From Irvine to the Olympics

by LORI BASHEDA

No sleep ’til Tokyo! That’s the mantra for Irvine based USA Water Polo. And for good reason: There’s no time to sleep when you’re preparing for Olympic gold with endless drills, scrimmages and 4,000-yard (2.4-mile) conditioning swims.

“To stand on the podium again and be able to hear our national anthem would be amazing,” says women’s team member Rachel Fattal, a 2016 gold medalist. “All the feelings you get when you hear it are just indescribable, for all of us.”

USA Water Polo’s men’s and women’s teams have a legacy of success in the pool. The women’s team won gold in each of the last two Olympics. The men’s team won silver in 2008.

“I think these games are going to be some of the biggest – and a great celebration for the world coming back after the COVID-19 pandemic,” says men’s team member Alex Obert, who played in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. “It’s going to be super special for me.”

This summer’s Olympics will differ from any other. No overseas spectators will be allowed to attend them due to the coronavirus.

“Even though my family can’t travel to Tokyo for these games, they’re going to be there with me in my heart,” says four-time Olympian Jesse Smith, a silver medalist on the men’s 2008 team. “I know everyone in the States is going to be cheering us on. We’ll probably hear them in Tokyo.”

USA Water Polo made Irvine its headquarters in 2019, and a new $250 million training facility is under construction. The world-class facility is already under consideration for the 2028 L.A. Summer Olympics. It will also be available for Irvine residents and teams who sign up for city programs.

Who knows, maybe the next generation of Olympians will grow up swimming in that pool.


Irvine’s Olympic tradition

Amanda Beard

Irvine has a rich Olympic tradition: In just 50 years of cityhood, it has sent 57 athletes to the games, with none more notable than swimmers Amanda Beard and “miracle man” Jason Lezak.

Beard won America’s heart as a 14-year-old Irvine High student at the 1996 Summer Olympics. That year, she won one gold and two silver medals to become America’s second-youngest Olympic medalist, often photographed clutching her teddy bear. She went on to swim in four Olympics, collecting seven medals.

Irvine High graduate Lezak also swam in four Olympics, collecting eight medals. But it was his anchor leg in the 2008 men’s 4X100 freestyle relay that cemented his place in history. Starting his last lap nearly a full body length behind a world-record holder, Lezak, then 32, beat his opponent by .08 seconds to give the U.S. a world record time – and help teammate Michael Phelps win eight gold medals that year.