Catching Up with Marist Water Polo’s Chris Vidale

2017 UCSB Winter Invitational Water Polo
Photo Courtesy: Marist Athletics, Eric Isaacs/UCSB

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor.

Chris Vidale is a man on the go. When he’s not at home in Rhinebeck, New York, with his wife Betsey Armstrong—a two-time Olympic medalist (gold in 2012; silver in 2008)— and son Frankie, he’s commuting to Poughkeepsie where he is the head coach for the Marist College women’s water polo team. Or, he might be in California for the US Open of Water Polo tournament with the New York Athletic Club’s [NYAC] women’s team. You might even find him on the Greenwich YMCA pool deck on a Sunday morning, working with boys from Greenwich High School or Greenwich Aquatics, where he coached before taking the top job at Marist.

Clearly, wherever Vidale goes, water polo has something to do with it. A multi-sport athlete in high school, he got a scholarship to Iona College and caught the eye of Brian Kelly, men’s and women’s coach for the Gaels. Spending time in New Rochelle playing polo was extremely beneficial for the Apopka, Florida native. After playing four years at Iona, Vidale joined NYAC’s men’s team before switching to coach their women’s squad. From 2008-2012 he also competed for Trinidad and Tobago, where his parents were born.

Swimming World caught up with the peripatetic Vidale on his regular Poughkeepsie-to-Greenwich drive, where he spoke about Northeast polo, the differences between high school boys and college women, how hungry his Marist team is and what makes American women’s water polo great.

Michael Randazzo for Swimming World: Polo is primarily a West Coast sport. What makes Northeast water polo distinctive?

Chris Vidale: You have Harvard, you have Princeton, you have MIT. These are coveted schools. Having those in the mix where your kids can get a great education and play water polo is great.

The Northeast is gritty. It’s brutally honest. California is a different world. It’s both being laid back versus “we’re here to get things done, and this is how it’s going to happen.” From a water polo perspective, the Northeast is a different style, different people, the athletes come from a different educational standpoint.

It’s cool that West Coast kids get to share their experiences with East Coast kids and that’s important, but the East just brings a different variety. Out west you have Stanford being in that bubble of Harvard and Princeton, but there’s also very good schools out there, like Pomona-Pitzer, all those really good DIII schools that are strong academically.

But the Northeast just brings that in an entirely different way—you have to be part of that culture.

What is it like to coach in Greenwich, an Eastern hotbed of polo?

Greenwich is special because it has all the leaders of industry in one town and it’s crazy competitive, but nice, humble and welcoming at the same time. They want the best for their kid and only their kid—sometimes they’ll hide it and sometimes they won’t—but it’s clear that Greenwich is your perfect survival of the fittest place.

The only thing that Ulmis [Iordache, Greenwich Aquatics coach], myself, Jamie [Wolff] and the other [Greenwich] coaches get to think about is water polo. We might not have all the bodies that California has because you’re fighting other Northeast sports—baseball, football, lacrosse.

We have the blessing of only worrying about one sport all the time. We don’t need to be doing seven jobs just to make ends meet.

You went from coaching boys at Greenwich High School to women at Marist. How has that transition been?

Your high school boy might be a touch stronger than your college female, but as far as maturity goes they haven’t hit that final growth spurt. High school boys just want to throw the ball as hard as they can at the back of the net.

When you speak with female athletes they’ll take it, absorb it, try it and even after they get it, they’ll ask you a million other questions. Dialogue might be broken down and over thought but they at least acknowledge your presence instead of: “yellow ball, throw, net!”

Marist has lost to Wagner in the last three MAAC finals. How will the Red Foxes have a different outcome this season?

My team? They’re hungry, they want it. We talk about it, but casually. I don’t want them to think that Wagner is the only team we have to worry about. There’s seven other teams out there and if you go back two years Wagner was upset by Villanova out of nowhere, and last year my team was upset by Villanova in conference play.

Everybody at this level is pretty much the same. It comes down to who can think on their feet better and who can work under distress.

When your heart rate’s pumping, your coach is yelling or your teammates are upset, who will have the composure to do the right thing at the right time. Those are the things we talk about.


Photo Courtesy: Iona Athletics

This season you face Iona’s Brian Kelly—your former coach and mentor—from the pool’s opposite side as Marist coach.

I love Iona. You always hear from the Fordham and the Brooklyn [St. Francis College] guys that you know who the Iona knuckleheads are—and I love being an Iona guy. But now I’m super proud to be a Red Fox.

Brian was a huge advocate of me getting this position. Our relationship went from coach to working buddies to best friends. Brian has my back and I have his. We’re both super competitive and will both walk away from whatever happens in this game with a hug and a shake.

Of course, I want to win. There’s no doubt about that.

How is it to bring an Olympian to Marist practices?

[Betsey] is my volunteer coach. She’s super busy with the baby but takes time on Wednesdays to come and work out with the goalies. That’s huge from a recruiting aspect. There’s not too many people who can say they had a one-on-one situation with a two-time Olympian.

You can see when my wife comes to the pool with the baby the team is: “Oh my God, it’s Betsey, look at her!” There’s a respect that they give her which she rightfully has earned.

Ashleigh Johnson is an amazing goalie but my wife still statistically has some of the best records as well as accolades that she doesn’t have. I’m still willing to say that my wife might be the best in the world.

I hope none of the Greenwich kids ever took it for granted that they had the [world’s] premier goalie living a mile away from their home. She’d show up on a Saturday morning ready to work with them. That’s like getting to learn from Michael Jordan. It’s like a hockey player getting tips from [Henrik] Lundqvist.

America women dominate water polo like the Serbian men…

What the European men are doing for the sport is what the American women are doing [for polo].

In Europe, the opportunity for women to play isn’t as prominent as it is for the men. To be able to come to the States is a plus, as is [getting an American] education. And you have these women who have been competing against fantastic men and you can see… [I’ve watched] the Hungarian women and the way the move their shoulders when they throw the ball and they fake. They’ve been training with boys, you can tell.

The women are so successful here and the NCAA [creates] a big competition pool for women all over the world.

What sport will your son play?

If he plays a sport, I’d want it to be water polo. If he has both of our competitive natures—including my wife’s determination—I’d want him to play basketball because Daddy wants a new car!