Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Heather Petri...and the Two-Minute Drill

U.S. water polo player Heather Petri has a lot of hardware.

·         Three Olympic medals

·         Two European Champions Cups with Vouliagmeni Nautical Club

·         One National League title with Flamengo in Rio de Janiero Brazil

·         Three Pan American Games titles

·         Two World Championship titles
Heather looking to pass
You’d think after a while it would just be a job…and she would be blasé about competing in her fourth Olympics. Not Heather. She actually got goose bumps while I was talking to her—while sharing her memories of the Games in Sydney. She still feels that first time competing in the Olympics excitement.

The goose bumps came back at the end of our conversation, while she was talking about how fortunate she is to do what she loves and give back by participating in Swim Across America, which raises money and awareness for cancer research.

Both speak volumes on Heather’s grace and dignity and what she stands for.

After reading our conversation, I know all of you will be standing with me and cheering loudly for her in a few weeks in London and well beyond.

PJ: Three Olympics, three medals. That’s an incredible feat. Which one means the most to you?
Heather: Yes, it’s been a bonus…a blessing to return home with medals from the Games I’ve competed in. Each represent a different story and I was a different person as part of those teams. It is a snapshot of me when I was on those teams. All are so different. I think the first one had the biggest impact. The Sydney experience, whether we won or not would’ve been great. I was so new when I joined the team in January and the Olympics were in August. I had never played international water polo. I tell people it’s like I was on a fast, high-speed train speeding past and my eyes were like saucers, wide open, pressed against the windows. I loved every second. When I look back it’s all memories of joy…so incredible.

PJ: What is it like to compete in the Olympics? We at home stop everything to watch. Even people who typically aren’t sports fans are Olympics fans.
Heather: I get chills just thinking about it. For two weeks the way you feel about the Olympics is how I feel about it every day. When I wake up, do a swim set, etc., I keep my goals in my mind and use that feeling to keep me motivated and keep it fun. It’s the same feeling you have for two weeks, I harness it every day. To go to one Olympics is incredible, two is…well…four is a dream, a blessing.

Heather Petri.
PJ: What are your goals this time around?
Heather: It may be cliché, but we have a gold medal in mind. We have the confidence leading up to the Games to think we can do it. Our team is talented. We have the right mix for our team with youth and veterans. The right chemistry and we are supportive of each other. We’ve had adversity. We placed sixth in the World Championships. We’ve had our struggles, but we’ve worked through them and are tighter as a team.

Our goal is to play four consistent quarters. Good teams play one good quarter. If we can sustain this immediate goal and a team beats us with another four good quarters, then it’s a good match. If we can do that, put together four good quarters, we are capable of anything.

PJ: I know that philanthropy is important to you. You have been involved with three organizations up to this point, including Right to Play, and are looking to do more.
Heather: Yes, training is so full-on right now, that it’s hard to coordinate dates—to really get into it. I am excited…I have a lot of ideas. I want to continue this in my life, whether I get a job with the [Right to Play] or another organization. It’s inspiring to think about.

PJ: You are an ambassador for Right to Play. Tell me about the organization and what you do.
Heather: I met other Right to Play ambassadors at the Olympics in 2004. It wasn’t until after 2008 that I got involved. They had a booth in the Olympic Village so we could all learn about it. I met the founder, Johann [Olav Koss], who is an inspiring man. It’s so simple…every child should be able to play. What I love the most is that we get to play. When I look at my life, my parents supported me in all the sports I tried. If they hadn’t, my life could be different. We almost moved to Colorado and I think what path my life would have taken if we moved? I’d be a different person.

So far, what I’ve done is help Johann and others in the organization with donors and kids/parents to show what Right to Play does, and where the money goes. I understand how it’s helped me in America, and people around the world have so much less than we do.
Besides building play areas, they focus on longevity in sports. They pick team leaders, who learn simple games like ball toss and also teach life skills, communication skills, hygiene, conflict resolution, etc. Kids want to play, but don’t realize they are learning until later. The team leaders are part of the community to ensure this lasts. Some organizations do temporary fixes; this organization leaves a lasting impression.

I met a team leader from Uganda. It was so cool. She taught two tribes of little boys. Every Tuesday they would come to play. When they had a war, it was the boys who helped the parents solve their problems. OMG! I can do something so small and it can lead to that…that is special!
PJ: You are also involved with Athletes for Hope.
Heather: Yes, this organization was founded by Mia Hamm and other athletes [Andre Agassi, Andrea Jaeger, Jeff Gordon, Lance Armstrong, Mohammed Ali, Tony Hawk, Mario Lemieux, Alonzo Mourning, Cal Ripken, Jr., Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Warrick Dunn]. It is a community-based volunteer program for athletes. You can tell them when you are available and they will help you search options. I used them to work at a food bank and hospitals where I visited cancer patients. They understand the life of an athlete. For them to do this is cool.

PJ: Tell me about Swim Across America.
Heather: As the name says…they organize swims across America and the proceeds go to cancer charities. When I was a kid, my aunt had a double mastectomy and needed bone marrow. When I saw this I knew I wanted to give back. There is a swim in the Bay Area on Sept. 29. A ferry drops you off at the Golden Gate Bridge and you swim to Chrissy Field—about a mile-and-a-half. It’s so inspiring. Last time I did this with my friends and we swam as water polo. We brought a ball with us and wrote names of all the people we were swimming for. On the ferry we passed the ball around and others signed names—I’m getting chills! It’s amazing to see how many people you can touch. One friend got up and said…I’m swimming because I can. It is so simple. I’ll always remember that. There are people who can no longer do what they want to do…I can do this. It’s a cool way for me to do what I love and give back!