Olympians Represent Bay Area at London Games

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Arianna Tong, Staff Writer

The East Bay has a notoriously high concentration of Olympic athletes, especially in the pool. Mirador sat down with a few who competed this summer in London and found out what it’s like to be a super-athlete.

PETER VARELLAS

Varellas attended Campolindo High School and went on to play water polo for Stanford University. Towering at 6’ 3”, Varellas has a keen sense of humor and is a beast in the pool. However, he isn’t just all guts and glory. Mirador recently had the privilege of getting to know Varellas on a more personal level.

How did Beijing and London differ?

London and Beijing were both very different experiences. This year, we didn’t do as well as we had hoped, so it changes the whole experience, unfortunately. I wish it wasn’t that way, but it’s hard to separate the results from your general experience.

How did it feel to bring the silver medal home in 2008?

It was great. To put a number up on the medal count for us was cool. The US hadn’t won a medal in water polo for 20 years. Having the medal isn’t just a medal to me. It’s nice to have a symbol that represents what we did for our nation, and a lot of sacrifices made.

Do you have any pregame rituals?

For the whole team, it’s more about eating and how much sleep we get. For my own routine I like to get up, and if we have a night game, I like to loosen up in the morning. I tend to eat four hours before the game and have a nap. I love to nap! Then I get up and take a shower, I know it’s kind of weird, but it wakes me up. Afterwards, we go on to warm up, which is really the main ritual, and everyone kind of just does their own thing. Some of the guys are superstitious. There’s no organized set of rules, and we know what works best for us.

Are you superstitious? 

I have a few things, like where I stand when we’re meeting people or lining up for introductions, when I take water and electrolyte tablets, handshakes versus fist bumps and high fives. We all have different little weird combinations. When things are going well, you try to stick with it, and keep everything constant, which is probably stupid. But hey, it works.

Does your team do everything together?
Yeah, but now that we’re all older we all have life going on. Several guys are married, some have kids, and that takes them away when training is over and they have stuff to do. I totally understand that, but we’re very close. We’ve been together a long time. The older guys have been playing together for 12 years, I’ve been with them for six, and in some cases, these guys are my best friends. Like, I know what they’re thinking before they even know what they’re thinking. It goes back a long way, and one of the hardest things about them being finished is, just not seeing them as much. They’re all in Southern California, and being up in Nor Cal takes me further away from them.

Do you plan on getting a tattoo?

I mean personally, no. There are a lot of reasons to get one, like: “do I need to be reminded that I’m an Olympian?” Not really. “Do I want one just to show people?” That’s not really my style. I don’t really like to brag.

What was the rivalry like between Campo and Miramonte when you were in high school?

It was pretty close it was a great rivalry back then, and it was a lot of fun. We had a very good team my junior year and we made it to NCS finals, and lost to De La Salle. There was a lot of interest in the game, and there were a lot of fans that would come to watch. We started playing night games which was pretty cool, it was great, I mean those were the most memorable games, I think rivalry in any sport is really a big deal and really enhances your experiences, so I was grateful to have that rivalry between the two schools.

Did you have any goals going into the games?

Individual goals are superseded by our team goals, and our team goal this year was to go for the gold medal. The story was silver in 2008, and the group stayed together to give it one more shot and finish the job.  That was the attitude we came in with. I don’t know if that was the right mentality to have, as we tend to play better as the underdogs. It was going to be a tough tournament this year. There were eight teams that could win gold, which is a lot in a 12-team tournament. Now as for individual goals, I try to think a lot about defense, and focus on that, because I know offense will come, and that’s my biggest contribution to the team.

Do you hope to redeem yourselves in Rio 2016?

Unfortunately, this group will not. The core of the team is disbanding for the most part. This year, we had an older team, and a lot of those older guys are retiring. As a team, we really won’t have another chance, which is why it’s kind of hard to end it the way it did. It feels like I’m a college or high school athlete that didn’t send off their seniors the right way. And I wish it would’ve been a better finishing touch for them. But at the same time, we all remember what we did in 2008.  That was a pretty awesome run and a pretty special result for us.

How does it feel to be a hero to young athletes?

It feels good on different levels. It’s good to spread interest in the sport, and to see anyone excited about it is great. This year they had a lot of nationwide coverage for water polo, which is great, because now a lot of people have some idea of what the game is. As far as locally, I talk to kids at various times, and inspire them. I think it’s important to have someone to look up to. People don’t get to meet players that often, so I try to be a little bit present with some people. It’s a valuable part of  every young player’s development, so I’m happy to fill that role.

At the same time, for me, being humble is extremely important. I realize that I’m a product of a lot of people putting time and effort into my development, and that of the Olympic team, I like to think about it as the team behind the team. My parents were obviously my whole development, along with tons of coaches, teachers, mentors, friends. People took us into their homes, as starving athletes! The 13 of us are the face, but there are a ton of people standing behind us. It’s definitely good to come back and reconnect with some of those people, and hopefully build that team a little further.

At what point in your water polo career did it hit you that you wanted to make the Olympic Team?

I didn’t really know until my junior year in college. I didn’t really even know if I would have the opportunity to play in college. I got lucky enough to be exposed to the game at that level, thanks to the guys who had been on my college team for the national team. Then it potentially became a realistic goal for me. The summer of my junior year I kept on getting invited to training camps, but that summer, I got cut from the national team. Senior year, is when things started picking up, National Team wise. I was travelling most of the winter and spring, and then the summer of 2006 I made the national team.

What would you say to aspiring athletes that are trying to get to your level?

Some of this is cliché, but it’s true. Hard work, there’s no substitute for it. Your work has to be directed in that way, and for me, goal setting is a big deal. Setting goals has to be a balance of something that’s realistic, and something that will push you. Like a 14 year old that says: “I want to go to the Olympics,” Okay, great, but you have like 19 steps between here and there. But that’s good, and you have that in mind, and that’ll be a motivating factor towards your goal along the way. I mentioned delayed gratification earlier, and young people want results instantly. You’re putting in time now, you may not see the pay off now, but it will certainly come later. You gotta keep your head in the right place, and keep working hard. Other than that, not everyone’s going to get where they want to go. You just have to enjoy the journey, you have to be enjoying what you’re doing every day. For example, a lot of guys trying out for the Olympic Team got cut, but I hope they don’t regret all the hard work they’ve put into it. They’re some of the best players in the country. And then the guys who do make the team, we failed this year, we didn’t do well. I sure don’t look back on the last four years, and go “that was a big waste of time,” when it wasn’t at all. I enjoyed every minute of it, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Yeah I wish it ended differently, but I enjoyed myself along the way. That’s a really important part of sports, because 99 percent of the people don’t win, they don’t do what they had hoped to achieve. So you have to be happy and enjoy the process.

Success is difficult. You can work as hard as you want to, and to the point where you feel as if you deserve it, but you can never ensure success, so you’re never guaranteed it. Take nothing for granted, stay humble, and just work hard.

MAGGIE STEFFENS

Crowned MVP of the 2012 London Olympic games for water polo , Steffens atended Monte Vista High School and played for Diablo Water Polo, coached by 2000 Sydney Games Olympian Maureen O’Toole. At the age of 19, Steffens led all scorers in the London games with 21 goals and helped the United States to women’s water polo Olympic victory.

Going into the Olympics, what was your main focus?
The main thing for me personally was reminding myself that this is just a game, it’s just another tournament. As a team, we wanted to make sure the most important thing was sticking together, and staying true to ourselves and how Team USA plays. We’ve been preparing as a team for a year and a half full time, but this is something I’ve been preparing for my whole life. It’s a mental and physical preparation.Describe a normal day of practice?
Wake up around 6 a.m. and get in a good healthy breakfast then head to the pool for 7 to 10 a.m. practice. Weights and conditioning in the morning. Then we would head home for lunch and a nap. Nothing exciting. We would go back to the pool for practice from 1:30 – 4:30 p.m., which was more water polo/scrimmaging. After that the day felt done, maybe get dinner with my teammates.

What did you look forward to the most going into the Olympics?
I looked forward to the feeling of officially knowing I was an Olympian. To be playing my first game as an Olympian.

Do you plan on getting a tattoo to celebrate your gold medal victory?
The only tattoo I would ever get is the Olympic rings, so possibly…

Do you have a pregame ritual?
We always make coffee before our games in our room and have a music/coffee party. Other than that, just the normal stretch/activation and a little dance session in the locker room to get us really ready.

Was there anyone that you wanted to meet at the Olympics?
I got to meet a lot of different athletes from Kerri Walsh to Lebron to Lolo Jones. Everyone is really nice, and just excited to be a part of Team USA.

Did the women’s water polo team have any expectations going into the Olympics?
We expected to not expect. You have to prepare for anything and never let your mind get ahead. But of course we expected that we give the best effort and have the best attitude.

If you didn’t play water polo, what would you be doing right now?
I would probably be in school, maybe playing soccer or beach volleyball if I could.

Do people come up to you and go: “Hey, you’re Maggie Stephens!”
People will recognize me more or want pictures, but everyone knows I’m still the same Maggie. I think the best thing is knowing I can inspire kids and they now have a dream like I did.

Do you plan on playing in Rio in 2016?
I hope to be in Rio in four years for sure!

What’s the most interesting aspect of the Olympics?
The people and just how everyone has their story. Everyone, no matter what country or sport, has an interesting story or past.

Who has helped you the most along the way?
My family. They have supported me all the way through and were the ones dealing with my excessive practicing and taking me everywhere when I was younger. They are my backbone.

What got you into the sport,?
Water polo is fun, it’s my passion. I started when I was eight  and was hooked right away. It’s a part of me now.

What do you hope to bring to the sport of water polo?
I hope to help spread water polo, especially women’s water polo. I want people to realize I was just like them and practiced hard every day and complained. But here I am now. It’s possible.

What would you like to say to future water polo players?
Have fun, enjoy the moment. At the time, life can seem so difficult or you don’t want to go to practice, but it will pay off and it is worth it. The only way I got through the Olympics was by being myself and having fun, pretending like I was a 12 and under at the Junior Olympics again.

NATALIE COUGHLIN 

Currently a resident of Lafayette, 11-time Olympic medalist Coughlin once lived in Walnut Creek, before attending UC Berkeley and qualifying for the 2004, 2008, and 2012 USA Olympic Swim Team. 

How did you prepare, both mentally and physically, for the Olympics?

Not unlike any other competition. I train five to six hours a day, six days a week.

Do you have a pre-race ritual/meal/song?

I used to like fried eggs and rice with soy sauce when I was a kid. That meal isn’t too easy to get when you’re in a foreign country, though.

Who did you want to meet at the Olympics?

I’ve been able to meet a lot of great Olympians in the past. Keri Walsh and Misty May are two of my favorite non-swimming Olympians.

What’s the first thing you’ve done in the past when you won gold?

I can’t even remember. I like celebrating with a great meal.

Who do you thank most for your success, and why?

My coach, Teri McKeever. I’ve been working with her for over 12 years, which is more than half of my career. We’ve been through a lot together and it’s a wonderful partnership.

What’s your mindset before a race?

Excited, anxious, nervous… there are a lot of emotions swirling around before a race.