Water polo star gives UH credit
By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer
Maureen O'Toole stood there, crying in her goggles, asking herself, "What am I doing here? I can't do this."
Maureen O'Toole will be a featured speaker at tonight's Rainbow Wahine Celebration Dinner.
But she stuck it out.
And 22 years later, O'Toole, now 41, is considered one of the greatest women water polo players in the world.
"I went in as a young 19-year-old and came out a stronger, tougher, more mature person," she said. "I learned what it took to be part of a team and persevere through hard times."
She credits swimming coach Al Minn for pushing her to realize her potential, then teaching her how to push herself.
O'Toole became a seven-time Women's Water Polo Player of the Year, a 15-time MVP at the National Championships and a five-time U.S. Water Polo Female Athlete of the Year.
The work ethic and drive O'Toole learned from Minn gave her the courage and confidence to come out of a three-year retirement in 1997 to train for the 2000 Olympics. At 39, she was the oldest player on America's silver-medal water polo team.
"He was so hard and it was such a struggle," O'Toole recalled of Minn's teaching. "He made me mentally tough ... He liked to get in your mind. But he was loyal to us, he stuck with us through thick and thin, and he was never easy on us. I owe a great deal to him as my mentor."
What O'Toole learned from participating in sports at UH will be the focus of her speech at tonight's Rainbow Wahine Celebration Dinner at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. The event commemorates 30 years of women's athletics at UH.
"Playing sports teaches you about life," said O'Toole, who travels around the country as a motivational speaker. "It really helps with self-esteem. It teaches you about your body, gives you confidence when you're successful, teaches you about being part of a team, teaches you how to fail and how to come back from that."
Her passion for sports and the benefits of participation prompted her to start Pursuit for Excellence in Youth, a nonprofit organization aimed at promoting sports among girls as a way to teach them about self-esteem and self-confidence. She has written a workbook for girls that focuses on these issues.
"It's hard growing up as a girl in this society," O'Toole said. "If you have self-esteem, you can be successful at what you do. I want to make a difference in girls' lives."
She has already done that in the life of her 10-year-old daughter, Kelly, who's following in her mother's athletic footsteps. Kelly plays water polo, soccer, basketball and softball.
"I think I'm a great role model for her," O'Toole said. "She's really on the right track."
O'Toole continues to coach young girls in water polo, but she sees herself someday back at UH, at the helm, at the school that gave her her start, her strength, her spirit.
"I'd only coach at Hawai'i," she said. "I feel it's my home away from home. I love Hawai'i ... and what (the school) has done for me. It really holds a special place in my heart."