|Betsey Armstrong poses with her 2012 Olympic gold medal at the USA House at the Royal College of Art on Aug. 11, 2012 in London.
Betsey Armstrong wasn’t exactly sure what to make of the USA Water Polo Women’s National Team, when she made her first trip with the squad back in 2006.
After going for a lake swim with her new teammates in Hungary in water she said was filled with wild snakes, it’s a wonder it wasn’t her last.
But Armstrong, who went on to win two Olympic medals — including a gold medal in 2012 — said that it was those team-bonding experiences that she will miss the most now. The most decorated goalkeeper in international water polo history, Armstrong announced her retirement from the national team Thursday.
“For me, obviously what we did in the Olympics in London was magical and a great memory but I really get emotional when I think about how we worked as a team and how people on the team were so willing to work together,” Armstrong said. “As a team you see the most beautiful sides of one another and the ugliest sides of one another, and you know that you couldn’t have done it without each other.
“So many of my memories of being a part of a team come from outside of practices and games … the crazy hikes we took in Hawaii, lake swims with wild snakes. Those are the main memories I’ll have.”
Armstrong, 31, was a part of the United States’ silver-medal team in Beijing in 2008 and also helped lead the U.S. to world titles in 2007 and 2009. Then in 2012 at the Olympic Games in London, she recorded 53 saves as the team won the gold medal.
The plan, she said, was to continue on to a third Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. But she lives outside of New York City with her husband and regular travel to the West Coast became increasingly more difficult. In addition, there was a lot of international travel, particularly in Europe.
“I wanted to go to Rio,” Armstrong said. “I really thought that was where this dream would end for me.”
“It was really tricky for me,” she added. “It really came down how I had been feeling on a daily basis. I realized that it was important to me to make this decision now and it is a pivotal time for this water polo team, which has a young group of players and this group needs to get experience together now.”
Sami Hill, 22, was the starter for the national team this summer when Team USA won both the Kirishi Cup and the FINA World League Super Final. Ashleigh Johnson, 19, and EB Keeve, 21, are also in the goalkeeper mix.
The hardest part of making the decision to retire was telling her teammates.
“These girls are like family,” Armstrong said. “The amount of time we would train together and travel together was sometimes more than we would spend with our actual family.”
Her decision to leave will not be easy for her teammates either.
"It's hard to put into words what Betsey has meant to this program over the last eight years,” U.S. Women's National Team coach Adam Krikorian said in a statement. “More than being the most decorated goalie in our sports history, she's been a loyal and unselfish teammate, a tireless professional in her approach.”
“On behalf of the entire USA women's program, we thank Betsey for her enormous contribution on many levels,” he added. “We will certainly miss seeing her at the pool on a daily basis but know that she will always be connected to this program moving forward.”
For Armstrong, it will be strange to adjust to life away from water polo although oddly enough, just a day after she announced her retirement she was back in the pool at a club tournament with several Olympians in Southern California.
She laughed when that was brought up by a reporter.
“Yes,” she said. “I know. I committed to do this a long time ago.”
It’s no wonder Armstrong will have trouble stepping away from the national team. She began playing water polo in middle school and ever since her freshman year in high school, the sport has been a huge part of her life. She went on to star at the University of Michigan.
Armstrong was an All-America selection in her four seasons with the Wolverines and was a finalist for the Cutino Award, the top honor for collegiate men’s and women’s water polo players, in 2004. In 2008, she was inducted into the Collegiate Water Polo Association Hall of Fame.
“Water polo has meant everything to me — it’s been my livelihood since it navigated me through school, college and everything to follow,” Armstrong said in a statement released by USA Water Polo. “To say it’s been my life is an understatement. It has opened my heart to experiences and relationships that would have not otherwise existed. It has taught me everything I know about myself, the person I am and the person I want to be. The most important thing of all is that it has given me a family and community that will always feel like home.”
For now, she is deciding what her retirement plans will include. She has been a longtime yoga fan and recently became a certified teacher who works for Lululemon. She is teaching private goalie lessons and is considering becoming a personal trainer.
“I really am interested in getting people to be healthy,” she said. “I want to work with wellness and get involved with the community and educating people about wellness.”
Which truly would just be a continuation of her life’s path since she already has served Team USA very, very well.
Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer and editor for TeamUSA.org. A former sports reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, she covered her fifth Olympic Games in Sochi. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.