Organize your own team, make your own breaks
By Lou Fancher
Who knew four-time Olympic Water Polo player Heather Petri's secret weapon was wearing a tutu while lifting weights?
This, and other more solid approaches to one of the most grueling sports on water, and to life, led to the Orinda native stroking into her 30s with a load of gold, silver, bronze and other precious medals.
Appearing at the Lafayette Library & Learning Center Foundation's recent "Authors and Athletes" event, Petri said she fell in love with being part of a team at age 10.
But even before then, she was churning up and down the lanes at the Moraga Valley Pool, riding horses, participating in soccer, woodworking and basketball. Her parents, Karen and Charlie, had one rule -- if you sign up, you go to every class or practice. At the end of a season, if you don't want a repeat, you're done.
"That gave me a tool," Petri said. "It was giving me responsibility for the actions I was about to do."
The actions in Petri's future caused ripples beyond the water in which she soon spent seven hours a day. Hanging out in August at the Orinda Moraga Pool Association's annual eight-team competition, a buddy's mom helped her hatch the idea to play water polo. The only obstacle was that there was no girls team at Miramonte High School, where the 14-year-old Petri was about to enter her sophomore year.
"I went with two friends to coach Bill Brown (to ask to play on the boys team)," Petri said. "He said 'Yes.' That example, he gave to the boys: They acted like we were just one of the group."
The next year, Petri helped launch the girl's water polo program by recruiting 70 female athletes from local schools. She captained the team for two years and went on to UC Berkeley to major in marine biology.
"I didn't have a scholarship. I was a raw athlete who knew how to swim. All I was focused on was getting a good education and combining it with athletic achievements," she said.
At CAL, Petri ran stadium stairs until her legs were like jelly ("I'm an aquatic athlete, not good on land," she said), applied her "push the limits" philosophy to practices and competitions and watched water polo become an Olympic sport in late 1998.
"Now, you see dreams started happening," she said, describing a call she received in 2000 from a coach in Southern California to "come down to L.A. -- we need some extra training bodies."
There were no guarantees, no expectations that a 20-year-old who'd never played internationally would make the U.S. Olympic team, travel to Sydney, Australia, and help her team win a silver medal, beating the Australians in Australia.
Then it was Olympic bronze (Athens, 2004); a second silver (Beijing, 2008); and a gold (London, 2012). In between, there were Pan American and World Championship victories and stints playing professionally in front of European fans, who worship water polo players as if they are rock stars.
"I learned all the things they were doing to me, when I was playing (against) them," she said. Bringing her refined skills back to the States, she was toughened by the sport's intense physicality (suits are made of a non-rippable fabric, with zippers that prevent players from tearing them off their opponents) and had learned to withstand the emotional highs and lows.
"There are times when you're going to lose," she said, directing her comments to the kids in the audience. "If you take disappointment and move on, then you've done something. I'm proud of being able to turn disappointments into a medal."
Teamwork, not surprisingly, provided the most reliable tool in Petri's longevity as an Olympic-level champion. Her Team USA added a one-hour-a-week social activity to their daily schedule. The players chose the activity, and Petri chose dress-up day in the weight room.
"You had to keep what you were wearing on all day," she said. "I wore a tutu."
Sharing other secrets in response to audience questions, Petri said she's in almost daily communication with former teammates, brings her tangible goal-setting practices into Lafayette K-8 classrooms where she is a substitute teacher, and showed off her tattoos -- a Roman numeral "13," to remind her that every member on a 13-person Olympic team is important, and stars, representing the medals she's won.
In London in 2012, the first time she stood on the podium and heard the national anthem, she was 34 years old. She'd seen history made -- water polo becoming an Olympic sport -- and she'd made history.