“Whenever you get to win, you feel the satisfaction of all of your hard work, all the sacrifices, all the blood, sweat and tears. It feels right and makes you realize that you are really doing the right thing. “
― Abby Wambach
At the awards ceremony that ended my freshman year, I found myself standing on stage in front of Fallbrook’s entire student body. Several friends stood alongside me—a fellow water polo player, a two-sport track and soccer star who’d been in my Geometry class, and a pair of standout junior varsity football players. We’d all been nominated for the Sarkis Spanjian award, given to the school’s most outstanding scholar/athlete. The awards committee nominated five freshmen every year, and we were meant to compete over the course of our high school careers to determine an eventual winner. That winner would earn a nice little scholarship and widespread acclaim. Even as mere nominees, a picture of the five of us landed in the local paper that week, but I was one of only two who’d already earned a varsity letter.
|With the Sarkis Spanjin Award at the end of freshman year.|
My next door neighbor found me after the ceremony. She was gorgeous--a bleach-blonde senior cheerleader and one of the most popular girls in our school. By rights, she shouldn’t have known that I even existed. But she pulled me aside excitedly in front her friends and said, “Congratulations, Dan! That’s one of the best awards you can get at this school!”
“Thanks,” I replied a little sheepishly. I goggled at the girls around me, feeling more than a little surprised to find myself surrounded by a crew of honest-to-God California beauties. I definitely felt like I’d earned my piece on the stage that day, but after years of being the New Kids, it was beyond weird to be recognized for my success. Having people stare at me because I’d won something was weirder still.
But weird in a good way, to be sure.
And yet, despite winning acclaim as a swimmer, I still found myself riding the bench at the end of water polo season just a few short months later. My friend Danny G__, now team captain as a junior, set the two-meter position18 full-time, and a number of my older friends found themselves playing key roles on the varsity team as well. Together, Danny and company had managed a solid winning record and a berth in San Diego’s CIF Championship tournament—but they'd mostly done it without me. I’d been promoted to the senior team alongside my older friends on the basis of my speed and—arguably—on my overall potential, but unlike my friend Danny, the only other guy I knew who’d won a varsity water polo letter as a sophomore at Fallbrook, this hadn’t translated for me into legitimate playing time. I was happy to be there, but that was the best that I could say for myself.
The championship tournament opened in a large concrete natatorium in southern San Diego County beneath grey skies. A cool autumn wind whipped up off the nearby Pacific, and though I’d hoped to at least sprint for the ball during some of the tournament games, in the end I wound up freezing my butt off alongside the rest of the benchwarmers while my teammates were slowly but inevitably eliminated from the championship. The guys fought gamely, but for once Danny was overmatched in the hole, and the rest of the team had neither the speed nor the long-range shooting accuracy to make up for Danny’s inability to do it all himself. We lost two games in a row after an opening our match win, and that put us out. I felt the loss keenly despite the fact that I’d been a spectator for nearly the entirely of the tournament.
My father was furious. “If he’s not gonna play you on the varsity, he should move you back down to JV! At least then you could get some minutes in the game.”
“He” in this case was Johann, the twenty-three-year-old former collegiate water polo standout who’d been named the head coach of Fallbrook’s program at the start of the season. It was Johann who’d decided to put me on the senior team, but privately, I knew that I’d not done much to reward his faith. I’d developed neither the size nor the ball skills to consistently make me a threat in the middle, and worse, I had a tendency to coast on my speed while the other kids were out there busting their asses. With that, my minutes had actually decreased over the course of the season, and that drove my father crazy.
“But Dad,” I protested, “Johann’s trying to get me more experience. So I’ll be ready next year.”
“Johann is a prima donna,” my father shot back. “He likes having a big bench behind him because he thinks it makes him look like a big time coach. He’s using you. When he put you into that JV game against Vista—”
“I dominated. I know, Dad. I scored five goals. That’s why he’s got me on the varsity.”
My father smiled. “I liked seeing that.”
“Of course you did.”
|Not the best pic; not the best season.|
It wasn’t until I found myself riding the bench, not even sprinting for balls anymore, that I began to realize just how badly my attitude had hurt me. I’d been walking around like I’d already made it, like the Olympics were a foregone conclusion. Reality, however, was that I’d only just begun what looked to be a very long and winding road. I badly wanted to make it as a swimmer—and as a water polo player, too, if I could—but first I needed to learn to accept the recognition that came with my success in my best events without allowing it to affect my focus. That was hard, though, when folks kept handing me trophies and patting me on the back every time I turned around.
Even Johann did that, despite the fact that he'd steadily decreased my minutes over the course of that season. Still, he patted me on the back at the awards ceremony that ended our season, saying, “Nice job, Dan. Earning a varsity letter as a sophomore is not an easy thing to do.”
That probably wasn't what I needed to hear.
18. Also called the “Hole,” this is water polo’s answer to the center in basketball.