U.S. water polo Olympians visit Girls Inc.

COSTA MESA — The Girls Incorporated of Orange County organization likes to say it is inspiring all girls to be strong, smart and bold.

Girls Inc. hosted two women who possess those attributes at a special question-and-answer session Tuesday night at its headquarters in Costa Mesa. Those two young women, Kelly Rulon and Courtney Mathewson, also happen to be Olympic gold medalists.

Rulon and Mathewson, as well as Team USA assistant coach Dan Klatt, were on hand to entertain questions from about 40 girls. Afterward, they ate dinner with the girls, autographed special beverage glasses the girls received and posed for pictures.

The three Olympians helped the United States win its first Olympic gold medal in women’s water polo last summer in London, and first water polo gold in the sport for Team USA since the men won in 1904. They gave advice on fitness as well as education. Rulon and Mathewson both went to UCLA.

“Go to UCLA,” Mathewson quickly answered, to laughs, when Tesoro High freshman Bryn McKibbin asked her how to pick the right college. But she went on to say the girls should look for the best fit, not only athletically but also academically and socially.

“There’s a lot of decisions to make,” said Mathewson, 26, who went to high school at Anaheim Canyon. “But it’s not something that needs to be done in a day or two. Take your time, and try to learn as much as you can about everything.”

Mathewson also described Team USA’s practice schedule, which included nearly two hours of weight lifting and two miles of swimming in the morning, followed by nearly three hours of practice in the afternoon. The schedule was inspiring to Girls Inc. kids like Skylynn Gonzalez, 10, who is a fifth-grader at Victoria Elementary in Costa Mesa.

Gonzalez is a soccer player, and she said she ultimately wants to play in college. She is a Daily Pilot Cup veteran for Victoria.

“I’ll take with me how they stay in shape, and how they’re so competitive,” Gonzalez said. “All of the things that they said make me want to try harder.”

Both Mathewson and Rulon did preach to the girls the importance of exercise, as well as a good diet.

“I like to say that your body is an engine,” said Rulon, 28, a two-time Olympian. “If you think of it like an engine in a car, you have to fill it with the right nutrients, right? ... You have to understand that the Western diet is one of the most unhealthy diets in the world. Learning to incorporate maybe fruits and veggies for a snack, instead of a bag of potato chips, will be really helpful.”

Each of the guests shared interesting facts about themselves. Mathewson said her water polo idols are Klatt and U.S. national team head coach Adam Krikorian, who coached her at UCLA. Rulon said her athletic idol is probably Michael Jordan.

Mathewson is interested in baking and cooking, while Rulon enjoys traveling and fashion.

“I’m not big on fashion, and I’m not a good cook either,” Klatt said. “Most of my time is actually spent mentoring young women and coaching water polo. That’s what I love to do.”

Klatt, a former UC Irvine All-American who played on the U.S. men’s water polo Olympic team in 2004 and is the UCI women’s head coach, did reveal that he is getting married on Saturday.

Later in the question-and-answer session, Klatt talked to the girls about the importance of reading. He was also candid when asked about the importance of women as leaders.

“The really neat part about coaching women right now is that this is a great time in the world for women,” he said. “There’s never been a better time for women in the history of the world. There’s so much opportunity out there for you guys right now, there’s so much momentum, there’s so much energy for women’s rights and opportunity. It still isn’t fair yet, but you guys have the opportunity to take over the world right now with how much energy there is. You really do. That’s the cool part, to be around that energy.

“We talk about the important message for you to take away, and I really do believe that it’s self-belief. All throughout your life, there’s going to be someone telling you that you can’t do something ... there’s only one person who always has to believe that it actually can be done, and that’s you.”

The event, which was put on by Irvine-based Tangut USA, was a success to Girls Inc. CEO Lucy Santana-Ornelas.

“It’s really about us exposing girls to cool things that are happening, particularly as the Olympics just occurred this past summer,” Santana-Ornelas said. “The girls get to actually meet people who have made it. They’ve all had their challenges as women, as well as athletes, overcoming those challenges and getting to where they are at today.”

Twitter: @mjszabo