Betsey Armstrong won her gold medal for water polo at the 2012 Olympic Games and a silver at the 2008 games. She speaks about her experience competing internationally. Patrick Oehler/Poughkeepsie Journal
Betsey Armstrong was almost disappointed.
She had made it to the Olympics. Above her, 91,000 fans in Beijing National Stadium watched thousands of performers ring in the 2008 Summer Games with choreographed dances, and fireworks illuminated the sky with glimmering bursts of orange and white.
Sequestered below the stadium with her fellow athletes awaiting their introduction, Armstrong was missing all of it.
“I was kind of like, ‘Oh, well that’s a bummer,’” she recalled.
That feeling changed quickly, as the water polo goalkeeper marched into the stadium with the rest of Team USA as part of the Parade of Nations.
“You see flags, you see lights, you see fireworks, you see the torch and you see everything,” she said. “It just brings together everything that you’re there for.”
Ten years after her first Olympic experience, Armstrong, now a Rhinebeck resident, is looking forward to the beginning of the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next week.
The Michigan native plans to watch with her husband, Chris Vidale, with whom she moved to Rhinebeck when he accepted a job as Marist College’s women’s water polo coach in August 2016, and their son.
Though she last competed in the Olympics in 2012 — Armstrong added a gold medal to the silver her team earned in Beijing — the Olympics every two years still hold special meaning for her. Knowing the dedication needed simply to qualify, let alone succeed, and having experienced the pageantry of the two-week athletic bonanza, Armstrong watches with a different perspective from most.
“You have the spotlight shine on sports that don’t get as much attention, unless it’s an Olympic year,” said Armstrong, who retired in 2014. “It’s cool to have all these Olympic sports have their moment to shine. But I think watching them, I’m so much more sensitive to everything that the athlete has put in, leading up to their moment.”
Armstrong, who turned 35 years old on Wednesday, is moving on to the next step in her life after athletics. She’s teaching yoga while taking science courses at Marist. She’s also lending a hand as her husband’s volunteer assistant coach at Marist.
“It’s fun for my athletes,” Vidale said. “They get to pick her brain and how many kids can say they were coached by a two-time Olympian?”
The Opening Ceremony for the 2018 Games will be held Feb. 9, after competition begins a day earlier. While the Summer Games, which will next be held in 2020, includes water polo, the Winter Games include such disciplines as figure skating, bobsled, luge and ice hockey.
The gold medal at the 2012 Summer Games in London was the exclamation point on Armstrong’s career, which also included two gold medals in the FINA World Aquatics Championships, two Pan American Games gold medals and two FINA Water Polo World League championships.
Armstrong joined the U.S. national team in 2006, a year after graduating from the University of Michigan. In 2009, she joined the New York Athletic Club women’s water polo team in Manhattan, where she met Vidale.
In addition to the competitions, the Olympic experience brought with it memorable encounters.
The women’s water polo team visited the men’s basketball team at its training facility in Las Vegas before the 2008 games. There, Armstrong met former Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers and legendary Duke men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. She also met renowned women’s tennis player Serena Williams before the Olympics.
“We (had) to maintain our focus amongst a crowd of people like that,” she said. “That’s their chance to soak it all in, too, and really connect with the other athletes.”
Though Armstrong admitted she feels like she last competed in the Olympics “a lifetime ago,” the feeling of succeeding in 2012, after losing the gold-medal game to the Netherlands in 2008 by a 9-8 score, remains vivid.
The United States beat an upstart team from Spain, 8-5, for the gold, after winning a semifinal contest with Australia in overtime. Armstrong made 53 total saves in the 2012 tournament.
“It was like taking a huge sigh,” Armstrong said of the relief of winning. “We had been so close and I think we just knew what we had come through to get there. And it made getting on the podium mean that much more.”
Vidale didn’t arrive to London until after the Olympics had started. He joked that Armstrong wasn’t “on her game” until he arrived.
“Once I touched down in London, she was on fire,” Vidale said. “So, I do take a little credit for that medal, because she wasn’t on until I got there.”
Vidale said he and Armstrong didn’t attend the closing ceremonies.
The couple opted to go to a restaurant for dinner instead, and view the conclusion of the games from there.
“She was tired. She said ‘We got the job done,’ so we just sat in a pub and had a couple beers and some dinner and we watched the closing ceremonies from there,” Vidale said.
Still, he couldn’t help but boast when Armstrong briefly stepped away from their table.
“I told everyone in the bar she was a gold medalist,” Vidale said. “It was cool.”
The next step
Carolyn Gauvin, a sophomore and a center on Marist’s women’s water polo team, admitted she idolized Armstrong in high school.
When she found out Armstrong was an assistant coach for the Red Foxes, she said she was “in awe.”
“I’d watched the Olympics, and my coaches in high school had talked about her; my friends and I looked up to her,” Gauvin said. “I knew so much about her and it was so cool to meet her in real life and become close with her family, and have her be a part of our team.”
Armstrong said the players generally seek her out for advice — and they’re always ready to heed it.
“(The best advice she’s given me) is to try and have a positive attitude and never stay in a mental game,” Gauvin said. “Because that can ruin the flow of how you play. Be positive and stay confident in yourself.”
When she’s not helping coach, Armstrong is teaching yoga classes both at Marist and at the Culinary Institute of America. She began practicing yoga before the 2012 Olympics, and found it to be beneficial to her game.
She is also taking science classes at Marist, possibly eyeing medical school in the future. “But that’s a long-term thing,” Armstrong said.
A different point of view
Armstrong and Vidale were shopping recently and came across Team USA apparel. They weighed whether or not to buy it to wear while watching the upcoming Games.
As a spectator, Armstrong understands the significance of an athlete reaching the Olympics. Competing, she said, means just as much as medaling.
“I think you look more deeply into the experience of the athlete,” she said. “It seems like a moment of stardom, but it’s a lifetime of what’s put in to get there. A successful Olympic experience isn’t always determined by the medal count. I think having people look beyond that is pretty important.”
But, when she and Vidale are watching, their fandom does show.
“She pulls out the trunks of all the cool stuff. She’ll throw on her Team USA stuff and we’ll just sit down in the living room and watch it. It’s fun,” Vidale said.
On Feb. 17, Armstrong is speaking at the Starr Library in Rhinebeck about her Olympic experiences. She is bringing her gold and silver medals with her, which is nothing new to the family.
Vidale said he’s taken those medals everywhere, from the gym to show his friends to Marist water polo practices to show his players.
“Our team took some pictures with them. It was really cool to hold them and see what that was like,” Gauvin said. “She talked to us about the Olympics, too. It was so surreal. It was just so cool to have an Olympian in our presence.”
The medals, though, have a unique resting place in the house.
When the family moved to the Hudson Valley in 2016, the hardware likewise moved — from a safety deposit box to the bathroom, of all places.
“You look behind the cleaning supplies, and there’s a gold medal and a silver medal right back there,” Vidale said with a laugh. “I promise.”
A.J. Martelli: firstname.lastname@example.org, 845-437-4836, Twitter:@AJM_PoJoSports