Water Polo: Olympian Buckner relays his story

COSTA MESA — One of the first questions Shea Buckner asked three dozen kids at the Costa Mesa Aquatics Center was if they had ever seen a professional water polo game.

"Yeah, they played [one] here," one kid responded.

"Yeah, I played in it," Buckner said with a smile.

The kid didn't remember seeing Buckner, but the 6-foot-5 attacker was in the pool at Costa Mesa High a couple of years ago as a member of the U.S. men's national team.

Back then, the Americans played Canada in the school's new 50-meter pool prior to competing at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Buckner made the U.S. Olympic team and became its youngest member.

Buckner, who's now 26, took time from his busy training schedule with the U.S. team on Wednesday to talk to kids from the Costa Mesa Aquatics Club about what it took to become an Olympian.

Many in attendance were around Buckner's age when he began to play water polo at 8. At that age, Buckner dreamed big.

While watching the 1996 Olympic Games on TV, Buckner told his father, Sean, that he was going to be an Olympian someday.

"I just told him. I didn't say I want to be. I didn't say I think I will," said Buckner, knowing that his father trained with the U.S. water polo team when he was younger, but never made its Olympic team. "From that moment on, I never let off it."

Buckner pointed out the reasons for his success while promoting his "Eat, Sleep, Play" tour in which he plans to visit water polo clubs in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

At every level, Buckner has excelled in the pool. At Villa Park High, he earned the CIF Southern Section Division II Player of the Year award by scoring 196 goals during his senior year in 2004.

In college, he led USC to two NCAA titles in 2009 and '08 and received All-American honors.

"I think the No. 1 thing is just listening to your coaches because they want you to be the best," Buckner said. "You've got to listen to your coaches. They're here to help you. You know what else, guys? Working hard. Whoever works the hardest is usually the best player. You've got to be faster, you've got to be stronger, and [you've got to be] smart, [go] to school."

Having Buckner show up meant a lot to Jose De La Jara, the Costa Mesa Aquatics Club director. The club probably wouldn't be around if it weren't for De La Jara stepping in as the director in January 2012.

"This program was in bankruptcy, or close to it last year," said Ryan Cook, a Costa Mesa Aquatics Club board member. "They were looking at basically closing up shop and not having the club because it was costing them money. They called Jose and begged for Jose to come in. He worked pro bono … for six months."

De La Jara wasn't the only person working for free for the Costa Mesa Aquatics Club. The main coaches, twins Cody and Dustin Serrano, said they weren't paid for almost eight months until they received a paycheck for their services.

The Serranos worked because they wanted to give back to the sport and the children in the community. When they competed at Costa Mesa High, the 50-meter pool wasn't around. They graduated in 2009, and the new pool opened a year later.

"I think its economics," Dustin said as to why the club struggled at first in getting kids to sign up. "We're not in an area like CdM or Newport Harbor. We're in Costa Mesa. We're middle class."

Since De La Jara took over, he said he's made sure the club is affordable. Because of that, he said, the club's numbers have increased from 35 to 250 kids during a 16-month period.

"Costa Mesa Aquatics is really more about opening it up and letting everyone train here," Cook said. "It's not Newport … or Corona del Mar. I went to Newport Harbor, but I'm here."

Cook won a CIF Division I water polo title at Newport Harbor before graduating in 2001. He grew up playing against Buckner's family members, and now he's Buckner's agent.

Cook brought Buckner to Costa Mesa to talk to kids like 12-year-old Kevin Johnson and 10-year-old Blake Brunning. The kids asked Buckner all sorts of questions, such as whether a candy company could sponsor him.

Buckner just laughed when he heard that one. He already gets free stuff from his three major sponsors.

One kid asked Buckner if he's ever broken any bones while competing.

"I was kind of the enforcer on the Olympic team," Buckner said, before pointing to practically every part of his body. "I've broken [my right] hand three times. I've broken [my left] hand twice. I've broken my collarbone. I've broken my sternum."

Buckner invited the kids to watch him play this weekend. The U.S. team faces Canada in the FINA World League Prelims in Los Alamitos on Saturday at 1 p.m. For those who have never seen a water polo event at this level, Buckner said this is their chance.

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