Utsumi brings attention to women's water polo history


Kyle Utsumi participated in the growth of women's water polo in the Bay Area, coaching it at every level, including age group at the club level. When he talks, people listen.

Utsumi, who will begin a new chapter in his life this fall as an eighth-grade teacher at Woodside Priory, completed another chapter recently by detailing the rise of the sport and what it took to bring it to the attention of the American public.

Water polo had been part of the Olympics for 100 years before the women made their debut in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

In the years leading up to that first Olympics, girls had to play on boys' teams in high school, or practice alone.

A group of pioneers gathered together, among them Stanford grads Ellen Estes and Brenda Villa. They were venturing into unknown territory.

Utsumi, who lived it first-hand, tells their stories in "Sydney's Silver Lining," a book about the first Olympics to involve women's water polo and why that team is so important to the development of the game.

The book's release coincides with the opening of the Junior Olympics this weekend at venues all over Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, with over 100 teams of various age groups participating. Sixteen years later and the American women of 2000 remain an important stepping stone to how far the sport has grown.

"I grew up playing in age group leagues in Orange County from 10-under," Utsumi said. "Colleges started varsity programs between 1996-2002 in response to the Olympics. Instead of the bottom up, women's water polo expanded from the top down. Colleges prompted high schools, which introduced the need for 14U club programs."

Utsumi played water polo for a season at Stanford under coach Dante Dettamanti and then started coaching while finishing his degree. He first coaching job was with the Gunn junior varsity in the fall of 1995. He took over at Menlo School the following year, establishing a successful program before joining the Stanford coaching staff.

Utsumi maintains an involvement with the Stanford club program and has served in various roles for USA Water Polo.

It's important to note that while men's water polo has been an NCAA-sponsored sport since 1969, the first women's NCAA championship was held in 2001, nearly a year after the Olympics. Estes took time off from college and Villa delayed her entry into Stanford to train, with former UCLA coach Guy Baker, for the Olympics.

There were no guarantees that the U.S. would qualify for the Olympics as the pool of talented players was pretty slim at the time.

It took a determined group of players, which included a then 39-year-old Maureen O'Toole, one of the original members of the USA water polo program, established in 1978.

O'Toole, who came out of a three-year retirement to train with the national team in 1997, was named MVP of the women's national team 15 times and was honored as World Female Athlete of the Year six times.

Olympians Maggie Steffens, a two-time World Female Athlete of the Year, and Jessica Steffens, who coaches with the Stanford club team, are products of her influence through the Diablo club team.

"Our kids have to know about their heroes," Utsumi said. "It all starts at the club level, where you have a chance to watch the best. You have to look to learn where you come from."

It's a book that likely germinated in the lead-up to the 2000 Olympics but needed time to develop. From the perspective of watching this young program develop into a world power, Utsumi adds to the mystic of the 13 players who broke new ground and became heroes to thousands of young girls over the years.

Utsumi, who spent 11 months putting it all together, went back to interview all 13 players and added meticulous details.

"Each player added a layer to the story," Utsumi said. "It was fascinating how details came back to them. I hope this book is going to help put that team into a position they deserve. We are a dominant program that came from the lowest ranking we ever had to winning a gold medal in 2012 . This is what happens when you get the funds you need. It changed the way they trained."

Utsumi not only engages his readers in the drama of the Olympics but allows the players to tell their stories in a manner that gives the reader a sense of the individual and how they came together to work toward a common goal.

The book will be on sale throughout the junior Olympics, or can be purchased online at sydneysilverlining.

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Like this comment
Posted by KT Morace
a resident of The Greenhouse
on Jul 22, 2016 at 10:05 pm

A MUST read for all females who truly call themselves an athlete and especially a water polo athlete. This is a book that engaged me from beginning to end and read in one weekend. I can picture scenes in the book as it could be seen in a movie. Fantastic job and detailed documentation by Kyle. Oh and go USA in Rio!

Like this comment
Posted by Member
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 23, 2016 at 8:41 am

Didn't know anything about water polo but what a great read!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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