Editor's Note: A school record-holder in swimming and a CIF champion in water polo, Annika Dries graduated from Laguna Beach High School in 2009 as one of the finest athletes in school history. After leading Stanford University to a national title in 2011, she took a sabbatical from her studies in hopes of earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic women's water polo team. In May, the 20-year-old's lifelong dream came true, as she was one of 13 athletes named to the squad that begins play Monday. Below is a first-person account from Dries as she prepares for the Summer Olympics in London.
Making the Olympic team in May was a dream come true. I had worked hard and proved I was competitive with the best of the best. But now the real fun is here.
I have the opportunity to play for the United States with my team at the Olympics! We are ready to face the world here in London.
Leading up to this tournament, we trained very hard in June and traveled to China to play in the World League Super Final. Previously, we competed in London to check out the water polo venue and match up with the home team, Great Britain.
During the last past six months, we have played more than 40 games against different international opponents, including many games overseas in Italy, Greece, China, Russia, and Australia — with all their fans rooting against us. It was a great experience to "play for the silence," and this preparation will enable us to face any type of atmosphere in London. Our team is ready to face any team, at any time.
Water polo is a tough sport, but I had an easier transition to the sport thanks to the Junior Lifeguard program with Chad Beeler. You have to be fit, you have to be aggressive, and you have to be determined to play this game.
I have learned that at every level, you have to have a fighting attitude. This attitude has been instilled in me since I played at the age group program here in town, through high school with Ethan Damato and my competitive teammates, at club practices at SET where Brad Schumacher sparked my Olympic dream, to Stanford, and now to the Olympic team, where every minute of every day is marked by the way you embrace challenge.
For our team, 2011 provided challenges that tested not only physical endurance but also toughness of character. We learned how to handle adversity, but more importantly we learned how not to handle adversity. We placed sixth at the World Championships in Shanghai, the worst finish ever for the U.S. national team. Yet, this failure brought our team closer together; we had to learn to put our differences aside and realize our potential as a team, not individuals.
After months of hard training and coming together, we flew to Guadalajara, Mexico, at 5,000-feet elevation, to play at the Pan American Championships for our chance to qualify for the Olympic Games. In the gold medal game, we were playing our rival Canada for our spot at the London Olympics. We went down by four goals in the first half, but our team stayed composed, fought together and slowly we were back in the game, tying it up at the buzzer to go into overtime.
Playing in the second overtime period, I thought to myself, "Just play and fight for our team." Our fighting attitude got us into a remarkable five rounds of shootouts and on shot No. 20 from Canada, our goalie came up with a save. The final score was an unheard of, 27-26, for Team USA. But I guarantee you, there was never a doubt in anyone's mind during the regulation, the two overtime periods and the marathon shootout. We believed as a team that we would win.
After qualifying as a team for the Olympics, I had the opportunity to visit Stanford last fall. I got to run around campus seeing everyone and everything that I missed. I went to soccer, water polo and football games, ran the Dish, dined with friends, swam in Avery Aquatics Center, and even got to go to a formal with my Tridelta sorority sisters in San Francisco.
However, it was beginning of the Stanford vs. Oregon football game that pulled my two worlds together. As soldiers lined the field holding together our flag, the Stanford band chaotically assembled onto the field as a single trumpet player began playing our National Anthem. The entire stadium packed with people turned silent to listen together. As I stood with my Stanford family, and as I write to my Laguna family, I realized that we are a part of a larger family, the United States of America.
The soldiers began to unravel the flag across the football stadium, and a certain feeling came over me. The last time I heard our anthem was when our flag was being raised to announce us as Pan American champions that qualified us for the 2012 Olympics. As the song ended, declaring us the "Home of the Brave," I exchanged smiles and hugs with my friends standing near by. Around me I heard the growing chant "USA, USA" and I joined in, reminiscing about our team's qualification and dreaming about our next chance to hear our anthem in London. And now, eight months and many practices and games later, we are finally here in London!
We flew into London on Monday and went to processing that day. We were fitted for our opening ceremony outfits and received the Team USA apparel. It was crazy the amount of gear we received from Nike and Ralph Lauren, just adding to the excitement of our arrival to London. But the true excitement was our first practice in the competition pool.
This pool, built specifically for water polo, is where we can make our Olympic dream possible: to be at the top of the podium. To get there though, this journey is about playing each one of our six games, one game, one quarter, one possession at a time.
I couldn't be more excited to embrace the moment and go into battle with my 12 other teammates. We have a special, determined group, and it's time for us to go for it!