When Kelsey O’Brien, a senior attacker on the UCLA women’s water polo team, first walked onto UCLA’s campus, she was 11 years old.
She had a cousin who went to UCLA at the time so Kelsey and her father, Joe O’Brien, stopped by to visit after a water polo tournament. When her cousin didn’t pick up her phone, Kelsey and her father decided to walk around campus by themselves.
After glancing around Royce Quad and at the view from the top of Janss Steps, Kelsey turned to her dad.
“I think I’ll go to school here,” she said.
That was before the Santa Barbara native became a five-time National Junior Olympics champion with the Santa Barbara Water Polo Club and three-time first-team All California Interscholastic Federation honoree at Santa Barbara High School.
Despite deep ties to her community, O’Brien decided to steer away from her hometown and head to UCLA, an hour and a half south from Santa Barbara.
Joe O’Brien served as the head coach of the men’s and women’s water polo team for 11 and five seasons, respectively, from 1994-2004 at UC Santa Barbara. He also played for UCSB from 1982-1985, and finished as an All-American his senior year.
The coaches, and most of the parents of Kelsey O’Brien’s club teams growing up, were all former Santa Barbara water polo players. Some were even alumni of UCSB and played water polo there.
Joe O’Brien said that the water polo community led his daughter to the sport and was a major factor for why it stuck with her.
“There was already this kind of community of people that had experience with the sport,” he said. “Their kids were in it and we all knew each other, so it was almost like (Kelsey) couldn’t avoid it. Everybody she knew somehow had a connection to water polo.”
As a kid, Kelsey O’Brien loved to swim, but did not even want to play water polo until her father convinced her to try it.
“I was really afraid of water polo,” she said. “My dad kept pushing and pushing me to play and to shut him up I said, ‘Fine, I’ll try.’”
Two weeks into her water polo career, she found her competitive fire for the sport.
In her first tournament, O’Brien came into the championship game to guard the 2-meter player, her dad said. With just two weeks of water polo knowledge and experience, she didn’t know what a 2-meter player even was. That player would eventually score on her to win the championship.
“It’s pretty common for a kid to get thrown into a tournament before 95 percent has been explained to them,” Joe O’Brien said. “But I could see in (Kelsey) that she was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to get better than this.’ She hated the way that felt and that feeling of disappointment and even humiliation became a great motivator.”
With this drive, Kelsey O’Brien’s six-time USA water polo All-American career began, and by the time she was getting recruited for school, it was almost entirely up to her where she wanted to go.
Even with the connections the O’Briens have at UCSB, Joe O’Brien wanted Kelsey to not fall back to what was comfortable for college.
“I grew up on that pool and grew up at UCSB,” Kelsey O’Brien said. “I love it there but my parents were like, ‘You’re not going here, you’re going somewhere else.’”
Joe O’Brien said that he would have been concerned about Kelsey still being in Santa Barbara, not that far away from home and able to fall back on her parents. He advised his daughter to get out of town.
And he could tell that his daughter was serious about wanting to be in Westwood for school. Through her club and high school careers, the goal she set years before on Janss Steps never changed.
“It was pretty clear to me that this is where she wanted to go,” he said. “Whether it was luck or some childhood intuition she made her decision at 11, and was able to solidify that decision through the recruiting process and my wife and I feel like (UCLA) was the perfect place for her to be.”
Coach Brandon Brooks wasn’t all that surprised that Kelsey chose UCLA over her hometown college of UCSB.
“At the time she was making her decision, UCSB was not up there among her choices,” Brooks said.
Kelsey O’Brien had connections on the UCLA women’s water polo team that were from Santa Barbara, including redshirt senior attacker Kodi Hill and her older sister Sami Hill, who all played on the SBWPC team.
“I knew a couple people on the team and they had nothing but good things to say about everyone here,” Kelsey O’Brien said. “With water polo they’ve always been so good and I knew I wanted to be a part of that.”
UCLA women’s water polo has won seven national championships in its history, including winning five straight from 2005-2009. Since 2001, the Bruins have been in 10 national championships, where they have won seven of those title games.
Joe O’Brien ultimately encouraged Kelsey to go to UCLA, where she could compete at the highest level, rather than pushing her to go to Santa Barbara.
“She knew what level she wanted to compete at and wanted a chance to compete for a national title,” he said.
Now in her senior year, the Bruins still haven’t won a national championship. Their last title came in 2009, the last year women’s senior national team coach Adam Krikorian was at the helm of the program.
Last year, UCLA struggled against its top competition, namely USC and Stanford. The team’s first go at either of them this season came last weekend, and the Bruins only lost to the Trojans by one, nearly coming back from a three-goal deficit against the country’s highest-ranked team.
The progression since last year has been noticeable, and O’Brien has been a part of that. She has come into her own this year, Brooks said, making her mark and being aggressive.
“She’s worked on being a more vocal contributor and she’s an attacker,” Brooks said. “She’s always been very good defensively and is doing better and better on the offensive end.”
O’Brien and her fourth- and fifth-year teammates have had two chances to get on top of the collegiate water polo world, but have come up short to Stanford both times.
This May will be the last chance for O’Brien to claim the NCAA championship trophy, and at least so far, the Bruins have been competitive against the nation’s top teams, also on the hunt.
That, however, has been characteristic of the program even when O’Brien was in the recruiting process.
“Every facet of what she was hoping to accomplish in college, UCLA checked off all the boxes,” Joe O’Brien said.
There’s just one box that hasn’t been checked off yet.