Newport Beach’s Lori Verdegaal a force behind the scenes for U.S. men’s water polo team
Lori Verdegaal may sometimes fulfill the “team mom” role for the United States senior national men’s water polo team, but it’s not like she’s standing on the sidelines with orange slices and pats on the back.
As the team manager, the Newport Beach resident is the one who organizes the team’s travel and many of their day-to-day activities. She communicates with FINA, the sport’s governing body, while coordinating passports and pool time. Verdegaal stays in communication with head coach Dejan Udovicic, who relays the team’s needs.
“I’m a total Type-A person,” she said with a smile. “Spreadsheets galore, organization for sure…The guys will come to me when they need stuff. It’s a very comfortable environment for them. Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, you’re the team mom.’ It’s like, ‘Well, kind of, in an elevated form.’”
Verdegaal and Team USA leave Sunday for Hawaii, where they will participate in common training with the Australian national team. They arrive in Tokyo on July 20, and their first game at the Olympics is on July 25 against host Japan.
Verdegaal said she is thrilled to be going to her first Olympics, especially in a staff role. Due to COVID-19 regulations, though, she won’t be able to view other sports, and staff will not walk in the opening ceremonies. It was also announced this week that fans won’t be able to attend.
“I’m still excited to get in the village and see all of the other athletes there,” she said. “It’s just such a high level of competition and a high level of athletes there. Even just mixing in and being with them is going to be an amazing thing to do. Even with restrictions, I’m going to the Olympics, and that’s amazing. How many people can say that?”
Verdegaal, who started working for USA Water Polo with the pipeline teams in 2013, became the team manager after the 2016 Olympic Games. Her background wasn’t always in water polo; the mother of three boys was a triathlon runner, which eventually led to her becoming a swim coach.
She moved into water polo as her kids became involved in the sport. Her youngest son, Gage, is an incoming senior left-hander on the Newport Harbor High boys’ water polo team.
Lori and Gage moved to Newport Beach in 2018, from the Central Valley. Lori has a long-distance relationship with her husband, Darren, who remains in Kings County as a building official.
She is an important part of the team, said two-time Olympian Luca Cupido, who has his own connection to Newport Harbor. Cupido graduated in 2014, after moving to California from Italy prior to his senior year.
“It’s definitely important to have someone directing all of the chaos that can go on, especially on travel days,” Cupido said. “There’s a lot of stuff behind the scenes that maybe we take for granted, but it’s a lot of work and its very much appreciated. We have a very diversified staff, so it’s good to have a female, the ‘mom’ of the group. That’s definitely good to have that different perspective on things.”
Verdegaal said she doesn’t mind being the female figure for the players sometimes. Some of her most difficult work has been during the pandemic, figuring out rules and regulations for the different countries the team will be playing in. Team USA had a month-long trip to Greece, Montenegro, Serbia, Croatia and Italy during January and February.
“I was just trying to make sure we could get through every airport and on every flight, and we didn’t miss something going through,” she said. “That was my biggest worry, that somebody is not going to have the right test or the right paperwork to get through an airport.”
It went off smoothly, which is a credit to Verdegaal as much as anything. She said she is lucky to be part of a staff that includes Udovicic, assistant coaches Gavin Arroyo and Alex Rodriguez, sport medicine manager Chris Bates and video coordinator Matt Ustaszewski.
Verdegaal said she shared a light moment with some of the players in Italy.
“One of the athletes said something, and I kind of pulled the mom thing and said their first and middle name,” she said. “He was like, ‘You know my middle name?’ I said, ‘I’ve booked flights for you, hundreds of them. I know every one of your middle names.’ You just get to know everything about each other as you travel.”
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