LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. -- Before Annika Dries started playing water polo, she was in a junior lifeguard program in Laguna Beach. One of the skills she had to demonstrate was swimming out to a buoy in the ocean.
It was a pretty daunting task for a 9-year-old girl, but one of the junior lifeguard instructors told Dries to embrace the challenge.
It was a lesson she never forgot.
Dries (above and at right) returned to Laguna Beach over the weekend as an Olympic champion, a member of the U.S. women’s water polo team that won the gold medal in London. She shared her gold medal with the people of Laguna Beach, including the mayor and the girls in the Laguna Beach water polo club.
Her club water polo coach and high school coach were also on hand to celebrate her return. Chad Beeler is the junior lifeguard instructor and club water polo coach who instilled the lesson in Dries to embrace challenges.
“I had to embrace the challenge all along,” Dries said during her speech to the hundreds of supporters who celebrated her homecoming at the Laguna Beach Community Pool across from the high school where she won accolades as the top water polo player in Orange County.
But embracing the challenge of becoming an Olympic gold medalist was only one among many lessons she learned from her high school coaches. “Little things make big things happen,” a quote credited to UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, helped pave her Olympic career as well.
Ethan Damato, her high school coach at Laguna Beach, used Wooden’s quote to teach his players to pay attention to details.
“I believed in all the little things,” Dries said. “It really helped me get to the next level and embrace the challenge. Focus on the little things.”
Damato said he knew from about the time Dries was in eighth grade that she had the ability and the talent to play at the international and Olympic levels.
“It’s an amazing accomplishment for the whole water polo community here,” Damato said.
Dries didn’t come to her celebration empty-handed. She presented Damato with the cap she wore while playing in the Olympic Games in London. She gave Jane Egly, the mayor of Laguna Beach, an autographed mini Olympic banner from the U.S. water polo team. She wore her gold medal and spent a couple of hours signing autographs and taking photos with the hundreds of supporters, many of them children, who showed up to meet the Olympic gold medalist.
“She’s sharing it with all the people that supported her along the way,” said Pam Madsen-Dries, Annika’s mom. “She really said it in her speech: This town has been so supportive of her.”
Dries began playing water polo in the seventh grade, a late starter by today’s standards. She quickly developed into one of the top players in the country and was playing on national teams when she was in the eighth grade.
Her mom said water polo was a perfect fit for her daughter.
“She had an incredible amount of energy, focus and drive,” Madsen-Dries said. “We needed to find the ultimate challenge.” Her daughter played tennis and volleyball and swam competitively before trying water polo. “We wanted her in a sport that made her happy. She just gravitated toward it.”
Dries’ parents are music professors at California State University, Fullerton. Her mom said she thought her daughter would become a jazz pianist, like her dad. Dries learned how to play the piano, but not at the level of her parents. She learned valuable lessons from them, though.
“Watching that from a very young age inspired me to always find perfection, find the best of the best in what I was doing,” Dries said. “Now looking forward, I’m not only a student, but I’m a mentor, embracing both those ideas.”
Dries used the work ethic she learned from her parents and applied it to water polo.
“In any profession, you have to dedicate a certain amount of hours to a skill,” Dries said. “Seeing my parents devote so much to their passion of composing and playing the piano, seeing my dad practice from a very young age, definitely seeing them practice that much inspired me to find something I was passionate about too.”
Dries is an only child. Her mom said her teammates became her sisters, her extended family. From the time she was in club water polo at the community pool to the Olympic Games, Dries treated her teammates like family.
“I wanted to share this with everyone,” Dries said. “It gets me emotional even thinking about the day. It hasn’t really sunk in today how much people really cared about our team, not just me, but our team. It was a very inspiring day.”