When Annika Dries became the youngest girl ever selected to train with the U.S. national water polo team in 2009, the 17-year-old tried to contain her excitement, saying, “From here on I have endless possibilities, but I also have endless work to do. I’m not there yet.”
Well, she’s there now, or soon will be. The 20-year-old Laguna resident will travel to London this summer as a member of the U.S. Olympic water polo team. “It’s an amazing feeling to be able to represent your country,” said the former LBHS and Orange County standout.
Dries made an immediate impact with the national squad as a teenager at the 2009 FINA World Super Final in Russia, where she scored a goal in each of the five games she played to help her team win gold, before returning to Laguna just in time for her high school commencement.
Stanford, the country’s top college program, recruited the 2009 CIF MVP and Orange County Player of the Year after she led the Breakers to the CIF championship. Dries success followed her to Palo Alto, where she was named national collegiate player of the year and MVP of the 2011 NCAA tournament after scoring five goals in the title game to beat cross-bay rival Berkeley.
Dries put her junior year on hiatus to train exclusively with the 22 other Olympic hopefuls on the national team. Her consistent play over that period solidified her standing. “I had a good feeling about making the team,” she said of the announcement last week.
When Olympic coach Adam Krikorian called her to his office last week and said “Anni, you’re an Olympian,” all the eloquent sentiments she had rehearsed fled, leaving her without words but full of emotion.
Dries is the second youngest on an experienced rooster where the average age is 26. Eight of the 13 members have prior Olympic experience, and two have competed on all three previous Olympic teams. Women’s water polo was added for the 2000 games in Sydney. “They’re just a bunch of extremely determined people, and when you put that together, you can be essentially unstoppable,” Dries said.
Early on they were anything but unstoppable. They entered the 2011 World Championship in China ranked number one. They finished sixth. “That was a big, kind of wake up call,” said Dries. “We had all the talented players in place, but we really weren’t a team yet.”
Dries has been competing with and against older women for years. At the 2006 USA Water Polo Top 40 tournament, a 14-year-old Dries played for a team that included then 28-year-old Heather Petri, who at 34 is now a three-time Olympian and once again Dries’ teammate on the 2012 squad.
The Olympic dream for Dries began eight years ago, when the taller than average 12-year-old took to the pool as part of the Laguna Beach age group program. When club coaches Chad Beeler and Ethan Damato first saw Dries “they believed in my ability to make it to the top,” she said.
“Obviously she’s very physically gifted, but she’s an extremely hard working person that’s very, very driven,” said Damato. “I can’t even put into words how proud I am of her.”
The U.S. women’s team is the only one to medal at all three previous games, taking silver in Sydney ‘00 and Beijing ‘08, and bronze in Athens ‘04. A winner at every level of her career, Dries hopes to bring a fresh perspective and youthful enthusiasm to an experienced and successful group. “This could be the mix of girls that could, that I know can be at the top of the podium,” she said.
Before they listen to the Star Spangled Banner, they will have to play five games in 10 days against what is a surprising line up of qualifiers. Netherlands, the reigning gold medalists, and top teams Canada and Greece ran into some stiff competition at the Olympic qualifying tournaments and will not be in London. The U.S. team earned its Olympic berth by winning last year’s Pan Am Games in an epic shootout with Canada.
Down by four goals in the third period, Dries and company battled back to tie the game. U.S. goalie Betsey Armstrong blocked a five-meter penalty shot that would have put Canada ahead late in the fourth, leading to a sudden death shoot out. Five rounds and 40 shots later, Armstrong blocked another one, giving team USA a 27-26 victory. “I’ve never been part of a water polo game like that ever,” said Dries.
There are eight teams in two groups competing for the gold. Team USA is in group A, which also includes China, Spain and Hungary. Group B includes Italy, Great Britain, Russia and Australia.
Each team will play the other three in its group, with the two best records in each group playing to see which team advances to the gold medal game. Dries and crew begin their quest for the gold against Hungary on July 30. The finals are August 9.