Betsey Armstrong: The Road to Gold

Everything worth having comes in due time. At least that is the mantra Hudson Valley resident Elizabeth “Betsey” Armstrong subscribed to when she embarked on her water polo career. She spoke at Starr Library in Rhinebeck to discuss her journey on Feb. 17.

Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, playing water polo was certainly not the primary aspiration young athletes had. However, watching her sister play in high school made her want to jump in the pool as well.

“Seeing my older sister play goalie definitely influenced me,” Armstrong said.

 Armstrong spoke at Rhinebeck’s Starr Library on Feb 17.

Armstrong spoke at Rhinebeck’s Starr Library on Feb 17.

It was only a matter of time before Betsey was treading water and blocking shots in front of the net, just like her older sister. Water polo’s popularity is scarce in the United States with the exception of California, but this played well into Armstrong’s hand.

As she began to turn the heads of college scouts with her 6’2” frame, athleticism and natural ability, scholarship offers poured in from the top-ranked schools in the country. Not surprisingly, among them were UCLA, UC Berkeley and the University of California.

Despite the notoriety and hype that attending a California school may have provided, Armstrong elected to stay near home and attend the University of Michigan. The jump from high school to the collegiate level for Betsey was seamless, just as coaches expected.

Armstrong acted as a brick wall in the net throughout college. By the time she was a sophomore in 2003, just three years after the inception of the USA National Women’s Team in the Sydney Summer Olympics, she was invited to join. For Armstrong, however, her pursuit of a Bachelor’s Degree was something she was very serious about.

“I declined several invitations from the national team prior to the 2004 games in Athens,” she said. “I wanted to get a job and write when I graduated.”

In 2005, she left Michigan with a degree in English and literature. While there, she set the record for career saves with 350, a record that remains unbroken. After graduating, Armstrong spent a year pursuing a career, but things were moving in slow-motion and the thought of competing at the Olympics crept back into her mind.

Thinking back to it, Armstrong remembered saying to herself, “Maybe I wish I had continued this water polo thing.”

Still 23-years-old and in phenomenal shape, Armstrong opted to capitalize on an opportunity to make the national team and train for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 — a decision she would not regret. She made the team, which meant rigorous training had to begin as soon as possible.

The regimen? Seven- to eight-hour conditioning routines with early morning lifts and non-stop conditioning. After all, treading water for 48 minutes of regulation time in a match is not an easy feat.

“I thought about quitting more often than you would expect,” she said. “We once trained in a lake that had water snakes. We saw their heads bob out of the water while we felt the slimy ground on our feet.”

The adverse conditions and challenge of getting into shape wound up paying off. This helped Armstrong prepare to compete at the highest level, and she wasted no time. Her list of accomplishments during that period include:

FINA World League in Cosenza, Italy, First place
FINA World Cup in Tianjin, China, Fourth place
Holiday Cup in Los Alamitos, CA, First place

FINA World Championships in Melbourne, Australia, First place
FINA World League in Montréal, Canada, First place
Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, First place

Finally, the time came to go for the gold in Beijing. The team won their bracket and surged through the semifinals into the gold medal game against Holland. Armstrong and Team USA stumbled out of the gate, facing a 4–0 deficit at halftime. No strangers to adversity, the team came back to tie the score at eight with seconds remaining. As time ticked off the clock, however, Holland was awarded a penalty shot after a controversial call.

After endless hours of training, everything came down to one moment: Armstrong needed to make a save and force overtime to keep Team USA’s gold medal hopes alive. The referee handed the ball to the shooter and blew the whistle. The shot whizzed past the outstretched arm of Armstrong. Game over.

“I couldn’t watch that game for four years,” Armstrong said with pain in her voice. “It took me four years to work through it.” Nothing short of crushed, Armstrong and the rest of her team had to continue to work hard and finish the job when the 2012 London Olympics rolled around. Team USA carried roughly half of their roster from 2008 into 2012 and remained favorites to win gold with their core group of players.

In 2012, Team USA tied with Spain for first place in their bracket and wound up settling for second, as they lost the tie-breaker due to goal differential. In the quarterfinal, they defeated Italy, 9-6. In the semifinal match-up against Australia, which many thought would turn out to be the gold medal game, Team USA was up by one goal in the final minutes.

Just like in Beijing, a late penalty shot was awarded and Armstrong was tested again. The shot steamed past her and into the back of the net, forcing overtime. Armstrong remained cool, calm and collected, posting a shutout beyond regulation to push Team USA to another chance at a gold medal.

On Aug. 9, 2012, Team USA faced Spain in what was likely Armstrong’s last chance at the gold. This time, things were different. A commanding 8-3 lead at halftime never slipped away. Finally, the difficult journey for Betsey Armstrong ended with a gold medal hanging around her neck. 

 Armstrong’s gold medal from the London 2012 Summer Olympics.

Armstrong’s gold medal from the London 2012 Summer Olympics.

Armstrong elected to retire from water polo in 2014 at the age of 31, but winning the gold still remains fresh in her memory. “It was one of the biggest moments of my entire career,” she said. “I cancelled my athlete health insurance, started coaching and got to go to the White House to meet President Obama, but it was hard to find a purpose after winning a gold medal.”

Armstrong resides in Rhinebeck with her husband, Chris Vidale, the Head Coach for Marist College Women’s Water Polo. She helps out with coaching duties on the side and takes science courses at Marist. She also teaches yoga classes at Marist and the Culinary Institute of America. This is something that helped her get through harsh days of training in murky lakes with water snakes.

Armstrong and Vidale are new parents with their two-year-old son, Frankie. Finally, after all this time, Betsey Armstrong has achieved it all — and even gained a newfound sense of purpose.

Dom Muccilo