Laguna's Dries will compete at Olympic Games in London

No amount of preparation could ready Annika Dries for the announcement.

On May 17, the former Laguna Beach High girls' water polo standout realized a lifelong dream when she was one of 13 athletes named to the USA Olympic women's water polo team that will compete at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

"Normally, I am prepared. I have something to say or do or think," the 20-year-old said. "But the moment my coach (Adam Krikorian) told me I was an Olympian, I was speechless and filled with pure joy. I have worked and dreamed a long time about becoming an Olympian."

The whirlwind then began.

"I called my mom (Pam) first, and she was so ecstatic and proud," she said. "My dad (Eric) is a more quiet guy, but I know this really means a lot to him. He has always believed in me."

After the announcement at a press conference at the LA84 Foundation in Los Angeles, the team headed to Burbank to make an appearance on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

"We were announced as part of the show and got a shout out on national TV! Pretty fun," she said of the show's taping that included taking photos afterward with Leno and that show's guests, actor Hugh Laurie and Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III.

Dries — who helped the Breakers win a CIF title in water polo in 2009 and is the girls' record-holder in the 50-yard freestyle in swimming — has been readying herself for this moment for several years. She competed on the Cadet, Youth and Junior National teams throughout middle school and high school and eventually trained with the U.S. Women's Senior "B" team in 2008. She joined the Senior Women's team in 2009.

She is the first athlete from Laguna Beach High to make the USA Olympic women's water polo team.

Dries entered Stanford University after graduating from Laguna Beach and has completed two years of studies. She said she took a sabbatical from school to concentrate on training for the Olympic team. Majoring in Human Biology with an area of concentration in cancer biology and epidemiology, Dries will resume her studies this fall. She said she has two years of playing eligibility remaining and will graduate in 2014.

Last year, she led Stanford to the NCAA women's water polo championship in Ann Arbor, Mich. Dries was named tournament MVP and was the recipient of the Peter Cutino Player of the Year award. The Cardinal repeated as NCAA champions by winning the tournament earlier this month.

"She really needed to do that, in order to commit to training for a spot on the Olympic Team," Krikorian said of taking a break from her school studies. "Obviously, this is not to take anything away from Stanford and what they do, but the training here is at a different level. It's a huge time commitment, day in and day out."

Her journey to the becoming an Olympian has been full of support and guidance, Dries said, noting that she had "endless mentors and coaches" that she is thankful for.

Among them is Chad Beeler, director of Laguna Beach Age Group Water Polo, who she said "let me see how fun water polo could be." Current Laguna Beach High boys' and girls' water polo coach Ethan Damato also was a big inspiration, as was her club coach at SET Water Polo, Bradley Schumacher.

She also found inspiration and support through her teammates, both past and present.

"Playing against older, more experienced players was and still is a theme of my water polo career," Dries said. "By competing with the best, you have to find another level to stay in the pool. But more than that, it was my teammates' and coaches' belief that I could be better and ultimately make the Olympic team. I am so grateful for the opportunities that were given to me, and the support I had through my high school, club and national teams."

The U.S. team holds three-hour practice sessions twice a day, four times a week, plus a three-hour practice on Wednesdays and Saturdays at the Los Alamitos Joint Force Training Base. The team leaves Saturday for China to compete at an eight-team World League Super Finals tournament that will include five teams it will see at the Olympic Games in London.

The team also will play four exhibition games against Hungary beginning July 2 at Stanford and conclude their series July 8 at Corona del Mar High.

After that, it's off to London. Krikorian said the team will check into the Olympic Village on July 23. Opening Ceremonies are July 27 and the U.S. will play its first tournament game on July 30 against Hungary.

Dries can't wait for the Games.

"I am honored to represent the United States of America and to be a part of a community of people who strive every day the be the very best," she said.

The very best is something Dries has been for quite some time.

"After she had only been playing for a year, I was asked by other coaches how it felt to have the best 14-Under girl in the nation on my team," Beeler said. "My answer was, 'It feels great,' but the best part is that Annika is great at many other things, as well, and she is one of the smartest people I know.

"Annika has only just begun her road to success and I can only hope that what she has accomplished and will accomplish will be inspiring to the future Laguna Beach Water Polo kids."

Twitter: @MikeSciacca

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