Alex Roelse didn’t have a typical off-season.
The junior utility had just returned from Olympics duty to rejoin the UCLA water polo team for the 2016 season.
In the Bruins’ home opener against the Pepperdine Waves, he rose up from the water from way beyond the 5-meter line, and with defenders’ arms draped all over him, fired a blinding shot that barred in to the back of the net.
That ability – one of his many – developed over years of water polo commitment, culminating in playing for the U.S. men’s senior national team at the 2016 Olympics.
Roelse’s Olympic journey began with his transition from the Netherlands to the United States the summer after he graduated from high school. He played water polo in Santa Barbara, and impressed enough collegiate programs in local tournaments to get offers.
Even then, playing at a high level was on his mind.
“It came down to USC and UCLA and on my recruiting trip out to (Westwood), Adam (Wright) set up a meeting with the national team coach,” Roelse said. “He really wanted to show that he would support my goals and help me achieve them.”
Roelse’s size and potential impressed senior national team coach Dejan Udovicic, and Roelse was invited to practice with the team before he began his freshman year with the Bruins.
“It was a lot of hard work,” Roelse said. “It was a real eye-opener.”
Since that initial tryout, Roelse has been invited back every year to train with and play for the national squad. The international season runs from the spring to the summer – and when the national team is not busy competing in official tournaments, it tests its mettle with friendlies and scrimmages against other countries.
Training for this year’s Olympics began this January, with the team undergoing grueling workouts to prepare themselves for the summer’s challenges.
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Udovicic often had his players practice with 12-pound weight belts on while in the water, among other grueling tasks.
“(The belt) costs you energy, you’re not as quick,” Roelse said. “At the end of the day you’re just so tired – straight from a lift, to swimming 30 minutes butterfly with the belt on, to then playing each other.”
Udovicic kept a small key group of players throughout training, maximizing the players’ minutes but leaving them with less rest time during practices.
Some of the team’s practices consisted of scrimmaging each other, in which Roelse would be playing the entire time, save for two substitutions.
“Everything you’re doing revolves around the pool, there was never an end to the cycle of going back to the pool, working out and getting sunburned,” Roelse said. “A day off (was) a miracle, we slept in and enjoyed that there was nothing we needed to do.”
The lifestyle was much different than that of the collegiate athlete, Roelse noted, which isn’t the only major difference between the two environments he’s experienced.
Collegiate water polo is more system-oriented with more movement, he said, while the international scene is about man-on-man match-ups, physical strength and a mental side of the game that college does not emphasize as much.
In college, the level of play is not as intense, so collegiate officiating penalizes the aggressiveness international players bring back to the NCAA level, a thorn in the side of Roelse who spent the last nine months playing a more physical style.
“Things I’m allowed to do there, I can’t do in college,” Roelse said. “The referees (there) play to a much more aggressive game.”
And while every collegiate game is important because it leads up to the NCAA Tournament, international competition is geared toward ultimate success once every four years.
“It’s a four-year process, the world championships and the FINA Cup all (build up) to the Olympic Games,” said coach Adam Wright, a three-time Olympian. “In college every year is completely different and one game can be the difference.”
Roelse has been a key contributor for the back-to-back champions – he netted 25 scores, dished out 26 assists and nabbed 26 steals last year.
All that production came before he trained full-time with the men’s senior national team for Rio, and now, Roelse is close to surpassing his own season scoring record he set last year.
In 12 games this year, he’s had 17 goals.
“He has taken over games, whether it be offensively or defensively,” Wright said. “His role within the national team put him in a lot of different positions, he (defended) and (played) center, and so we’re able to use him that way as well.”
[Related: Adam Wright reaches 200th career win]
Roelse’s impact can be seen through more than the scoresheet, however.
“When I was first getting recruited, I didn’t talk to many of the guys at first,” said freshman attacker Jake Simpson.
As Simpson became more interested in UCLA, he noted Roelse’s role in his eventual commitment.
“Of course, having a guy like Alex Roelse is huge, and not just the fact that he was on the senior national team,” Simpson said. “The way he introduced me to UCLA, he was very welcoming. It wasn’t just the fact that he was so good and that he was on the Olympic team, it was more just his attitude toward me … it just really wanted me to commit.”
The next Olympics are four years away.
Roelse’s future with UCLA is right in front of him, and now that he knows the sacrifice involved in Olympic training, his future in international water polo lies in his own hands.
“If everything goes well, no injuries, I’m not opposed to seeing where I am at that point, if I am ready for it,” Roelse said. “In the end, I’m glad I (did) it. It shows that I can do anything that I put my mind to.”