Monday, February 27, 2012

Peter Varellas...and the Two-Minute Drill

This time listening to Dad paid off…big time.

If Peter Varellas hadn’t taken his dad, Larry, up on trying out for the water polo team his freshman year of high school, we may never have witnessed his rise to one of the best in the world.
In his own words, Peter says he was “adamant about not playing.” And, it had nothing to do with water polo… it was just that he didn’t want to play a fall sport. He played basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. But, his dad convinced him to try it for a week, if he didn’t like it he could quit.

Peter looking for his shot
This is where it all started…a little push to try out a new sport…playing at Stanford and going to the Championship each of his four years (and winning the title in 2002)…named to 2005 NCAA All-Tourney first team…scoring in 27 out of the team’s 28 games in 2005…honored as Stanford’s Most Outstanding Male Senior Athlete in 2005-6…honored as the Pac-10 Stanford Male Athlete of the Year…named to the American Water Polo Coaches Association All-Academic Team…
And silver medalist in the 2008 Beijing Olympics (with five goals and seven assists in the tourney).

Oh, and by the way, Peter played for Rari Nantes Savona in Italy from 2006 to 2010, helping lead the team to runner-up finishes in the Italian League and LEN Cup in the 2009-2010 season.

I sat down with Peter recently and he shared his insights on his journey, the Olympics, and what’s next.
PJ: What does your training schedule look like?

Peter: Three times a week we train seven hours a day. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday we train three-and-a-half hours a day. And, Sunday is our day off. We have nine practices a week and eventually we will go to ten.
In the morning on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we lift weights from 8am-10am. From 10am-12pm we are in the water, and then we come back at night for another water workout.

We started a new strength program with Peak Performance Project (P3) in Santa Barbara. It’s interesting; they have a lot of lab testing equipment and do evaluations to develop individual training for athletes. For me, it’s making a difference. We are lucky to have them. It’s definitely to our advantage.
PJ: What is the advantage of this new training program for the team?

Peter: The challenge we typically have every year before the Olympics is training in the United States. Our team is spread out in Europe playing on club teams. They start playing in mid-October and run until June, depending on if your team makes the playoffs.

This year we made a decision to stay home as a team and train—to build the right team chemistry and train the way we want to. In the past it had been a challenge in the weight room as for 9 months we were with our pro teams and had our own programs. We were left to do our own thing in the weight room. And, we needed to be highly motivated to keep it up. And, some players might now know what they needed to do to get the most benefit. This year we are all on the same page, being on this program for the year.
PJ: What has it been like to be together for the full year?

Peter: In the past we were only together for a few months it was easy to stay motivated…along with the excitement of playing with your best friends. It is a challenge this year. It is a long year without competition. Although, we are mixing in some trips. However, the training to competing ratio goes way up. We have to stay motivated to do this. And, we all know that the real Games count the most.
The decision to stay home is a sacrifice. We are in Europe to make a living as there are no pro leagues in the United States. So, it’s been a financial sacrifice for players. However, we are fundraising and funds do pick up in an Olympic year. This was definitely a factor.

It is nice to be in the United States. I have been in Italy for four years, which was an amazing experience. But it’s nice to be here instead of abroad. We have a lot of older guys with kids and now Dad gets to be home more, which is nice.
PJ: What is the makeup of the team this time around?

Peter: We have five or six guys over 33. That’s a veteran team. We have a core group with two guys who are two-time Olympians and have been together for 10 or 11 years. Most of the team is returning from Beijing in 2008. We stuck together. We didn’t finish—win the gold. The silver medal was nice, but not fun to lose in the final at all. Now we’ve been to the games, we’ve been to the podium. We know what it all looks like—no gray area. That’s the goal—gold. All of the other stuff is taken out of the picture.
Peter with his silver medal
PJ: So, what happened in 2008?

Peter: We had an amazing run through the Games. The US men’s side hadn’t won a medal in 20 years. We won silver in 1984 and 1988. We were ranked ninth in the world and shocked everyone else getting there…not ourselves. I like to think we knew we could play with anyone.
The Hungarians were the favorite in the finals. That being said, we knew what we could do and we could play with anyone.

We were tied late in the third and they reeled off five straight. You can’t expect to win with that. We just didn’t complete the job. We lost the final 14-10. We had played incredible defense all tourney. Our normal shot blocking, defensive execution did not happen. I’m glad we didn’t break down until them. It definitely hurt and motivated the guys thinking of retiring to go for it again.
PJ: So what does the competition look like this time around?

Peter: This year is a lot like 2008. There are a large group of teams that have a chance to win medals. Tourneys come down to one or two goals. It’s a slim margin for error. It’s all about attention to detail.
Germany is playing well and Italy came out of nowhere to win the Worlds in 2011. Both weren’t players in 2008. And, of course the former Slovak countries are always good. Eight teams could win, which is a lot in a 12-team tournament.

PJ: So, you are a lefty. Tell me about the advantage this gives you.
Peter: I got lucky. I thank Mom…she is the lefty in the family. It’s a quirky advantage…it’s just rare.

There are a few advantages playing on the right side of the pool facing the cage…having my dominant hand inside making the pass. When I receive a pass on my right side I am ready to shoot…or a quick pass to my teammates’ strong side. Goalies are not quite used to seeing this…it is a little different than the bulk of the shots they see. It is important for me to be a set-up man for my teammates, cutting passes and making things happen. In some ways it’s like a point guard in basketball. I am able to get a quick release off. When I get a pass, I can make a quick shot and the goalie needs to re-position. I can catch him out of position and not in the spot where he is able to cover yet.
PJ: Did you like playing in Italy?

Peter: I loved it. I always wanted to study abroad in school but couldn’t because of sports. And, this turned out to be such a better way; not just for three months. I had an amazing experience. I had my own apartment…I stayed on the same team. So, there was continuity. I got involved in things outside the pool and was deeply involved in the community. It was awesome.
I learned another language and walked away fluent. I never studied…people we’re so friendly I just picked it up with their help.

I was in Savona, near Genoa in the northwestern part of the coastline. It is part of the Italian Riviera…an hour from the French border and an hour plane ride from Rome, my favorite city. The town has 60,000-70,000 people and everyone knows each other. They got behind water polo. It’s amazing to live in a country where the day after a game everyone was either there in person, watched it on TV, or read about it in the paper. And, they wanted to talk about it. You don’t get this in California or this country. Water polo is big, which is cool.

PJ: What are your goals?
Peter: Short-term is nice and incredibly simple…win the gold medal. It would be the first gold on the men’s side...ever. No more talk about “Back to the Podium,” which was the mantra in 2008.

Next goal is graduate business school. It’s a two-year program starting at Stanford next fall. Not sure what that means for water polo. Although, things cool off for the year after the Olympics. So, for water polo it’s day-by-day.