Betsey Armstrong, considered the best goalie in Michigan history, kicked off this weekend’s NCAA water polo tournament with a speech to all the players in participation.
Her advice: “Embrace the college experience.”
Armstrong has been busy with the national team preparing for the FINA World Championships in Shanghai this summer, but she was able to find time to return to Ann Arbor for a weekend. Although her alma mater Michigan isn’t in the final rounds of the tournament, Armstrong visited family, ate at local restaurants and watched the three-round championship playoff.
She also reconnected with her former coach, Amber Drury-Pinto, who recruited her from Huron High School in Ann Arbor and coached her during her freshman year, as well as current Michigan coach Matt Anderson, who coached her for the remainder of her college career.
Though Armstrong has been playing for the national team for the past five years — guiding it to two world championships and a silver medal in the 2008 Olympics — her time in college was certainly intense and memorable and an experience that she has cherished more with time.
“I miss being a student-athlete greatly,” she said during an informal press conference on Friday. “I miss being in school. The longer you’re away from college, the more you want to go back, I guess.”
When Armstrong graduated in 2005, she had set program records for career saves (1,267), minutes (3,329), goals-against average (5.64) and save percentage (.654). Many of her records still stand today — her 24-save performance against Indiana in 2004 hasn’t even been approached seven seasons later.
Armstrong described how her duties as a four-year starter and student-athlete took a toll on her mentally. She said she was burnt out when she left Michigan, and she needed to take a year off before joining the national team.
“It’s funny — I think that if I had gone straight into playing for the national team immediately after playing for Michigan, I would have had a totally different experience,” she said.
Anderson noted that the transition from the varsity level in college to world-class can be tough, especially for someone as highly touted as Armstrong was when she graduated.
“When you are considered one of the best in the world, that’s a lot of pressure, and people don’t think about it,” Anderson said. “Michael Jordan had more pressure on him than anybody else … that’s a lot of pressure that every game you have to be the best in the world. It was tough for (Armstrong) initially coming out of college. She took some time off, and now she’s got a grip on it.”
Anderson and Armstrong have been able to stay in touch through the years. Armstrong regularly follows the Michigan team, and she calls up her former coach “probably at least once a month or so … if I need advice.”
For Anderson, Armstrong remains the benchmark for excellence as a student-athlete. It’s difficult for him to get through a season without making at least several references to her.
In March, when asked about how his 2011 team compared with any of his previous teams, Anderson gave a several-minute-long analysis before he paused and became momentarily wistful.
“I will take any team with Betsey Armstrong on it,” he said.