The shared life experiences of Lexi Del Toro, Makenzie Baldridge and Sydney Saxe make them much more than BFFs; they’re BFL—Bonded For Life.
They grew up in the arms of a close knit community that encouraged their involvement in a sport that not only has become the glue that binds their friendship, but also the cement that makes up the foundation of their lives.
Water polo, and the life lessons it teaches, has given many former Laguna Beach high school players the strength, courage and perseverance to achieve their personal goals. Former Breaker stars like 2012 Olympian Annika Dries (’09), Taylor Dodson (’09), Natasha Schulman (’09), Lexie Ross (’10), Jessica Shusko (’11), Jessie Holechek (’11), Yoshie Anderson (’12), and Melena Masson (’12) owe much of who they are and what they have accomplished to the character-building sport.
“I like to call it the Laguna Beach water polo legacy,” said Baldridge. “They just left us this great example to follow; that motivation to do well and excel both in the pool and in the classroom.”
Baldridge’s father played water polo for Corona del Mar High, UC Irvine and UCLA, but it was her mother’s quest to “water proof” her young daughter by signing her up for swimming lessons that eventually gave an unwitting Baldridge her first taste of water polo. “I remember stepping on the pool deck, and I still had no idea what the sport was,” she said.
Del Toro, Baldridge’s St. Catherine’s classmate, said she was “just at that age where you want to do things with your friends.” So she signed up for swimming lessons too. It wasn’t long before the two caught the eye of Capo Club coaches. The rest is history.
One of Saxe’s fifth grade friends had been hounding her to join Chad Beeler’s Laguna Beach Water Polo club. “I really didn’t think I would like water polo at all, so I kind of put it off,” said Saxe. Eventually, “my friend ended up quitting, but I stuck with it,” she said.
Del Toro and Baldridge met up with Saxe in seventh grade, when they joined Beeler’s program. The three are now senior co-captains on Coach Ethan Damato’s Breaker squad. “It’s such a great bond to have, you know, your best friends on your team, spending that much time with people you enjoy being around,” said Del Toro. “We’re basically inseparable.”
Individually they aren’t as dominant as some past Breaker stars, but together they form a core of leadership that has a carried a young Laguna team to the number six ranking in both Orange County and CIF division one. “Mackenzie is the type of leader who leads by example,” said Damato. Lexie is like “an assistant coach” and the “mother figure of the group.” And Saxe has been “such a steady factor this year. I always know I can count on her,” he said.
Like most of his players past and present, the trio can’t say enough about their inspirational coach, who “expects great things from us, because he knows we can accomplish great things,” said Del Toro.
When their lives get a little hectic, like around finals times, Damato reminds them that “Water polo is an outlet for us to relax and forget about any type of stress, any adversity that were facing,” said Del Toro.
When a rare kidney disease sidelined Del Toro a couple years ago, Baldridge, Saxe and the entire team rallied around her. “It’s really helpful having our team, having such supportive people with us through those type of things,” said Del Toro.
Last year, doctors found a cyst on Baldridge’s spleen and had to remove it. The experience has had a profound affect on her. “It just gave me this whole different view of water polo. And now I just want to work so hard, not only for my teammates, but for myself,” she said.
“I think having your friends by you during those hard times was really helpful for both of them,” said Saxe.
All three girls are active in the community. To raise awareness for kidney disease, Del Toro, with the help of Saxe and Baldridge, organized a “Kidney Mud Run” with the non-profit Kidneys For Life foundation. Del Toro also spent some time visiting with other kidney patients. “It was definitely an experience, and a humbling experience at that,” she said. “To see their strength and motivation to keep going has definitely been an inspiring feeling.”
Baldridge volunteers with Beeler’s Little Mermaids program, helping young kids develop a love of the water. The normally shy Saxe stepped out of her comfort zone when she volunteered to be a Sunshine Reader with the Laguna chapter of the National Charity League and found out that she wouldn’t actually be reading stories to little children, but acting them out. “It’s really helped me step out of the box a little bit,” said Saxe. “It was a little frightening, but it’s been really rewarding.”
None of the girls wants to think about the end of the season, when their competitive days in the pool as teammates come to an end. “I’m really going to miss them to death,” said Baldridge, who will stay on the west coast and play for UC Santa Barbara next year while her friends head east.
Del Toro (Harvard) and Saxe (Princeton) will join former teammates Anderson (Harvard) and Holchek (Princeton) in what will be an Ivy League rivalry, Laguna style. “There’s obviously going to be some competition when we play each other, because we’re both really competitive people,” said Del Toro. But at the end of the day [Saxe] is always going to be my teammate at heart. She’s always going to be my best friend.”
Photos by Robert Campbell