While growing up in Long Beach, Ryan Bailey was fortunate enough to meet his heroes.
He loved water polo and still does. The Olympians he met back in the day made an impact on his life. In 1984, Bailey was 9 when his father, Dan, worked as a trainer for the U.S. Olympic men's water polo team. He also met big-time players when they came to conduct clinics in Long Beach.
Nowadays, it's Bailey's turn to inspire and encourage young people. He was doing that on Saturday during a meet-and-greet with Olympians at Westminster mall.
Bailey, a former UC Irvine All-American, was one of four who helped promote water polo at the mall, along with teammate Tim Hutten, also out of UCI, former Corona del Mar High standout Tumua Anae and Elsie Windes of the U.S. women's team.
Bailey is now 36 and preparing to play in his fourth Olympics this summer in London. Water polo is his life.
The past few months have been rigorous and it will only intensify as the Games approach. In June, Bailey expects the men's team to have just one day off during its training.
Next week, it's off to Serbia. During June, teams from other nations will visit for some exhibition games.
The men's team won the silver medal in the Beijing Olympics. It was the first time the U.S. men's water polo team medaled in the Olympics since 1988.
Bailey started playing in the Olympics as the youngest player on the team. Now he's the oldest. He has accomplished nearly every goal he set out.
"My last goal to do is to win a gold medal," said Bailey, who is also an assistant coach at Corona del Mar High.
"I think we are going to be right there," Bailey said of the Americans' chance for gold. "On the men's side, there are seven or eight teams that have a chance at the gold medal. It's going to come down to the bounce of the ball, one stop, one goal. It's really a one- or two-goal difference from the top team. It's going to be fun. We have as good a chance as anybody. We beat all the top teams. We're going to be right there in the mix. It's going to be pretty awesome."
Bailey and Hutten are confident about the U.S. team. Training in California has helped. In the past, players gained training time individually or overseas while playing pro in other countries, Bailey said.
"This year we all stayed at home," Bailey said. "Part of the deal we made with the USOC and sponsors was they have to take care of us better than they have in the past. It's still not a lot but it's enough to live on."
Bailey and Hutten, along with Jeff Powers and Rick Merlo played in the 2008 Olympics. They are all former All-Americans. They are proud of being Anteaters, Hutten said, and also noted that former legendary coach Ted Newland played a huge role in his rise.
"He had an amazing impact in my life," said Hutten, who was not recruited out of high school at Los Alamitos. "Going through that program changed me ... UCI has had a strong tradition of developing players into great athletes. We're just happy to keep that tradition alive."
Anae was also part of a strong tradition, playing as a goalie at Corona del Mar. Her family has moved to Hawaii, where she was born, but she said CdM will always have a special place in her heart.
"I'm a Sea Queen for life," she said.
Anae won a CIF Southern Section Division 2 title in her first year as the starting goalie in 2006. She also won an NCAA championship with the Trojans in 2010, helping USC to its first national title since 2004.
She said the pinnacle of her career has been playing for Team USA. She is working to make the Olympic team, which will be announced May 17.
"It's been a very proud experience for me to represent my country and to share it with my family," Anae said.
Anae's sister, Jordan, who was also a standout at CdM lives in Indiana and is now married, Tumua said. Jordan is married to Indianapolis Colts defensive end Fili Mola and has two children. They met while at USC.
She keeps in touch as much as she can while training with the U.S. women's team. She also keeps in touch with former teammates, including Camille Hewko, and former coach Aaron Chaney, Tumua said. Tumua's father usually swims with Chaney in the mornings as both live in Hawaii.
Tumua said her family members have their flight tickets ready for London and they are excited about Team USA. When they see commercials for the Olympics they become more excited, Tumua said.
Tumua is aiming to make the team as one of two goalies. She has learned a great deal during the process.
"It's hard on you individually," Tumua said. "I've never been on a team that has cuts. It reinforces why you are here and why you need to stick it out. It reinforces your love for the game."
Tumua was at the mall showing that love. She also wanted to promote the game.