Natalie Benson defined herself as a world-class water polo competitor. After all, she won medals at the Summer Olympics Games of 2004 and 2008, and led University of California, Los Angeles to its first undefeated season.
Now, Benson has her sights set on another goal: defining herself as a coach as she builds the Fresno State women’s water polo team from scratch.
“I did what I did as a player and that’s over, and I don’t really want to be defined or remembered by what I did as a player,” Benson said. “I think now in this new phase in my life as a coach I want to be known for what I do as a coach and for how I can contribute as a coach and the change we can make within our sport and in this program.”
As passionate as Benson is about water polo, that wasn’t always the case. It was all about softball, when she first started her athletic career.
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With encouragement from her older brother as well as coaches, she began training in water polo, thinking it would benefit her softball career.
The 35 year-old La Habra native said she decided to fully commit to water polo as a junior in high school, which led to her signing a letter of intent to play for UCLA.
In what would have been her senior year, Benson left UCLA to join the U.S. Olympic team. She won a bronze medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics Games in Athens, Greece.
The following year, she returned to finish her senior year at UCLA, leading the Bruins to a 33-0 record. After her final year of collegiate eligibility, Benson became the undergraduate assistant coach at UCLA — helping to guide the Bruins to their fourth NCAA title.
But graduating from college didn’t mean her athletic career was over. She returned to the U.S. Olympic team, which earned her silver medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
During her years on the U.S. team, Benson had some spare time while she wasn’t full-time training, so she started working with local water polo clubs doing private lessons, clinics and traveling throughout the country to work with different kids.
It was at this point that Benson fell in love with coaching.
“At first it was a way to make extra money then turned into me seeing these kids and me saying I should take my own advice on some of the feedback I am giving them,” Benson said. “It made me a better player because I really had to think about what I was doing and how to articulate how to perform a certain skill to someone else. It made me a better athlete because I was really thinking about what I was doing as opposed to just doing what I was told.”
In August 2008, Benson retired from playing water polo. She continued to coach, returning to her alma mater of Rosary High School in Fullerton — leading to her first head collegiate coaching job at Marist College in New York.
In her third year at Marist College, Benson said Jim Bartko, the director of athletics at Fresno State, contacted her to apply for the position of head coach for the Fresno State women’s water polo team.
“It fits me and my personality,” Benson said about Fresno State. “The marriage between the academic institution of Fresno State and the athletic department, and having that support of Dr. Castro and Jim Bartko and everyone working together for the student and for the community, I think that was something that really got me excited about coming here,” Benson said.
Benson knows that she isn’t a lone ranger as she builds the Fresno State women’s water polo team. Not only does the assistant coach have strong ties to the Central Valley, but a history of working with Benson.
Caitlin Haskell has an impressive résumé. She played four years on the varsity team at Buchanan High School and continued collegiately at the University of California, Irvine.
The 27-year-old Fresno native met Benson while they were coaching at the Olympic Development Program in Huntington Beach. Haskell then became an assistant coach at University of Michigan.
Benson said Haskell was the first person who came to mind when she needed to hire an assistant coach.
“She’s born and raised in Fresno, went to Buchanan High [School], she’s easy to work with, she knows what she’s doing, she’s a grinder, she’s from the Central Valley, she’s a worker …” Benson said.
“A lot of people want to support us because of Caitlin and the person she is,” she continued. “It speaks volumes for her to come from Michigan to Fresno State. It’s her hometown and she gets to pay it forward, but also she gets to be a part of that legacy as well.”
Haskell said she’s grateful for getting the chance to work with Benson again.
“She correlates really well with the blue collar-vibe of a hard working athlete. If you look at her career as an athlete, she knows how to work and she knows how to grind,” Haskell said. “I’m fortunate that I get to sit next to her and see how she process this all.”
Benson said she’s excited about starting a program from the ground up.
“It’s a daunting task to a lot of people, and some people question why I would want to do that, but even before I got into coaching in college people would ask, ‘do you want to coach college’ and I would say yes, that sounds fun and they would ask what my dream school was and I didn’t have one,” Benson said. “I always thought of schools that didn’t have programs yet and how starting a new program would be really fun and great for the sport.”
Benson has emphasized recruiting in the Central Valley.
“The school added water polo for this community and for the Central Valley, so I would be remiss if I didn’t bring kids from the Valley here because this is their home,” Benson said. “Also, a lot of people, down south especially, have that attitude that Fresno can be a second-rate place and they are wrong. I think that it’s important that we have kids who are from here that want to fight for their hometown, for the community and for their families.”
Drew Clute, founder and coach at the Clovis-based Royal 559 Water Polo Academy, said Benson has already recruited four club players who have signed letters of intent.
Clute worked with Benson last summer at a water polo competition in Canada. Clute was the men’s coach and Benson was the women’s coach.
When he heard Benson was coming to Fresno State, Clute said he rolled out the welcome mat.
“I’m really impressed with her,” Clute said. “Not only her knowledge for the game, but how she articulates things, the way she uses metaphor and adjectives to describe what she’s trying to communicate — whether it be a technical or tactical approach to something.”
He continuted: “There’s a lot of really good and smart people out there but I think what makes her a good coach is you have to be a good teacher. If she wanted to step away from water polo and go teach in a classroom, she would be a phenomenal teacher.”
Clute praised the new program and the opportunities that will come for young women in the Central Valley.
“To have a women’s D-I sport coached by someone like Natalie who is going to quickly turn this program, especially with the conference they are in, they are going to be contending in a matter of a few years for their conference title and that’s an auto bid into NCAA’s,” Clute said. “For young girls in the Clovis area to be able to drive 10 minutes to Fresno State to watch a game, it is going to be phenomenal to have them exposed to that level of play and that professionalism in our sport and to give them role models.”
Clute added that excitement about Fresno State’s new program is growing.
“There is so much incredible community support for this and it is very impressive and unbelievable,” Clute said. “You have people from all areas in Fresno and Clovis, male, female, old and young, whether they have a kid playing or not they want to help and support and it’s really impressive.”
Benson said she hopes to produce a winning culture.
“Field a competitive team is first and foremost,” Benson said. “I’m excited about some of the kids we have signed and the girls who have committed to come. They’re taking a big leap of faith and they are brave for that. I respect them for what they are taking on and for putting the program on their back,”
Haskell said her and Benson’s goals for the new program are to develop good people as well as winning student-athletes.
“For Natalie and I, it’s about instilling life lessons and empowering an athlete to go out and become a great member of society. But aside of building a great culture, we want to instill a winning culture,” Haskell said. “Within a few years we want to be winning in our conference, we want to be a top contender.”
Benson said she hopes the new program will help grow the sport.
“Water polo is huge here and I think it’s underrepresented. Our club system is in its infancy and needs to grow based on the caliber of athletes we have in the area. And now that we have a collegiate team, I think a lot of people are getting really excited about the possibility of potentially playing here or even just supporting the sport that they love in their home town,” Benson said.
Benson is impressed with the pride and spirit that goes with Fresno State Athletics.
“Having that pride of where you are from and represent — a lot of places don’t have that. A lot of people aren’t proud of where they are from. The people in Fresno are amazing fans, the Red Wave is awesome. I think it’s nice to have the people who genuinely care about your program and what’s going on.”
Highlights from Natalie Benson’s Career
▪ Member of three NCAA water polo championship teams during four seasons playing at UCLA
▪ Awarded the American Water Polo Coaches Association Player of the Year, 2005
▪ Named the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Conference Player of the Year, 2005
▪ NCAA Tournament MVP, 2005
▪ NCAA first tournament team, 2005
▪ Career 158 goals was third-most in UCLA history
▪ Awarded the Peter J. Cutino Award, given to the Association of Collegiate Water Polo Coaches National Player of the Year, 2005
▪ Earned a bronze medal in water polo at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece
▪ Earned a silver medal in water polo at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China
▪ Head coach at Marist College, New York
▪ 56-49 overall record
▪ Led team to a 31-7 record in the MAAC (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) and Championship, 2015
▪ Two-time MAAC Coach of the Year
▪ Named to USA Water Polo Hall of Fame, 2015
▪ Named to the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame, 2016
Provided by Fresno State Athletics