Feature by Julia Lam
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts, November 28. HER A-game propelled the U.S. Olympic water polo team to silver and bronze in Athens and Sydney. In between, she led Stanford University's water polo team to its first NCAA title.
She also graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering, studied roller-coaster design as an intern at Disney; worked as an engineer at the Boeing Company; and now attends Harvard Business School while serving as assistant coach for Harvard's men's and women's Division I water polo teams.
Ellen Estes Lee's A-game is, quite simply, something else.
She took time out of her busy schedule to speak with us about her water polo career, her passion for building things, and her prospects for the future.
How did you get into water polo?
I grew up swimming full-time. In high school, because my dad played college tennis, I tried out for the freshman tennis team but I was cut. It was almost a little bit of a fluke then – my swim coach said to me, you should try out for water polo. You've played basketball before – you'd love water polo. And after freshman year, I was pushing more toward water polo than swimming.
Why did you choose water polo over swimming?
The whole team aspect of it is really why I ended up choosing water polo. In swimming, I always found the relays more satisfying than the individual evens. So to be able to compete and win as a team, that really drew me in.
Tell me about Stanford. What was it like balancing national team training, collegiate training, academics, and college life in general?
It was definitely a challenge and pushed me to my limit. Thankfully, I got into the rhythm of college, and got into the academic side of things. I pretty much cut out every other social activity. School and water polo were just kind of my life. It was about really budgeting time, doing homework on airplanes. I definitely came away with some very intense time management skills, which was a good thing. I use them daily here!
What was it like returning to Stanford for your junior year, having won a silver medal at the 2000 Olympic Games?
It felt a little weird at first. Living in the [Olympic] Village for those weeks, you definitely start to feel like a celebrity. Everything's free there. All you have to do is put a token into the vending machines to get a drink – it was one of the biggest shocks.
[Back on campus,] it was like – what? I have to pay two dollars for a bottle of water now? I think I'd gotten a little used to minor celebrity status.
But the nice thing about school is, it knocks you down a level, makes you feel like a normal person. There's a nice routine to it.
Do you have a favorite Olympic moment?
The last game [in Athens]. Winning the bronze medal made for such a big '04. It had been a big challenge for us getting to that point. We were coming off a loss, and to win – that bronze in some ways means more than the silver [from Sydney].
After 2004, did you think about continuing to play?
After the Olympics, there was a possibility that I could find a professional job in Greece and play there. But I decided that long-term, I wasn't going to stick in coaching or stay in the water polo community in that respect.
I knew I wanted to do something pretty drastically different in my career. It was a good time to start making a transition into a job that would help me build skills for that career. Water polo was great in that it helped me develop some great skills, which have been really helpful. But playing professionally wasn't going to give me same skill set as at Boeing.
What was it like, transitioning from Olympic water polo player to Boeing engineer?
It was a bit of a shock. I was going from a very nontraditional work schedule, being outside and working out six hours a day, to being inside in front of a computer.
Not wearing a bathing suit six hours a day was a shock. I didn't have constant sunburns and skin damage anymore. Also, I could eat whatever I wanted as a water polo player, but that changed as I became more sedentary.
But I thought there were a lot of similarities, actually, in terms of how teams function and how to motivate the people I worked with.
Why did you make business school your next step?
At Stanford, I really liked the idea of engineering working on projects, building things. My job after the Olympics, working with Boeing, was a great chance to move into something in the engineering field. I think, though, I just found there that my strengths were more in the management project side of tech projects, not so much going in-depth into sticky engineering problems. I thought that an MBA would probably be the next step in increasing my skill set.
You've also been working as the assistant coach for Harvard's men's and women's water polo teams. How has balancing business school and coaching been?
When I got here, I knew I was never good at doing just one thing and would go crazy otherwise. I still really like water polo and want to be involved. Having been able to go to the Olympics, I want to give back to the sport a little. It's been great seeing how much the sport has grown on the East Coast.
Last year was definitely a little harder. It was a lot of getting used to being back in school, plus dealing with recruiting for the summer. Year two has actually been quite a lot easier, with a lot more free time. But I've tried to make it to all the practices and games. It's a nice break to be able to get in with them – also kind of my exercise.
[With the men's team,] they're a good group of guys and it is fun coaching the team. When I get in, they might push themselves some more – they don't want to get shown up by their older, female coach.
What's next for you?
Last summer, I was back in California, working in South San Francisco at Genentech. I really liked the company, the people – they were very smart and lots of fun to work with. At this point, I'm looking to stay in the health-care industry. I'd like to stay in an operating-type company hopefully helping to make products that help people live longer and better.
Any interest in playing Masters water polo?
Yes, once I settle down – hopefully in California – I'm definitely looking to stay involved that way. I'd like to lend whatever support I can to USA Water Polo, to help them go forward and continue improving their organization.
What did you think of the water polo at the Beijing Olympics?
It was incredible. It was especially awesome to see both the men and women now competing at that medal-round level at the Olympics. It's pretty outstanding to have a country be that strong internationally.
I was up late for that week and very sleep-deprived trying to watch real-time. It was kind of a weird feeling, not being able to control anything. I called up Jackie Frank, the goalie when I was on the team, and we'd rehash and replay the game the day after. It was definitely pretty thrilling.
Do you have any advice for young water polo players?
Definitely maintain a high level of aerobic conditioning – better water polo players are in really good shape. Stay involved in swimming, get involved with a year-long water polo program, whatever is going to keep you active. Keep working at it, and remember how important teamwork is!