INTERVIEW: Chris Vidale, Marist Water Polo Head Coach

2017 UCSB Winter Invitational Water Polo

Chris Vidale is a man on the go. When he’s not at home in Rhinebeck, New York, with his wife Betsey Armstrong—a two-time Olympic medalist (gold in 2012; silver in 2008)— and son Frankie, he’s commuting to Poughkeepsie where he is the head coach for the Marist College women’s water polo team. Or, he might be in California for the US Open of Water Polo tournament with the New York Athletic Club’s [NYAC] women’s team. You might even find him on the Greenwich YMCA pool deck on a Sunday morning, working with boys from Greenwich High School or Greenwich Aquatics, where he coached before taking the top job at Marist.

Clearly, wherever Vidale goes, water polo has something to do with it. A multi-sport athlete in high school, he got a scholarship to Iona College and caught the eye of Brian Kelly, men’s and women’s coach for the Gaels. Spending time in New Rochelle playing polo was extremely beneficial for the Apopka, Florida native. After playing four years at Iona, Vidale joined NYAC’s men’s team before switching to coach their women’s squad. From 2008-2012 he also competed for Trinidad and Tobago, where his parents were born.

Prior to opening MAAC conference play this weekend, Total Waterpolo contributor Michael Randazzo caught up with the peripatetic Vidale. The Red Foxes coach spoke about Northeast polo, the differences between high school boys and college women, motivating his new team and what makes American women’s water polo the world’s best.

How have your experiences impacted the attitude and passion you bring to your coaching?

I’m overly competitive, but in a passive aggressive way. I don’t want to show my emotions too much in anything I’m doing. I think athletes in general feed off of that. You definitely can control the pace of the game for yourself and for your team. I try to stay as cool as possible.

Water polo has given me pretty much my life. The majority of my friends are water polo players. I met my wife through water polo. My career is water polo. It’s always been a part of my life.

Something when I didn’t think you could make a career out of, something I still wasn’t ready to give up and I just wanted to be a part of it as much as possible. That was coaching part time, which turned into coaching full time which turned into being the head coach of Marist.

What makes Northeast water polo distinctive and even appealing?

Coming from Florida, I went to go play water polo at Iona, I didn’t even get to visit Iona because a snow storm happened that weekend. Then I got busy and everything else just kind of happened and they sent me my package and [it] said: “You’re in.”

The Northeast is gritty, it’s brutally honest. From a water polo perspective, the Northeast is a different style, different people, the athletes come from a different educational standpoint.

What makes the it special is that you have Harvard, you have Princeton, you have MIT. These are coveted schools, not to mention others. Having those in the mix where your kids can get a great education and play water polo, is great. It’s cool that West Coast kids get to share their experiences with some East Coast kids but the East just brings a different variety. Out west you have Stanford being in that bubble of Harvard and Princeton, but there’s also very good schools out there, like Pomona-Pitzer, that are really good DIII schools that are academically strong, but the Northeast just brings that in an entirely different way.

Vidale in Action for Iona

What was it like to play at Iona?

I was the first to go to college in my family. Being from Trinidad and Tobago college was a whole process that was just unknown. I had no knowledge that this [SAT] score can get you into one school or that score can get you into another.

I was an unknown athlete and Brian Kelly took a chance on me and I took a chance on him. It was a good vibe and a good feeling and it worked out for the better. I mean, could I have gone to a different school? Looking back, having the knowledge I have now, of course, but Iona was the perfect place for me then and who knows if I picked Johns Hopkins or something just because it had a different educational status in the world, would I have been as happy or as successful?

Talk about coaching at Greenwich — now one of the top youth polo locations in the country?

Greenwich is special because it has all the leaders of the industry in one town and it’s so crazy competitive, but nice, humble and welcoming at the same time. They do want the best for their kid and only their kid absolutely, sometimes they’ll hide it and sometimes they won’t, but it’s clear that Greenwich is like your perfect survival of the fittest place.

What Greenwich did really well was they sought out the best coaches possible and I think they got that product. I got the chance to work with Ulmis [Iordache, head coach Greenwich Aquatics] and I remember when I first met him, I just thought, “What is this dude doing? He’s screaming his head off.” It takes a special kid to learn under that situation because they’re kids—they’re emotional and things like that, so the one thing I always tell the kids that are always worried about getting yelled at is “find the message.”

Ulmis’s message is always there. He’s super intelligent, he loves the sport, he’s super passionate and his passion is the one thing that resonates through the whole town.

The only thing that Ulmis and myself and Jamie [Woolf] and the other coaches get to think about is water polo. That’s a blessing. We might not have all the bodies that California has because you’re fighting other sports and other competitive things are happening in the Northeast—baseball, football, lacrosse. We have the blessing of only worrying about one sport and one thing all the time. We don’t need to be doing seven jobs just to make ends meet.

You went from coaching boys at Greenwich High School to women at Marist. How has that transition been?

Your high school boy might be a touch stronger than your college female, but as far as maturity goes they haven’t hit that final growth spurt. High schools boys just want to throw the ball as hard as they can at the back of the net.

Even at Greenwich, I loved coaching the boys but I always felt more connected with the females. I don’t know if it’s personalities but when you talk to a boy, you have to say it seven million times. And then they’ll get it.

When you’re speaking with a female athlete they’ll take it, absorb it, try it and even after they get it, they’ll ask you a million other questions. Dialogue might sometimes be broken down and over thought but at least they are acknowledging your presence instead of: “yellow ball, throw, net!”

Don’t get me wrong! The boys game is faster, it’s more exciting, but the passion that the women bring and—instead of it being like: “throw it to the big person” in the men’s game—you have to earn every inch of the water with the women. It’s like a mini chess match and that part is really fun.

Photo Courtesy: Marist Athletics, Eric Isaacs/UCSB

Marist has lost to Wagner in the last three MAAC finals. How will the Red Foxes achieve a different outcome this season?

Marist hasn’t won a MAAC [title] in six years. Wagner has had it for the last three years and the previous years before —back-to-back-to-back similar to Wagner—it’s been Iona. I had the good fortune to be on the Iona staff when we won the first three, and I think that’s part of why a was good hire [for Marist]. I know the MAAC; I’ve been in the MAAC for the past seven years. I know the competition, the coaches, the playing field, the venues and all.

My team? They’re hungry, they want it. We talk about it, but very casually. I don’t want them to think that Wagner is the only team we have to worry about. There’s seven other teams out there and if you go two years back Wagner was upset by Villanova out of nowhere and last year my team also was upset by Villanova in one of our conference plays.

Everybody at this level is pretty much the same. It comes down to who can think on their feet better and who can work under distress. When your heart rate’s pumping, your coach is yelling or your teammates are upset, who will have the composure to do the right thing at the right time. Those are the things we talk about.

I’ve watched the MAAC Championship the last three years and I have three seniors [Amanda Amorosa, Jocelyn McQuaid, Nastassia McGlothlin] that have been to the championship [those years] and haven’t won. When I took over the program the first thing I did was—after watching all the video [from past MAAC championship matches]—I made drills and I would call it that athlete’s name on what they messed up on.

We have one drill where they do “Dianna’s move”. D could have scored a goal in this situation, or Jocelyn could have scored in that situation.

Finally, during preseason camp we were having lunch and I said we’re going to watch last year’s MAAC Championship game. Once they started watching they were like: “Oh, that’s D’s move. We see why she didn’t score.”

I think that was a good turning point for us because all the repetition and the things I was saying—at first I think they thought I was bad-mouthing them—but I was trying to show: “If you had put yourself in this position, it could have been a goal or that could have been goal defended.”

It’s the little things that you really want to do right the first time. It’s taking that extra step and that’s what I’m trying to get across to these young ladies right now.

Later this month you’ll face Iona’s Brian Kelly—your mentor and former coach—from the opposite side of the pool as Marist coach.

I wake up in the morning and I see a couple of Iona shirts and I go to put them on and realize I can’t do that [anymore].

I love Iona. You always hear from the Fordham, and the Brooklyn [St. Francis] guys that you know who the Iona knuckleheads are—and I love being an Iona guy. But I’m now super proud to be a Red Fox.

Brian was a huge advocate of me getting this position. Our relationship went from coach to working buddies to best friends. Brian has my back and I have his. We’re both super competitive and will both walk away from whatever happens in this game with a hug and a shake.

Of course, I want to win. There’s no doubt about that.

They have a great group of young ladies; they’re awesome. I enjoyed coaching them. They definitely were a big part of my success that’s happening now. I appreciate everything that Iona has brought to my life.

How is it to bring an Olympian to Marist practices?

[Betsey] is my volunteer coach. She’s super busy with the baby but takes time on Wednesdays to come and work out with the goalies. That’s huge from a recruiting aspect. There’s not too many people who can say they had a one-on-one situation with a two-time Olympian who has a gold and a silver medal.

You can see when my wife comes to the pool with the baby the team is: “Oh my God, it’s Betsey, look at her!” There’s a respect that they give her which she rightfully has earned.

Ashleigh Johnson is an amazing goalie but my wife still statistically has some of the best records as well as accolades that she doesn’t have. I’m still willing to say that my wife might be the best in the world.

You also coached the New York Athletic Club’s women’s team.

The New York Athletic Club has offered up so many opportunities as far as coaching high-level athletes. I get to coach Kami Craig, Kaleigh Gilchrist, KK Clark, Melissa Seidemann—and those are just the most recent Olympians that have come through. You also have National Team players Tanya Gandy, Lolo Silver, Kelly Eaton, Erika Figge—the list goes on.

I feel like it’s an awards show. I get the opportunity to coach these phenomenal athletes who have so much knowledge that I get to learn from day in and day out.

My favorite part of coaching NYAC is when we’re at Nationals I call a timeout, I’ll say my bit, then someone will say their bit, then another. I can just take a step back.

They’ll look at me and say: “What do you think Chris?” and I’m like” Yeah, that all sounds awesome.” Sometimes it feels like I’m there to tell the next person to go in and call a couple of timeouts. It’s such a finely-tuned machine. And that’s what I’m working for with Marist.

I want my players to be able to take the tools, survey the situation, and decide on their own. You need to be able to read and adjust [to situations].

2017 UCSB Winter Invitational Water Polo

Why is now a good time for water polo to grow at all levels?

One thing for players that are coming up; having access to college is important. It’s so crazy competitive that you need that extra inch and I think water polo helps a lot of people with [college] applications.

You want your kid to go to the best school possible and if your kid list fencing or something else [distinctive] on their application that’s something that colleges will want to see. I know at Marist when it comes to my recruiting we have a new president and he’s really big on diversity, especially from an international perspective. Even from an American standpoint he wants students from all over the country. He doesn’t want them to come just from the Northeast.

To bring in someone from California to Poughkeepsie with an entirely different viewpoint is a win for him. [Water polo] puts your application ahead of somebody else and that’s why the Northeast is important because you have these schools that are highly competitive and they all have their special niche—Johns Hopkins for medical research, Princeton for just everything, Harvard for business, MIT for engineering.

If you had a 64-team tournament and it went from a “Sweet Sixteen” to an “Elite Eight” to getting the best two water polo teams in the country, that would be epic.

I think why water polo is doing well is it’s a bit of the unknown for kids who can get in there and really have some fun—what kid doesn’t like jumping in the pool?! And then you get to play a fun game and hang out [with friends].

Right now football has such a red flag around it because of the concussions and everything. Water polo is light on the body because it’s in the water. Concussions are rare. You get that brotherhood, you get that sense of “I need to do my job so my team can be successful.” I think that’s a big portion of football, why it’s so fun and exciting for people. That’s why we like to hire college athletes. They’re goal oriented. They’re strong minded. It’s that will to understand that: “my team needs me.” You get that in water polo as well.

At any level of the sport if your team is on a 5-on-6 and you’re out of position, that’s a goal. When you go into life skills—your boss has so many things and he needs you to finish the report so he can go make the deal. If you don’t do your side of it your boss will look like an idiot.

Why is America so successful in women’s water polo?

What the European men are doing for the sport is what the American women are doing for polo in the U.S.

In Europe the opportunity for women to play isn’t as prominent as it is for the men. To be able to come to the states [and play] is a plus as is education. And you have these women who have been competing against fantastic men and you can see. Ulmis [Iordache] and I talked about the Hungarian women and the way the moved their shoulders when they throw the ball and they fake. He said: “They’ve been training with boys, you can tell.”

They come overseas and then they get to play at our level of polo competition. The women are so successful here and the NCAA [creates] a big competition pool for women all over the world.

Living with an Olympian, I know how hard my wife has worked for her medals—what she has done to get there and what these women are doing now is phenomenal.

What sport will your son Frankie play?

If he plays a sport, I’d want it to be water polo. If he has both of our competitive natures—including my wife’s determination—I’d want him to play basketball because Daddy wants a new car!