Senior defender Chris Wendt, of the top-ranked UCLA men's water polo team talks about switching roles and becoming an upperclassman. He reflects on his time at UCLA, the contests and seasons that have shaped his game and his experience abroad in Russia this summer. Wendt discusses preseason training and the Bruins’ mentality entering the season. With an influx of youth on the team, Wendt, an All-American in 2012, prepares for his greatest season yet and hopes to break the recent streak of finishing runner-up at the NCAAs.
Bruin Blue: Tell us about the season. What have you been doing to prepare and what is the team’s mentality?
Chris Wendt: We are starting the season picked to finish fourth in the MPSF, which is a lower ranking than what we started with last year. It is definitely motivation. We started training in August with a lot of practices. We have been in the water as much as possible to tune up for the season. We played some warm-up games to get ready for the long stretch of the season and we won our first major tournament in Northern California. It’s a tough stretch of games from here on out, but we are excited to be back together as a team. I always make sure that I am in shape in the off-season and keep my shoulders healthy. You have to also mentally prepare and make sure that you are ready to compete when you get back in the water. By your fifth year, you know what to do and how to prepare for every season.
Bruin Blue: You are a returning All-American. How do you feel about taking on more of a leadership position, being a senior and guiding the incoming freshmen?
Chris Wendt: I am very excited to take on more of a leadership role this year. We have a lot of good, strong upperclassman including (senior) Lucas Reynolds. Our juniors are very strong as well, so this year we have developed a little bit of a new strategy since we have so many incoming freshmen. Each upperclassman took on a “little brother” since our ratio of upperclassman to freshman is about the same. We have four or five freshmen that are making an immediate impact, so it was very important in the first few weeks that we helped them understand the system. Every day we have a younger teammate coming up to us asking, “where is this” and “what do I do,” which is great for team chemistry. I believe that these relationships on the team are really going to help mold the younger players this year.
Bruin Blue: How do you think it will affect the team having so many younger players this season?
Chris Wendt: We have to keep a steady balance all year. The lows can’t be too low and the highs can’t be too high until the end of the year. We have to make sure the younger players know what’s important and what’s not, things that you should and should not care about. That is going to come from the older guys laying down the line and saying this is what is going to happen.
Bruin Blue: This summer the whole team has been traveling all over the world. Along with playing in some individual events, the team got together and represented the United States at the World University Games in Russia. Can you tell us how the summer experience helped prepare you for the season and what it was like playing internationally this summer?
Chris Wendt: Russia was a great advantage for us. We brought 15 guys over there to travel with the team and we placed fifth in the world. Thirteen of the players would suit up and it could include incoming freshmen. We included some younger guys that are playing this year and got them started early on with learning the system. We really got to start molding them, which is a major part of the team. It also gave the guys who did not travel an opportunity to play in tournaments and work on their game to get better. We sent seven guys to the Junior World Championships in Szombathely, Hungary, which is for guys 20 and under. They had a great group of guys go that had an equally great finish of fifth place. That made them better because they got to play against some of the best players in the world at their age range. Just before our season started was the first chance we had had to get back together as a team and it was really exciting to see everyone and hear about their success. We realize when we are all back together just how good we really can be.
Bruin Blue: In the last two seasons you have lost to USC by one goal in the NCAA championship match. What have you learned from those games and how does that help you as an individual prepare for the season?
Chris Wendt: I am thinking about that last game and goal every day. As a team, we all think about the same thing. It is a pretty easy motivation; just visualizing the letters USC in your head makes your mind think. It makes you want to play and go harder in practice. It is motivation every day. I have been a runner-up three times now and I am not trying to do it again. I am really looking forward to the season and the NCAA Championship.
Bruin Blue: Who are your mentors in and out of the pool?
Chris Wendt: I really look up to our coach, Adam Wright. I think he is an unbelievable mentor. His first year as head coach was my first year on the team. It’s great to watch him grow and he has really turned into someone I would like to be like. My dad is also a great mentor who I would really like to be like. He played water polo in college and I really respect him. I also look up to all the guys on the team, and past teammates. I feel like we all have similar goals and we push each other all the time. Those qualities are qualities that I hope I have that I can push the other guys on the team to go further than we ever have before.
Bruin Blue: In what areas can the team improve this season?
Chris Wendt: I think we have gotten a lot better at our communication and using our words in the pool. There are only six of us on defense and we have used our words to fill the space in the pool so that we feel like someone is present in between all of us when we are communicating. I think we can get better and have more guys communicating in the pool and overall our skill level could get better. Our defense needs to pick it up a little. When our defense is on, we can beat any team in the country.
Bruin Blue: Talk to us a little bit about your position on defense. What kind of mindset is that, taking a backseat from scoring goals?
Chris Wendt: I am totally ok with not being up front and scoring goals. I really like to communicate when I am in the water and direct people. I try to get everyone to fill his role in the pool plus a little bit extra. When you are in the water you are directing someone to do his job. My role is to make sure that what I do is the best, plus help everyone do the best they can in their own roles.
Bruin Blue: In and out of the pool you guys are so close. What makes you have such a great bond?
Chris Wendt: It’s the way that Adam recruits. He won’t take players that don’t fit in with the team. He recruits so well that instantly when a player gets here, there is really no age gap because we can all get along together and hang out. We have so many inside jokes and memories. We are with each other all the time so we have to make sure that we get along together really well. We have taken team trips and gotten together on a break. That really makes us closer.
Bruin Blue: During your time here at UCLA, what has been your most memorable experience?
Chris Wendt: My most memorable experience in athletics has been playing in the national championship game twice. Last year was quite the run and was one of the most fun seasons I have had throughout my playing career. It was an awful way to end it, but it was a great way to motivate us for this season. Out of the pool, my best moments are with the team. Whether we are in the pool or out, we always have such a great time and I will always remember that.
Bruin Blue: What do you want to do after you graduate? Would you like to stay in water polo?
Chris Wendt: I am not really sure yet. I would possibly like to play professionally and go overseas. After that I hope to take my degree and use it. Right now I would just like to travel and see where the wind takes me.