US National Water Polo Player Tanya Gandy. Photo by Michael Larsen

US National Water Polo Player Tanya Gandy

Staying True to Herself: Tanya Gandy

Written by Mei Ling Starkey

In the pool, US National Water Polo team member, Tanya Gandy is known for her fierce competitiveness. During her four years as an attacker at UCLA, she led the Bruins to four NCAA titles and scored 187 career goals, the fourth highest total in school history. While she is still competitive outside of the pool, it is always in good fun. Risen caught up with Gandy and talked about resolving conflict, the injury that almost ended her career, and how she turned to God in the midst of all of it.

Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine

Risen Magazine: During your senior year at UCLA, you had the highest single-season goal total in program history. During your career at UCLA you won four national championships and you were named NCAA Division I Player of the Year and first-team All-America. Congratulations on all of those accomplishments! With all the awards and recognitions, how do you keep a level head?
Tanya Gandy: Time goes by and I tend to forget that I have accomplished all of that. It is easy to be humbled when you surround yourself with friends that treat you as a normal person. I have to keep things in perspective too and remember what is most important. I always try be the best player that I can be. I am always trying to improve so I try not to think too much about the past. Having a balanced family and personal life helps me to have a balanced professional life. I am always striving to do more. Balance is a huge key to keeping a level head.
Even though I didn’t make the Olympic team, I know that I am going to be okay. Over the past year, I have watched 15 girls get cut from the National Team and their dreams were shattered. I also know some other Olympians that struggle with who they are because their identity was only as an athlete. Then one day it stops and you are not that person. It is really difficult to have that pressure on you.
It is really important to stay true to yourself. The one thing I told myself when I started this whole process was that I am not going to change who I am. I have turned to my family, friends and my faith. There are times that I think about getting cut or having that last day of practice, because eventually that day will come. But I have to remember that it is just a game and be thankful for all of the opportunities I have had at UCLA, Rancho Bernardo, and with my professional team in Spain.

US National Water Polo Team. Photo by Michael Larsen

US National Water Polo Team. Photo by Michael Larsen

Risen Magazine: Last year, you had a little bit of a scare. Your hand was going numb and the doctors didn’t know how long it was going to take to heal. At one point, you thought your career might be done. Can you describe what happened?
Tanya Gandy: I have never been hurt, missed a game or missed a practice during my entire career. I was on a trip, fell asleep on the plane and when I woke up, I couldn’t open my hand. I couldn’t even feel it. It was very scary. The couple of days turned into weeks and then it became a month. It has been a year now and it still isn’t totally healed. I was in a hotel room in the middle of Holland on a team trip. It was an important game that would determine who would get cut from the team. Everything you have worked for flashes before your eyes. It broke me down. I never thought I would not be able to put my own ponytail in or eat with my right hand because I didn’t know if my hand would open up. I came home during that time and saw some doctors. My mom helped me a lot and she reminded me that everything happens for a reason. You’re always going to come across obstacles in life and you never know what is going to happen in the future. But as long as you have faith in God and trust his will, you will be fine.
And it has. I look back now and I am kind of actually glad that it happened because of everything that has happened since then. It is hard to think like that when it first happens to you though.

Risen Magazine: Talk a little bit more about that. There had to have been some pretty honest prayers and even questioning God. What did your faith look like during this time?
Tanya Gandy: I didn’t know who to talk to. We have everything at our disposal as National Team athletes. We have the best psychologists, the best doctors, nutritionists, trainers, coaches, and support groups. But the only thing that helped me was prayer. I remember asking God, “Why is this happening to me? Why now? Why this? What are you trying to tell me?
It was the first time I sat the bench. I never sat the bench that much in my career. I learned how to be a team player and how to be there for support. My role was to just cheer. It was hard for me to grasp. But I think God was teaching me a lesson. There are role players out there; not everyone can be the star player or the goal scorer and sometimes this role is just as important as a role in the pool. It was difficult at first to support my teammates that were playing, but leaning on faith and prayer helped me to really get through a difficult time.

Risen Magazine: Thank you for sharing that I know it was hard, but I think that story will be encouraging to our readers.
Tanya Gandy: I definitely could have used someone that had gone through something similar to encourage me. I appreciate everyone now who was in my position before.

Risen Magazine: As you prepare your teammates for the Olympics, what do you hope to accomplish?
Tanya Gandy: There are 16 girls on the National Team and only 13 girls get to go to the Olympics. Even though I don’t get to go to the Olympics, I want the best for my teammates. I am going to make them into the best players that they can be. I want to raise the level of play at practice so that they can compete at their highest level. I want to make our country proud and just to be able to compete for your country on that level is a huge honor.

The one thing i told myself when i started this whole process was that i am not going to change who i am.

Risen Magazine: What does a typical day look like for you?
Tanya Gandy: We train six days a week. We have weights 7-8:30AM and then we swim from 8:45-10am. Afterwards, we go home, sleep for a bit, and then eat lunch. We have a couple hours to run errands and rest. Then we come back from 1:30-4:30pm. We scrimmage, do drills, pass and shoot. That’s a typical day. Its six hours of training. Then on Saturdays we have practice. We have been training together for the past two years. It’s a full-time job, but you are with 15 of your good friends everyday and the coaches are really nice.

Risen Magazine: Teamwork is essential for success in water polo. How do you and your teammates build that camaraderie?
Tanya Gandy: We all come from different colleges and played against each other throughout our careers. Now we are on the same team, live in the same place, and practice together every day. Sometimes it is a fight to death during practice because it is a very physical game. But out of the pool, we will all go grab lunch. Whether it is a pasta party or our team activity, we find ways to stick together as a team. We like to joke and write encouraging notes to each other. You have to lean on each other.

Risen Magazine: What advice do you have for athletes who experience conflict with their teammates?
Tanya Gandy: Conflict can be a fragile thing. It can break a team down without you even knowing it. You may choose to ignore the fact that you don’t get along well with somebody. But in reality, it hurts the whole team. If I don’t think that I will be the best of friends with someone on the team, I try and see the good in that person. One example is someone that is older than me. I don’t have that much in common with initially. We don’t have similar personalities. She is direct and intimidating to me. But I have grown to respect and really appreciate her because of her confidence. She is a leader and has proven herself as a good player. She has been through so much that I have never been through. I have learned to respect that, instead of having the attitude, “She’s not like me. I’m not going to get along with her.” I always try and find the good in someone and focus on that.

Risen Magazine: Girls handle conflict a lot differently than guys.
Tanya Gandy: Even at the Olympic level, girls get hurt when someone says something about them. With social media, people tend to say stuff that they wouldn’t normally say in person. So if there is conflict, you have to resolve it right away and go to that person. No one likes feeling like there are secrets being told about them and no one likes feeling excluded. I try to make sure that no one feels left out if we go somewhere. It takes a leader to do that and set the precedence for the team. In practice, we have to pass and do drills with different people so that you don’t just pass with your friends or the people you went to college with. If you do that, then it creates cliques. Our team has players as young as 18 and as old as 33. There are definitely big differences. Some are married and some haven’t even gone to college yet. So we look for ways to be unified because we are one team.

Risen Magazine: When you were at Rancho Bernardo High School, one of your rivals was Kara Butler from Poway High School. Both of you are fierce competitors in the pool, but if people saw you outside of the pool, they would see a totally different person. How would you describe yourself?
Tanya Gandy: I would say that I am a caring person and I am always looking to make everyone happy and smile. Outside of the pool, I am still a competitive person but I want everyone to have fun. I am playful, enthusiastic and energetic. If I’m upset about something, I try to hide it so it doesn’t affect other people’s happiness.
I actually saw Kara Butler a few weeks ago at a benefit for her uncle who has Lou Gehrig’s disease. [And it was good] just seeing her and being able to give her a hug. We used to beat each other up at games and practices, since our schools were such fierce rivals. That stuff doesn’t matter when you get out of the pool. You get out of the pool and you’re still friends. She is still a person.
I remember on the National Team, I hated some of the girls I played against at different colleges. Now they are on my team and we are competing for the United States and you have to be able to be friends. We train together for two years and you see them six hours a day. I was always glad that I didn’t clash with anyone and didn’t talk bad about people behind their backs because all of that comes back to you. Now we are all really good friends. I have learned a lot about them as people.

Risen Magazine: You became a Christian in high school. How would you describe your faith journey?
Tanya Gandy: I would say that it was very personal for me. My friends helped me out a lot. In high school, there were so many different directions that you could go. I was fortunate to be around an older group of girls that I really admired and looked up to as role models. I wanted to emulate them. They invited me to Student Venture and the Rock Church. I branched out on my own after that and got inspired to learn more about God. It was hard to be open about [my faith] because I am kind of shy.
My friends played a major role [when it came to my faith]. It was helpful to have people who I could talk with about God, share our faith and ask questions. It made it a lot easier to open up. It was fun to go to church and Student Venture with my friends and share those experiences with them. My family didn’t always go to church, but they always supported me going.

Risen Magazine: You are really close to your family. How do you stay connected with your friends and family with your travelling schedule?
Tanya Gandy: It’s really hard to think about what my friends and family are doing and not be able to see them everyday or just call them and say let’s go surfing. You are always thinking about being on the road and training. I have to keep in mind that I am a professional. I can’t go out and stay out late because I have practice early in the morning. It’s difficult, but you have to find time and reach out. I enjoy grabbing coffee and lunch. Little things like that pay off in the long run because they don’t think that you are ignoring them. My family and friends are very supportive. They all know what I am working towards and they want the same thing.

Risen Magazine: In order to be where you’re at today professionally in the sport, a lot of discipline and sacrifice had to take place. Are there any things you regret missing out on?
Tanya Gandy: I don’t regret on missing out on anything. In life, you make choices and I chose to do what I do. I love what I do and I wouldn’t want to do anything else. There are some things that I have missed that I wish I could have been a part of. I was in Rome for World Championships and missed my college graduation. So to miss walking [across the stage] for my parents’ sake was hard, but you find other ways to make up for it. We did a mock graduation in front of our house. My mom was adamant about celebrating my graduation. She bought the gown, got my diploma and took pictures. I was also in Spain for Thanksgiving one year and that was hard because I am so close with my family. Other than that, I don’t really regret missing anything.

Risen Magazine: You have had an amazing career as an athlete, when you think about the legacy that you want to leave in and out of the pool, what does that look like?
Tanya Gandy: I want others to think of me as someone that wasn’t just a good player, but a good person that was always looking to make her team better. I want to be remembered as someone that looked to make the team environment better and a fun place to be in. This sport is supposed to be fun. I do it because I get to travel, play with my friends, and compete at the highest level. I also want to make sure I am improving the sport and making it exciting for girls who are coming up and want to do what I am doing. I want to help girls who want to play in college, play overseas, or maybe even the Olympics. Those opportunities rather than the accolades or achievements have shaped me and I want others to experience that.

Risen Magazine: What words of advice do you have for athletes as they balance pursuing their athletic career and maintaining their relationship with God?
Tanya Gandy: If you were to compare faith to sports, my coaches now don’t tell me what swim sets to do. I am on my own. I have to find time on my own to go to the pool and do my swim workout. I don’t have 20 other teammates with me. It is just me and the clock and the pool. I have to push myself. At this level, if we are on satellite training and I am on vacation with my family, it is the hardest thing to go to a gym and swim. You know 90 percent of what you need to do. It is just having the dedication to do it. Once I do it, I feel amazing. It is the same thing with God. You have to take time and grow in your relationship with God.
If you are dedicated, you can grow in your relationship with God and reach out to your teammates and friends. There is a community of people around you that wants to help. I didn’t know that at the time. When I first moved to Long Beach to train, I didn’t know anybody and I felt like I needed someone to help me find a church and find a group of friends. It wasn’t true. I just needed to be confident and do it. It’s also important to set aside time to read the Bible and pray. I keep a journal and write down verses or thoughts when I am on the plane. Then, I go back to those things when I am done traveling. When I am in town, I go to church on Sunday. It is a challenge though at times. There are obstacles and distractions. You have to stay true to yourself and not be influenced.

Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Summer 2012

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