Five Questions for Natalie Benson, Head Women’s Water Polo Coach at Fresno State

bulldogs_all-jan19
Head Coach Natalie Benson and her Bulldogs are all in on a new season. Photo Courtesy: Keith Kountz (Fresno State Athletics)

Editor’s Note: The 2019 NCAA women’s water polo season officially opened on Saturday, January 12th with the ASU Invitational at Arizona State. Swimming World will provide previews of the seven varsity conferences—Big West, Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA), Golden Coast Conference (GCC), Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) and Western Water Polo Association (WWPA)—that will send teams to the 2019 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament.

Rankings refer to the CWPA Women’s Varsity Preseason Poll that was released on January 16th.

Eager to take on new challenges, Natalie Benson—mom, Olympic athlete, NCAA Division I coach—has embraced one of the biggest challenges in her illustrious career: building a women’s water polo program from scratch in her native California.

fsu-logo

Now entering her second year as head coach for Fresno State, the two-time Olympian—including the 2008 Beijing Games, where Team USA claimed a silver medal—has quickly established the Bulldogs as a program on the rise. In 2018, her inaugural group of athletes achieved significant milestones, including a signature win over DIII power Pomona-Pitzer, a first-ever conference win over Golden Coast Conference rival Santa Clara, a GCC tournament win over Concordia and a top-25 ranking in the CWPA Women’s Varsity Poll.

This season, there’s more success to come, and Benson—a three-time NCAA champion with UCLA (2001, 2002, 2005) as well as a Peter J. Cutino Award winner in 2005—is the right person to lead this neophyte program. After coaching Marist from 2014 to 2016, a tenure that included a 2015 regular-season Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) championship, she has the experience to make the Bulldogs competitive in the tough GCC.

Prior to Fresno State’s opener tomorrow at the UCSB Invite in Santa Barbara, Swimming World had five questions for Benson about her time as a coach, Olympian and mom to children Elise and Claire.

– You’re through you first season as Bulldogs coach; what was memorable?

What wasn’t memorable?  A season full of firsts!

benson-celebrate-jan19

Benson, her players celebrate early success. Photo Courtesy: Keith Kountz (Fresno State Athletics)

It was a tremendous opportunity to start a program; one that I am incredibly proud to be a part of. It’s rare to be part of the start of something, and it has been fun to recruit and work with young women who can see the potential that our coaching staff and administration sees here in Fresno. We are lucky to have a supportive athletic and academic administration, and to be able to represent the entire Valley through how we play our game, as well as how we conduct ourselves in the classroom and outside the pool.

There have, however, been many hair-pulling, eye-twitching moments—not always kittens & unicorns. Having a group of 12 freshmen, three seniors, and zero athletes who have played within our system/program was frustrating at times, and the challenge of teaching everyone practically everything about how to play this game at this level gave me incredible perspective. Ultimately, I have seen this as a challenge and an opportunity to grow, as that is how we ask our athletes to see this process of college water polo.

Hopefully, we have been able to model that for them.

Specifically memorable moments are our first goal scored by Gabby Wiltse, our first goalie save by Mackenzie Richards, our first win against Cal State Northridge in Santa Barbara, our first home game vs. Fresno Pacific where over 800 people showed up to support Central Valley water polo, and even Bekah [Groteguth] and Trystyn’s [Vuori] first flight (ever) to Phoenix for our competition at ASU. Watching team cheers through their development stages, seeing which athletes step up to take ownership of this fledgling program

Watching these young women grow up right in front of our eyes is why I do this job. Being able to teach them how to be tough in a tough world, while also providing safety and trust. Teaching them how to compete, lead, communicate, and how to believe in something bigger than one person. This has already been such a formative experience for all involved, myself included. It’s an honor to be in this position.

– Now in Year Two, what do you expect from your team?

I’m looking forward to this year. We have a very difficult schedule, but it is one through which we will grow exponentially, and provide the necessary experience that we need.  I expect them to learn from their mistakes and to buy into what we are trying to build by modeling that attitude when we train and when we compete.  I expect them to push each other in training and take ownership of the program.

– You’re a two-time Olympian; how does that experience playing at the highest level provide as perspective for your team?

I feel that people see Olympians and immediately think of how getting to that level, or even trying, is unattainable. When we watch the Olympics, all we see are the success stories, the champions being crowned atop the podium. We hear glorified stories of these driven people, and don’t see how hard they work, the hours they put into training, and the hard lessons and failures that they have endured. We assume that they were born to achieve things, and that what they achieved was some sort of destiny as opposed to hard work, grit, and determination. We don’t see their humanity.

Benson during her playing days in 2006

Playing at the highest level gave me a deep respect for our game, and how high the standards are for the people who choose to play it. My standards as a coach do not exceed those of the game, and if you respect the game, it will respect you. There are a lot of wonderful life parallels that our sport offers, and my Olympic experience has helped me form my value set that I try to share with my team. Ultimately, my athletes know that I’ve done what I’m asking them to do, which makes what they are asked to do a bit more palatable. I want them to see what we do every day as something that is achievable, and not just achievable for Olympians.

– You spent three years coaching Marist on the East Coast; what’s different now that you’re back West? What’s the same (besides the water)?

Well, I don’t have to scrape ice off the car anymore, but I do miss the first snowfall of winter and fall in the Hudson Valley.  Marist was a wonderful experience for me, and I respect and appreciate the school and Tim Murray for giving me the opportunity to launch my collegiate coaching career.

Moving from Southern California to the East Coast with a 3 year-old and 5 month-old was a challenge, but one I’m glad I had.

benson-line-up-jan19

The Bulldog victory line. Photo Courtesy: Keith Kountz (Fresno State Athletics)

Being back out west is nice, as we are closer to family, and traveling during season is a bus ride rather than a flight. Now that my kids are getting older, I want to be able to attend as many games/events/recitals as I can and being in California for competition makes that more attainable.

– There’s a lot of talk about changing NCAA rules to make for a faster game; what do you make of these proposed changes?

Not sure I’ve heard these conversations—FINA changed their rules, but the NCAA has not had that discussion quite yet.  The rules committee will get coach feedback in the next rules change year to see what kind of changes they want to see in the collegiate game moving forward.