It isn’t every day that you get to take a yoga class for credit, and it also isn’t every day that your yoga instructor is a two-time Olympic medalist.
Twice a week, students who registered for yoga with Betsey Armstrong gather in the studio located in McCormack Hall’s gym. They bring their yoga mats and water bottles, and begin to prepare for class before the 6’2” instructor comes in to educate students in proper technique, breathing exercises, and ways to implement yoga into their daily lives.
These are a few things she picked up while playing professional water polo for Team USA.
“Once I was playing water polo for my full-time job, we would get these breaks that would be like six weeks at a time or something,” Armstrong starts. “I was living in southern California during that time and I would just go to different yoga studios and try classes because it was a really great alternative for me for exercise.”
Unlike traditional workouts, yoga is less strenuous and less intense. Much of the focus is on slow, specific movements that activate targeted muscles. It’s a calm, relaxing period to take some time for yourself when you are a professional athlete, like Armstrong.
Her path to becoming a star USA water polo goalkeeper and earning her spot on the Olympic podium started back in her home state of Michigan. Being from the Midwest is not common for water polo athletes, as most come from states such as California or Florida. Born and raised in Ann Arbor, the Olympian picked up water polo from following in the footsteps of her older sister who was trying out the sport.
“Water polo was very new in Michigan at the time,” Armstrong recalls. “The University of Michigan had a club team, and the couple who coached the club were also really active in sort of building and developing youth water polo in the state.”
Armstrong would grow and develop in Michigan, and when her skills started to garner attention from the national team’s development program, it gave the young goalkeeper the opportunity to grow with harder competition and progress her skills in net further.
“The Olympic Development Program divides the country up into zones, and there will be clinics and camps and trials that serve to teaching skills to players all over the country,” she says. “It also serves to identify athletes like, if we have some standout kid in Michigan that we might not otherwise see.”
After growing with the youth national program and playing tournaments all over the U.S and Canada, Armstrong took her skills to her hometown college: The University of Michigan.
As a student-athlete for the Wolverines from 2002-05, Armstrong helped to lead Michigan to four divisional titles, and two bids to the NCAA tournament. A four-time All-American, and a finalist for the Cutino Award–an award for the nation’s top water polo athlete in 2004. Armstrong also holds multiple Michigan records–1,267 blocks, 3,329 minutes played, a 5.64 career goals-against average, a .654 save percentage, and most saves in a season with 350. In 2008, she was inducted into the Collegiate Water Polo Association Hall of Fame.
After a spectacular career for the Wolverines, Armstrong made the decision to go pro in 2006 after being invited to try out for the national team that would eventually go to Beijing for the Olympics. The 2008 Beijing Olympics saw Team USA’s women’s water polo team return to the medal podium in over 20 years.
The Americans left with a silver medal after a loss to The Netherlands, a team that had flown completely under the radar. It was a back and forth contest that saw Team USA down 4-2 before the end of the first quarter at Ying Tung Natatorium. The game ended in a close 9-8 score, with one player from the Netherlands scoring on Armstrong seven total times.
Armstrong remembers the game vividly. “You are playing for a medal, but at the end of the day, we still lost,” she recalls. “Any loss we’re always trying to learn from, but particularly in those big moments, yeah, it was devastating.”
Throughout the five matches of the 2008 Olympic tournament, Armstrong had 49 saves total. Afterwards, she had a decision to make about continuing her career.
“I joined the national team about two and a half, three years before the Beijing Olympics,” she said. “So if I wanted to continue playing through London, I had a full four years to go.”
Armstrong was 25 at the time, and if she were to commit to playing professionally full time, it would put off getting professional experience outside of sports or any hopes of grad school. Still, Armstrong committed and was locked in for the next four years. Team USA won a FINA World Championship in 2009 with Armstrong in net, and a 2011 Pan American Games win that would qualify Armstrong and her teammates for London 2012.
“That was our qualification game,” Armstrong said. “We won the game in a shootout in Mexico and went into five rounds.”
Those five rounds make it the longest women’s water polo game as listed by Guinness World Records. The final score was 27-26.
“It was a serious test of mindfulness,” she said. “I would just watch the ball and tell myself ‘if I can see the ball, I can block the ball.’”
The following year saw redemption for Armstrong and her teammates. After rolling through the tournament and making it to the championship game again, one opponent stood in their way– Spain. Armstrong’s teammate Maggie Steffens scored five times in the game, cementing their victory and securing the first ever gold medal in Team USA women’s water polo history. Armstrong made eight total saves, including a penalty save that came late in the fourth quarter.
“The London tournament was exactly what it needed to be for a lot of us,” Armstrong said, reflecting on those Olympics. “London was so much fun.”
Armstrong played for the national team for another two years and ultimately retired in 2014. She moved to New York in 2016 with her family when her husband became the head coach for the women’s water polo team at Marist, and in turn, bringing her yoga skills to the student athletes.
She started out by teaching at a few studios in Rhinebeck and at The Culinary Institute before working with Marist’s football team. Eventually Armstrong moved to teach the recreational classes in McCann before teaching her one-credit classes in Gartland.
“What I love about yoga is that I deeply believe it is for everyone,” Armstrong says, noting how that is one of the most important things she tries to impart on her students.
From an elite athlete, to retiree, to a mother, and to a global pandemic, yoga was always there to help her recharge, refocus, and recenter her mind and body. As life moves and changes though, yoga will always be a daily practice for Armstrong and hopefully, some of her students.
As for water polo, there are times when Armstrong misses being in the throws of competition. She was inducted into the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame in 2019 and helps at training camps for young water polo goalkeepers who are coming up in the national program and have the potential to be the next Betsey Armstrong.
Edited by Bridget Reilly and Connor Kurpat
Photo Credit: Jeff Cable and Patrick Oehler