri has been a member of the U.S. National Team in all four of the past Olympics and is looking to lead Team USA to the gold medal after garnering a silver, a bronze, and a silver at the 2000, 2004 and 2008 games.
Below is a Q&A with Petri (in which she tells the story of her career) prior to Team USA's second round match versus Spain Wednesday, Aug. 1 at 10:20 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. The match will air on NBC tape delayed at 12:20 p.m.
Q: How does it feel to be the veteran of the Olympic team in 2012 after being one of the youngest players in 2000? What has been the key to your longevity?
A: On the 2000 team my best friend, Ericka Lorenz, who I played with at Cal, was the youngest player on the team at 19. But, I was definitely a rookie. I had joined the team only nine months before the Sydney Games. That year was my first real experience playing with the National Team and I felt pretty overwhelmed for most of the experience. Yet, despite feeling like such a water polo newcomer, I was having the time of my life. And to be honest, that is one thing that has not changed at all 13 years later. I would not want to be anywhere else or do anything else. I'm still enjoying the process as much as I did so long ago. I really believe that is why I am still playing. I'm not going to paint a picture that the life of an athlete is all roses. Because with victories there have been losses, good days and really bad days, pristine body health and injuries requiring surgery. But no matter the circumstance there has always been an underlying love of just playing the game...having the opportunity to put it on the line and give every ounce of effort I have in my being. That is the beauty of sports. Coming back from injuries or times when I wasn't playing my best, my desire to once again raise to the best of my ability and contribute to the team has never wavered. I believe if you have the fight then unimaginable things can be achieved. Looking back now, I am blessed to have had 13 years of experiences with this sport because those experiences have help shape the person I am today. I appreciate every opportunity I get to play, and now that I am not so overwhelmed, I can soak it in and really enjoy the joy this crazy adventure.
Q: What are your thoughts about the upcoming London Olympics?
A: We recently got to go to London and get a preview of the Olympic Water Polo venue. It was awesome. We played a few matches in a test series in order to get a feel for the pool before the actual games. Being able to do that was an invaluable experience. This way when we come back for the Olympics any nerves or anticipation over the pool will be quieted. We will be able to focus only on the games we need to win. The one incredible thing about this venue is how it is set up only for water polo. There is not a bad seat in the whole stadium...no obstructed views and seating that is just behind the benches and pool. It makes it feel more intimate. The fans, while they have always been loud and boisterous, in this arena it feels they are a living part of the game-time excitement. It is almost as if fans have as much power on the outcome of the matches as the players themselves. For some athletes it might be distracting, but having experienced it, I feel like our team enjoyed the vibe. At any rate, London is planning one unforgettable experience.
Q: Is the quest for a gold medal something that has kept you wanting to be a member of the USA National Team?
The desire to win a gold medal has been the one motivation for every Olympic Team I have been a part of. Visualizing my team up on the podium and hearing our national anthem has gotten me through quite a few brutal swim sets or never-ending leg drills. However, winning the gold medal is just one motivation. After the 2008 Olympics was the first time I took a real amount of time off. I gave myself three months to go home, be with my family and just see where the wind took me. It quickly took me back to the pool. I helped coach at the high school that gave me my start, Miramonte High School. Pretty soon I found myself getting in and playing with the boy's team before I helped coach the girls' team afterwards. Then I was traveling to play in a Coed open masters scrimmage at the Olympic Club in San Francisco once a week. Every night that I rode BART home, I found I was grinning ear to ear. I was giddy from the hour I got to splash around and play the sport I loved. I was not ready to leave water polo. I wanted the opportunity to play again at the highest level. In the simplest terms I keep playing because of that feeling. I get that feeling every time I am a part of a great play, when I make a block, make a steal, see my teammate do something amazing. I love being fully immersed in the game.
Q: How is it being teammates with another former Cal water polo player, Elsie Windes?
A: Go Bears. I am extremely happy to be able to share my international experience with someone who had a similar collegiate experience as I did. 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 weight lifting 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.
Q: How was it playing for Maureen O'Toole-Purcell at Cal and then playing with her at the 2000 Olympics?
Maureen came into my life at the perfect time. 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 strong, fast swimmer 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. Get scored on, punched, kicked, practically drown. Then I would know what not to do next time and in the process learn new techniques as the more experienced players dominated me. That year taught me to get used to being uncomfortable. It has proven to be a very successful method over my career. Playing with Mo four years later was easy. 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.
Q: How did playing water polo at Cal help you become an Olympic caliber athlete?
A: My experience at Cal gave me the foundation I needed to be able to improve enough to make it at an international level. Having never played on a youth or junior national team, the collegiate game was all I knew in the world of water polo. Maureen (O'Toole-Purcell), having so much international experience, pushed us as hard as she would have pushed herself in her own training. Mo often got in the pool and trained with us my first years as a Bear. Cal already had a great program when I came to school in 1997. We consistently competed for the national title against teams filled with women on the National Team - some who Mo and I would have the privilege of being teammates with later. So, even while I thought I was just getting this great college sport experience, it was actually the first step on a path to the Olympics that I had never foreseen.
Q: Which Olympics have you enjoyed the most and why? What is your greatest Olympic moment?
Each Olympic experience has been memorable and unique in its own way. But, the Sydney Games has always stood out in my memory because it was the first...the first Olympic women's water polo competition for anyone. It has a special place in my heart. The whole experience wowed me. From the village life, to the dining experience, to the venues, the spectators, the games and the other athletes...all of it blew up any prior expectations I had of international play and what an Olympics was like. It helped form a foundation to build new dreams.
My greatest Olympic moment has always been the Opening Ceremonies. Most people would think a highlight would be a moment in the pool or receiving a medal. Those have all been spectacular, but the Opening Ceremonies, for me, is a moment in the lives of so many athletes that brings together all the triumphs and pitfalls along the journey and squeezes them into a burst of pure joy. Being surrounded by thousands of excited athletes from all over the world and waiting in an arena before the ceremony puts in perspective the enormity of the opportunity that lays in front of us all at the Olympics. At this point there have been no medals awarded, no battles on the field or in the pool yet. Everyone is just there basking in the triumph of being able to represent their countries at the ultimate sporting event in the world.
I am extremely patriotic and am all about the red, white and blue and stars and stripes. So when they assemble the American athletes in the tunnel that leads to the stadium I get butterflies. The closer you get to the opening of the tunnel you can feel the heat of the lights, the vibration from the screaming crowd and the electricity of the anticipation within all the athletes. Then they say "The United States of America" as we march out into the stadium together hearts bursting with pride, excitement and hope. I get goose bumps every time I think about this experience. Nothing compares to it.
Q: What is the highlight of your water polo career?
I can't choose just one highlight. My brain rewinds in a series of moments that make me smile. So I guess after 13 years it is more like a highlight reel in my head. To name a few highlights...first hearing our national anthem while standing on top of the podium at Worlds in 2003, completing a specific counter attack play with Heather Moody for a goal in a game at Worlds in 2001 after practicing it a million times that summer and turning around to see the coaches jumping up with fists raised on the bench, making a long cross court counter attack pass after a steal to Lauren Wenger to win the gold at Worlds in 2007, having the ball in my hand as time ran out after a roller coaster of a final at Worlds in 2009 and the shoot-out victory over Canada at the Pan American Games in 2011. Each moment slowed down in my head, like everything was happening in slow motion. We talk about what it is like being in the "zone" as an athlete and at that at that moment I was completely absorbed in what the team and I were doing...living that moment to the fullest.
Q:Is there one person you look up to the most in the water polo world? Do you have a favorite athlete?
There is not just one person I look up to, but many coaches and players who I respect immensely for sharing with me their expertise and supporting me during this long journey. To name a few; college and national team coaches Maureen O'Toole-Purcell, Guy Baker, Chris Duplanty, Ken Lindgren, Kyle Kopp, Adam Krikorian. Teammates and friends Heather Moody, Nicolle Payne, Robin Beauregard, Ellen Estes and Ericka Lorenz; and high school swimming and water polo coaches Donnie Heidry and Peter Asch
I do not have one favorite athlete but have always held a special place in my heart for the USA women's soccer team. We often talked about their journey in sports as similar to our own team. We read The Girls Of Summer as a team the summer of 2003. Having watched them play in Sydney I felt like, of any other team in the world, they understood what we were going through...striving to succeed in a relatively unknown sport and to now making it easier for young girls to have the opportunity to complete on the international stage.
Q: Is it true that you were chosen at the last minute to train with the National Team for the 2000 Olympics?
A: I started training with a group of girls put together as the National B Team in 1999. We were a collection of college and high school girls used to train against the National A Team whenever they needed us. I spent the fall of 1999 flying to southern California almost every weekend to help the team train. I figured it was a great opportunity to get experience with the best players in our sport and see what being on the A team would be like. I was a junior in college at this point I had very little international experience, having only competed the summer before with the B team in a tournament in Canada, losing by about 15 goals each time we played the best teams in the world. I figured any experience would help me get better. I had planned on taking the spring of 2000 off school, to complete my thesis as a part of a prestigious oceanographic institute in the Caribbean- "SEA". After that was competed I would come back to school in Fall 2000 and finish my sporting eligibility with the 2001 water polo season, which would be the first year women's water polo would be an NCAA sport.
But my carefully laid out plans were blown up when I got the opportunity to play in December 1999. Our National B Team was asked to fill a spot at the Holiday Cup in Los Alamitos. After the tournament my Cal friend/teammate Ericka Lorenz and I had packed up her truck for the trip back home when coach Guy Baker asked us each to chat real quick.
He pulled us into an office and asked what our plans were for the next year. I told him about my thesis and studying in the Caribbean. He looked me straight in the face and asked if I could postpone that for a while. What? He invited me to move down to Los Alamitos, in just two weeks and begin to train with the A team. There would be no guarantees, nothing but the opportunity to train, and train hard to try and get the group of players ready to compete to qualify for the Olympics in April, 2000. I sat there speechless for a few minutes, before growing excitement inside me forced out the words, okay, yes, let's do this. I left the office and sat underneath a palm tree waiting for Ericka to come out. She sat down next to me in the glow of the setting sun and said to me "What are we doing?" The next hours driving back up north went by in what felt like minutes. We were both so excited to have this new beginning...this chance to see where it all was going to end up.
On January 4, 2000 we began training. In April, both Ericka and I were picked to compete at the Qualifying Tournament in Italy where our team qualified for Sydney. Five months later we were competing at the Olympic Games. Those nine months were beyond my wildest dreams.
Q: Is it true that you played on the boy's water polo team in high school before helping start a girl's team?
A: After my freshman year in high school I competed on my summer recreational swim club, Moraga Valley Pool, just as I did every summer since I was five years old. I had gotten to know many of the boy's water polo team members, swimming with them for the high school team. At the end of the summer championships, the mother of my friend James (Lathrop, who played on the Cal men's water polo team from 1997-00), came up to me and asked if I wanted to play water polo? The words "Are you crazy?" or something along those lines came out of my mouth. There was no girl's team. So she was asking if I was going to go try out for the boy's team? She smiled at me and said, "Of course, James and the other boys would watch over you." Clearly something about what she said made sense to me. There were other girls who wanted to play as well. So, when water polo season started my sophomore year, we asked the coach if the other girls would allow us to play as well. All of the coaches said "yes," and surprisingly all the boys on the team welcomed us. Looking back now, that situation had the ability to blow up in our faces - 25 or more 15-year-old boys letting girls practice with them. I am sure our backgrounds in swimming helped immensely in giving us a base in which to hang in there. But we quickly learned the basic skills we needed to be part of practice and the rest of the tactics and game sense we learned from watching the boys practice. By the time the end of the year championships came around we even got a few minutes of playing time. It was awesome. The girls had so much fun playing we began spreading the word to other girls and soon realized that there was enough interest around the school to start our own team. We just needed other girls' teams to play against. So with a petition containing over 50 girl's signatures on it from our own high school, we went around to the other schools in our league to try and gain support from all of them. Once we had participation from other high schools, with the help of a few moms, we went to the school board to ask permission for an exhibition season. They agreed, on the condition that we kept all 50 girls throughout the season. We did and the program has never looked back. I still can't believe after that first year in the fall of 1994, girls have had the opportunity to compete in high school ever since and so many of them have gone on to compete in college as well. That was almost 18 years ago and it so awesome.
Q: Was Peter Asch your high school coach and then became your coach at Cal? He was a former Olympian as well, so you were coached at Cal by two Olympians (Asch and O'Toole-Purcell). Is that something that helped you become an Olympian and what did each coach offer?
A: Peter (Asch) became our coach after our inaugural high school season. He coached me for my senior year in high school, and that year we won the North Coast Section for high school water polo. I think he came into our program with an incredible wealth of knowledge and calm water polo presence that we needed with such a novice group to improve so drastically. I am very lucky to have had such expertise given to me at the beginning of my water polo career. He then encouraged me to go and play in college and I was lucky enough to have met Maureen (O'Toole-Purcell) the summer before my senior year at a week-long water polo camp in Long Beach. She spoke to the girls at this camp about the opportunities that were just opening up to females at the collegiate level since that next year in 1996 water polo for women officially went from club to the varsity level. Mo got me thinking that maybe water polo and swimming was something I could do at the next level. Once I went to visit Cal and met the team I fell in love with the idea of playing there. It just so happened that Mo was the coach and she brought to me a level of training that I had never experienced. With all her international playing experience she knew what kind of work it took to compete at the highest level and she wanted all of her athletes to be prepared to do just that. My freshman year at Cal pushed me beyond all limits I thought I had. I think that mentality gave me the ability to push harder and dream bigger. Peter came to Cal to help coach the year Mo left to do more full-time training in 1999. I was very comfortable with Peter as a coach and he made a seamless entrance to the team to help keep that year a positive one. 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 that they were coaching. I never dreamt that my Olympic opportunity may come as early as 2000, but with all of Peter and Mo's examples I knew that with enough hard work and drive I could make it happen. It was possible that one day in the future I could have a chance to be an Olympian as well.