Standing Tall, Playing Big

    At an academically demanding university like UCSD, it can be hard to find a balance between pursuing a meaningful degree and leading a gratifying personal life. For Bryce Madsen, the secret is water polo.

    The senior driver just completed his third and final season on UCSD’s water polo team, in a campaign that saw the team finish 13-13 overall. Madsen has been vital to the team’s success, but it wasn’t always that way.

    Madsen started playing water polo at an early age, at the urging of his father. Like many children, Madsen played youth soccer, but tried out water polo at age 12 and never looked back. He took to the sport instantly, and it became an important aspect of his life.

    “Because I excelled so quickly, [water polo] became the most fun thing to do for me,” Madsen said. “As I got better and better, it was more something I did with my life.”

    Madsen played for Marina High School in Huntington Beach, helping the team to the state quarterfinals in his senior season. He also joined a club water polo team in the offseason, playing alongside some of the best high school players in the area. Several of his teammates went on to play at powerhouses such as Long Beach State and USC, and faced off against Madsen later in their careers.

    Madsen, unlike his club teammates, was not immediately convinced he wanted to continue his water polo career beyond the high school level. After being denied admission to his choice of colleges, Stanford University, he came to UCSD to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. Madsen decided not to go out for water polo, but taking a year off provided him with the proof he needed that he wanted water polo to again be an important part of his life.

    “To be honest, that one year I had off, it was almost like school was harder for me,” Madsen said.  “I didn’t want to go to school; I’d just want to sit home. Playing polo was a reason I had to go to school because I had to go to practice.”

    The switch from focusing solely on schoolwork to a balance between the pool and the classroom turned out to be a positive one for Madsen. Rather than being a distraction from his work-intensive engineering degree, the sport gave him structure that allowed him to succeed at both playing polo and keeping up with classes.

    “It kept me in line and gave me a schedule,” Madsen said. “I’d go to practice, and then homework, and then practice again, then homework, then go home. So [water polo] definitely helped me get through these years.”

    At 5’11”, Madsen is considered short in the water polo world, and saw limited playing time in his first year on the team. During his first year, his confidence in his ability as a player initially earned him grief from the senior players, but ultimately served him well over the three years he played for UCSD.

    “I came in thinking I could play with anyone,” Madsen said. “But there were some good players, so I thought, ‘Well if I’m going to be as good as these guys, I’ve got to work harder.’”

    But UCSD is not known for having large players, and employs a counter-attacking strategy due to the squad’s size disadvantage. Head coach Denny Harper focuses mainly on getting his players to be quick and mobile, and being able to tire out the teams they compete with. As a driver and counter attacker, Madsen grew to play a crucial role. In his junior year, Madsen played on the team with 37 goals and added 20 assists. This year, during his senior campaign, he was third on the team with 26 goals and another 20 assists. Madsen said that his self-described cockiness helped him persevere despite being one of the smaller guys in the pool.

    “You have to go up against another player knowing you can beat him,” he said. “And if you aren’t cocky, don’t have the confidence, it’s not going to happen.”

    The team suffered a disappointing year, finishing fourth in the Western Water Polo Association Championships and losing to Santa Clara University for the first time in school history. There was no Hollywood ending for Madsen, but he couldn’t say enough about how much he enjoyed his time on the team.

    “Being on a team with the guys, especially this team at UCSD — we all get along,” Madsen said. “The coaches do a good job of choosing players based on their personalities and skills, so everyone interacts really well here. Just hanging with the guys before practice, after practice, wherever we are, it’s always a good time.”

    Looking back on his time at UCSD, Madsen revealed that despite the school not being his first choice, it ended up being perfect for him. From excellent surf beaches (Madsen is an avid surfer), the renowned engineering program and the great water polo team, Madsen found an environment in which he could truly flourish.

    Now that he is about to graduate, Madsen has hopes of continuing to play polo in the future. He aspires to find a job as an engineer that will allow him both to travel and to join a club team, most likely in Australia. Although engineering comes first and he acknowledged that the strength and endurance he gained from playing for UCSD is something he would not easily achieve again in his life, he said he will not give up on his passion for the sport.

    “College would not be the same if I didn’t have water polo,” he said. “I tried going my first year without it and [I realized] you’re here to go to school, but it’s just not the same when you just go to school. Water polo gives you something else. For me it gave me a balance.”

    Readers can contact Hanna Rahimi at [email protected].


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