Stephania Haralabidis is a water polo player for the US National Team who recently won Gold at the Olympics in Tokyo last summer. Since 2017, she’s led the US to many victories including the FINA world cup in 2018, and the Pan American Games and World Championships in 2019. Before that, she was a collegiate player at USC where she led the team to an NCAA victory in 2016 and was awarded the prestigious Peter J. Cutino Award which goes to the best collegiate water polo player of the year. Stephania was born in Greece and previously competed for the junior and senior national teams for Greece. In this episode she talks about finding your passions, maintaining the right mindset, and a strong worth ethic.
Stephania Haralabidis (00:01):
I was taught a very valuable lesson when I was 15. I made my first national team being kind to someone and showing them compassion and helping them is something that will make you a better person, a better athlete.
Justin (Host) (00:22):
This is (Un)Common Threads, a TinnCann podcast featuring extraordinary people and open discussions about their defining moments. From failure and heartbreak, to triumph and fulfillment, (Un)Common Threads is a weekly examination of the experiences that distinguish individuals of remarkable achievement.
Justin (Host) (00:44):
I’m Justin Paul Villanueva and on today’s episode, I talked to Stephania Haralabidis a water polo player for the US national team who recently won gold at the Olympics in Tokyo last summer. Since 2017, she’s led the US to many victories, including the FINA world cup in 2018 and the Pan-American games and world championships in 2019. Before that, she was a collegiate player at USC, where she led the team to an NCAA victory in 2016 and was awarded the prestigious Peter J Cutino award, which goes to the best collegiate water polo player of the year. Stefania was born in Greece and previously competed for the junior and senior national teams for Greece, with several world championship medals under her belt all before starting college. We’re pumped to hear more about what makes her uncommon, so welcome, Steph.
Stephania Haralabidis (01:39):
Justin (Host) (01:41):
Where are you tuning in from today?
Stephania Haralabidis (01:43):
I’m actually in Greece right now.
Justin (Host) (01:45):
Okay. So yeah, hopping into this, like with all of this under your belt and stuff. I knew I wanted to start with this question. What does the name Felipe Filipovic mean to you?
Stephania Haralabidis (01:57):
I’ve looked up to him since I was a kid. So when I first started water polo, until now it’s funny, he actually plays on a club team and we are in the same pool at times when they’re training and I’m training. So I watch him train in the pool right now. And so it’s pretty cool. I really look up to him and I think of him as such a huge figure in my life.
Justin (Host) (02:17):
Yeah. One of the reasons I, I wanted to bring that up was just because in a quote from, I think it was Adam Krikorian, one of your coaches, who was saying that like, one thing that makes you stick out is almost that you, you might be one of the fastest players in the world. And he said that like, your speed is unlike anything that he’s seen in the game. You have what, like a quick release, which can almost be attributed to Felipe. It made me curious. How were you able to kind of reverse engineer his shot?
Stephania Haralabidis (02:50):
I sat and watched him play games. I watched him do this, these practice shots on YouTube, and I just sat and watched him. And then I went to the pool and just stayed after practice and like shot and shot and shot until I was at his level of shooting. And then at practice makes perfect. Right. So playing just made me better, I guess.
Justin (Host) (03:12):
Geez. So for our listeners that might not be too familiar, like, is that a matter of uneven knowing getting your hand, like less on the ball or, I guess more, less on your Palm and more on your fingertips to be able to do that then?
Stephania Haralabidis (03:27):
No, it actually is about not holding the ball as tight and letting the lball rest on your hand and you have some sort of you’re holding the ball as some sort of way, but you’re also like a being able to allow the ball to release instead of having it stick on your hand. It’s interesting
Justin (Host) (03:45):
Was it around that time that, that you had really decided to become an Olympian or at least thought about this is the, the trajectory that I want to take with my life. Was he kind of like one of those people that you knew that you wanted to, like that made you believe that you could do that? Same thing?
Stephania Haralabidis (04:05):
I actually wanted become an Olympian since I was nine and I was a swimmer then. So,I wanted to become Olympia through swimming, but then I didn’t really like it. And then I got water polo and I go, oh my gosh. It might happen. I’m just gonna keep on pushing myself like it until I get there. And, yeah.
Justin (Host) (04:25):
Geez. How so, how did you make that transition from swimming to water polo? Was it a direct jump or were there other options that you wanted to take?
Stephania Haralabidis (04:34):
My mom wanted us to go into Syncro, but my dad was like, you know what? You chose swimming. Now they have to try water polo first. And she was like, okay, you know what, let them do it. We tried it. And it was so fun. And I loved it the moment that I like got in the water and I started passing, I just, I loved it so much.
Justin (Host) (04:53):
Geez. So like, well, yeah. What was that first? I don’t know if it’s yeah. Practice, like then, I mean, are you wearing same thing that you would for swimming?
Stephania Haralabidis (05:03):
No, it’s a lot bigger on your body because of the pulling of the bathing suit, the physicality and the water. Yeah. So it, it has a zipper in the back. It doesn’t have like strings.
Justin (Host) (05:14):
So as I was doing my, my research for this, I mean, it’s such a wild sport, imagine for our listeners who aren’t too familiar with water polo, it’s almost like, imagine someone asking you, hey, let’s play soccer in the mud. And except you can never have both feet on the ground. Like one just always has to keep on going. And I was really curious. How long do you think that you can tread water?
Stephania Haralabidis (05:44):
I think I could do it for hours. I have a three hour practice and sometimes we tread for three hours and like, there’s some sort of break in between, but it’s just a very short break. So for a long time,
Justin (Host) (05:58):
What else do you think that you’d want our listeners to know about water polo?
Stephania Haralabidis (06:05):
The most important thing is how much of a team sport it is and how you’re not on your own in this sport and how it’s very fulfilling. Not only do you have to be strong physically, but you have to be strong mentally. You have to be able to move past mistakes and not be too hard on yourself and knowing that other people are there to support you. So I think that’s what makes water polo so beautiful. And it’s really fun. It’s just that you have all these different systems and you’re just learning new things every single day, you just don’t do one thing and it’s done like you’re always learning, something new.
Justin (Host) (06:42):
So kind of jumping ahead off of that for the Olympics. I mean, you are walking onto a star studded team of Olympians. Who’ve already won gold twice. You’re walking on as this newbie. How do you make sure that you make, what’s it like competing in that, what’s that team sport dynamic?
Stephania Haralabidis (07:03):
It’s interesting. I felt very alone for a couple years because you already have a group of girls that have been together for a long time. They just won the gold medal and you’re there a player who’s also Greek. And they’re also worried about the spots and how you’re gonna connect with them. And, and it just takes time. You have to have patience, you have to have the work ethic. You have to push yourself every single day and it’s okay. Like, okay, you’re alone. But, but you also have your family supporting you. So I don’t know. I just had to push myself every single day and not give up. And a lot of times I thought to myself, I’m only human. Of course I thought, okay, this is just so hard. My body hurts. It’s so much on my mental state, but I just kept pushing.
Justin (Host) (07:53):
How did you cultivate that? Like where does that really come from? Is it from one of your close family members or a coach along the way that instilled that in you?
Stephania Haralabidis (08:04):
My mom pushed us every day and told us that hard work with hard work comes, reward. She made that part of our lives. She would drop us off at the pool, she’d go, so are you gonna work a hundred percent? And we were like, “no, a hundred and 10 percent”. She goes, “exactly”. It just was in our childhood since we were growing up.
Justin (Host) (08:25):
It seems as though multiple times you’ve used that mindset to almost prove yourself in the pool or, or whenever you’ve gone into a new environment. Just because at some point you had moved from Greece to the US, is that correct? Yeah. Yeah. Like what led to even that transition and what was that like?
Stephania Haralabidis (08:46):
Well, me and my mom and my sisters knew that we wanted to go to the states for an education. So it was just something that we’ve been working towards for a long time. And it just was, it just happened. My mom’s American.
Justin (Host) (09:01):
Or like, what were your expectations of what America was gonna be like? Was there, were you watching the Olsen twins growing up, like their movies or something?
Stephania Haralabidis (09:11):
90210, everything, watching movies and TV, I was like, it’s gonna be like Beverly Hills everywhere. That was my mindset. And I come in and I like go, huh, this does not look like what I was. So that was interesting.
Justin (Host) (09:29):
Did you immediately start going into water polo once you arrived in the us then as well?
Stephania Haralabidis (09:35):
Me and my twin went straight into high school, our last year of high school at Corona Del Mar. And we started playing water polo there. We won our, we won a CIF there too. So that was a lot of fun too.
Justin (Host) (09:49):
In terms of like the playing styles between the Greek or Greece and the US, how would you kind of define them? Are they pretty similar?
Stephania Haralabidis (09:59):
It’s different! Cause when I was growing up, when I started playing a very high level, I was 15 and I was playing on a club team and we play against other club teams in Greece and I was playing against women that were in their thirties and had a lot more experience and it was just very different. But when I went to the states, I was playing with people my age or a little younger. The experience was different.
Justin (Host) (10:28):
And another thing that kind of distinguishes you, that we haven’t talked about yet is the fact that you’re lefthanded, how is being lefthanded helped you and game and the rest of your team as a whole?
Stephania Haralabidis (10:38):
So when you think of a righthander the left side of the pool is the strong side because people get the ball with their strong hand and they don’t take it across their body when they’re getting the pass, but on the right side, a right hander, when they get the ball it comes across their face to come back to their hand. But as a lefty, I’m grabbing it strong side. So that’s an advantage to it. And how I make a pass, there are so many different things as like pass to the center, shooting them different.
Justin (Host) (11:15):
Yeah. And I think that it also like allows, I, I guess it allows you to kind of open up
Stephania Haralabidis (11:21):
The pool. Yes.
Justin (Host) (11:23):
I mean that, yeah, that changes the entire, I guess, dynamic of the way that a team plays, just because everyone’s moving in relation to one another and your your specific role is, is the score like at, as the score, how do you think that you handle that pressure of having that as role? I mean, you’ve had definitely measures of success that, that prove that, but how do you stay calm under pressure when everyone is fully relying on you to make sure that the points go up?
Stephania Haralabidis (11:55):
Because I also have teammates that they’re gonna step up and they’re gonna score. If I’m not in that right mindset, that’s why it’s such a beautiful sport. It’s like, okay, if I’m shooting the ball and it’s not going well, and I don’t focus on that, I think about, okay, what am I gonna do next? Well, how can I help my teammates score? How can I do this and that? So it’s just, instead of like getting so caught up and not scoring or having to score the ball, I just think of what am I gonna do that moment? And go from there.
Justin (Host) (12:24):
That’s good. And it’s this mentality that’s actually led to you being able to score, I believe five goals in one of your NCAA championships and the game winner at the same time. What year was that? And do you remember what was kind of like going through your head in that moment?
Stephania Haralabidis (12:40):
It was in 2016 and we were tied and I thought to myself, I really don’t wanna play another quarter. I just, that sounds so horrible right now. I’m tired. I just wanted it to be done. I thought this is okay, let me get the ball and shoot it as hard as I can. I’ve done it at practice a million times. Like it’s gonna work. My teammate passed me the ball and I, and I shot it half tank and I score it and I was like, oh, thank gosh. I did it, it’s over.
Justin (Host) (13:11):
So you’re all treading to celebrate near one another versus like standing on a court or something.
Stephania Haralabidis (13:19):
So at the end of the game, three of my teammates come up to me and they were trying to hug me. Yeah. And I can’t breathe because I was so tired from the game. So you can see the video. I was like pushing them away. And I was like, I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. They kept on cheering. And I was on the side. It was that’s fun.
Justin (Host) (13:36):
Okay. That’s great. So, I mean, a lot of there are a lot of collegiate athletes out there was, it was that one of those moments that helped you believe like, oh, I really wanna do this the rest of my life.
Stephania Haralabidis (13:49):
No, honestly, no, that summer I took that summer off
Justin (Host) (13:55):
Stephania Haralabidis (13:56):
Yeah. I took that summer off and I was like, I really need this time to just get away from the sport a little bit and just enjoy, enjoy life. And then I re and I started working a little bit and then I go, okay, no, I need to go back. So that’s when I went back and I contacted Adam Krakorian and try out for the American team.
Justin (Host) (14:18):
So what else were you doing in that time off? To quote unquote, enjoy life. Exactly.
Stephania Haralabidis (14:25):
We had a trip with USC and a Europe trip. So we all went and were just hanging out with each other. We barely played a new water polo, did anything. And then after that, I worked for Caruso affiliated for two months. And then I was like, no, I miss water polo. I need to go back. I need, I wanna tell my dream.
Justin (Host) (14:49):
Was there any specific moment or catalyst where you did truly know in your heart that you needed to go back to the sport?
Stephania Haralabidis (14:58):
Yeah, it was a month before I talked to Adam, I was sitting there and I just felt off, like I felt as though I had a goal that I hadn’t accomplished and I wanted to push all my life and I go, what am, what are you doing? You’re doing, you have done so well, I know it’s hard and it’s a lot on your body, but just go out there and push yourself and it doesn’t work out as okay. But you have to try. And then I just did it. And I was like, okay, you know what? It doesn’t matter if I make it or don’t make it, I need to try it.
Justin (Host) (15:29):
Even making that decision. And it obviously comes with like a shift in priorities. Cause whenever you set a goal, there’s like either some sacrifices that you have to make in a certain point. And then you have to add other things to either your habits or your daily routine. Yeah. Like what things have ended up falling by the wayside as you’ve gone on this pursuit?
Stephania Haralabidis (15:52):
Loving myself honestly, was one of the, I know it’s very, it’s very crazy because I wasn’t giving time for myself and loving myself. I was just mostly going to practices and then going home and eating and then sleeping and then going the next practice and then going home, eating, sleeping, and then not doing anything outside of it. I didn’t like my friendships. My friendships outside of the team were kind of falling apart and I was having a harder time enjoying life in general. And then I go, wait, you can do both. You can do, you can both be a hardworking athlete and put everything you got in it, but also maintaining your friendships. And I also went back to school and I got my MBA during the Olympic year, like those two years. And I was just like, okay, this is how it has to be. This is how life has to be. So yeah, I was like really happy for that decision.
Justin (Host) (16:47):
That’s really good. Just because as you become an adult, I feel like that is almost a constant struggle and it’s a constant balance. There’s never an endpoint where you’re trying to discern, am I focusing too much on my career versus some of my other relationships and friends and that kind of thing, going back to, yeah. You were getting your MBA and I think throughout college, you were also playing on some teams you were playing on the Greek to as well during that time period. So you’re playing for the national team for Greece.
Stephania Haralabidis (17:18):
Yeah, I was. And then I only worked with them during the summers.
Justin (Host) (17:23):
So what was that like? Were you going, were you traveling every weekend to practice with them?
Stephania Haralabidis (17:30):
I wish, but I would go only during the summer for three months and play these big championships and stuff like that. But during the year I was with USC full time school and water polo.
Justin (Host) (17:43):
That I, I think that that’s like a really great thing, even for, for myself as a Filipino, I’ve been trying to understand like my own cultural heritage and I feel like, yeah, being Greek in multiple interviews and, and articles, it’s definitely a big part of your life and kind of your upbringing. So what was it like to kind of either switch from the Greece to the US team and what was that process like too? Cuz I don’t know if everyone understands either the politics behind it or paperwork.
Stephania Haralabidis (18:15):
It’s not as hard as people think, I already had, I’m also part American. So I have a passport. I didn’t have to go through like different things and I only have to have a year off of not playing with the Greek team in order to be able to join the American team. The thing is, it was nothing towards Greece or the coaches or my teammates or anything. It was more of a, I took that summer off from the Greek team and I took the summer off from water polo in general. And then I realized I live in America. I want my life to be in America and I wanna play for the best team in the world. And I know it’s gonna be so hard to be a part of that team, but I wanna try and I did and that’s, that’s all of it. I still love Greece. It still is part of me. Near my Olympic rings, I have these branches, these olive branches next to it to indicate that I’m also like my Greek heritage helped with that too. That’s my answer.
Justin (Host) (19:20):
Yeah. Yeah, for sure. So as you set these goals, how strategic have you been about accomplishing them as well? Do you get out the pen and paper and write at the top or something like how I’m gonna prove myself on the, the US Olympic team or how does that process look like of, of being able to get from A to B?
Stephania Haralabidis (19:47):
So I sat down, I, I went to Adam’s office and I was like, okay, I’ve been training with you for however many months. I don’t know. It was six, seven months at that point. I’ve been playing games. I want you to tell me exactly what I need to do to make this team. And he goes, okay, well, your defense is the top priority. And we’ll go from there because a lefthander is not really taught how to play defense, cuz they’re all about offense. But Adam Gregorian is all about defense because defense wins games not offense. So, m started just becoming a lot better in defense and pushing myself. And he was on top of me pushing me and my teammates were helping me. So I just started getting better from there. And then every single time I needed to fix something, he would tell me and then I would sit and try and fix it.
Justin (Host) (20:42):
As an athlete that’s so tough because if you’re one of the best in the world or aspiring to be, you have to have some sense of ego. Like yeah, I’m good. You know, no one can stop me. So how do you handle that criticism in general? Whenever someone’s telling you, no, you need to change this up.
Stephania Haralabidis (21:00):
I did not take it personally. I took it as they want me to be better and I need to make this team. I want to make this team so badly that I just didn’t let that stuff bother me. I had 16 people telling me every single day. Okay, you gotta do this, this, this, Hey, oh, I don’t like what you did that blah, blah, blah. And at the end of the day I go, okay, oh my gosh, I’m getting better. I might make this team, blah, blah, blah. And then when I started making all the trips and winning all these medals, I, I was like, okay, this is where I wanna be. And I can’t let criticism bother me. A lot of people get really sensitive about being criticized and being told like, you’re doing something wrong, but instead of taking it as a bad thing, you should think about it. Oh, okay. If I do it this way, it will make me better. Which means I will be better than this next person. And I’ll be the best out there. So let me take this, put it in my pocket and learn every single day. So I just took that as how it is in a positive way.
Justin (Host) (22:00):
I feel like that’s definitely the best way to perceive it. And having heard you say that it’s not a surprise, that one of your sessions on TinnCann, is about mental health because that’s definitely helped you kind of stay motivated.
Stephania Haralabidis (22:15):
I saw a sports psychologist when I first got there and I was trying to figure myself out and I didn’t know where I belonged and all that stuff. I saw a sports psychologist every week I talked to him, we were working on my past issues because everything and I became a better person. I became a better athlete. It really helped me in my mental game
Justin (Host) (22:39):
That’s really interesting. So how does a sports psychologist differ from a regular psychologist?
Stephania Haralabidis (22:46):
So I was allowing, so sometimes you think to yourself, okay, I make this mistake and I try to judge myself as a human being and it’s just, it’s crazy. But then your sports psychologist is saying to you, look, this is not about you as a person or as an athlete, you make a mistake instead of just staying in that area and like, oh my God, mistake. And then letting it control you and how you play the rest of the game. You’re supposed to be thinking, okay, I made this mistake. What is next? Okay. I made that mistake. What is next? Because humans make mistakes. It’s part of life and same when it comes with athletes. I no longer see him, but I also see a regular psychologist because it’s good for me to talk to someone and have conversations. And I don’t know, it’s, it’s important. And I think that.
Justin (Host) (23:38):
It’s interesting. This brings me to the point, the fact that you’re 26 and it’s wild to think about, because looking at our notes for today’s podcast, I mean, you’ve had all, all these different things, whether it’s like bronze medals, gold medals throughout the world super world league, super finals. So for yourself, I mean, everyone’s gotta wonder what’s next.
Stephania Haralabidis (24:02):
What’s next? Huh? That’s a, hard question because all I can think about now is 2024, cuz I wanna go for another Olympics and that’s one of my goals and I also am trying to figure out what I like outside of water polo. I’m trying to figure out because I, I have my MBA. I have my undergrad. I have, but I still am trying to figure out what job I’d wanna do that will make happy. And it’s so hard. I don’t know if anybody, I don’t know if anybody has figured it out.
Justin (Host) (24:34):
Yeah. I mean it’s a whole journey that everyone kind of finds out for themselves through a series of experiments. And one thing that I have to remind myself is that it is an experiment. Like there’s a, you can’t, as you were kind of saying, like you can’t take failures personally and they’re not really failures. They’re more so the next thing to, to kind of learn from.
Stephania Haralabidis (24:56):
Yeah, I’m actually like getting my certificate in diving. I’m trying to get my pilots license and I’m trying to be, get my bartending certificate. I’m gonna try to be a notary. Like I’m doing all this little, little stuff because I’m like, maybe something’s gonna click. Maybe something’s gonna be like, okay, this is what it is. You know.
Justin (Host) (25:12):
Are there other things that you’ve tried outside of water polo that you think have actually helped water polo?
Stephania Haralabidis (25:20):
Yeah, maybe. My writing and I just wrote a children’s book and I’m gonna publish on Kindle ebook. I don’t know. It might be good. It might not be, I don’t care. I don’t care being judged about it.
Justin (Host) (25:35):
What’s it about?
Stephania Haralabidis (25:36):
It’s called Athena’s Bravery. It’s about this girl who goes on an adventure and is not afraid to fight evil and doesn’t even care about failure and of life. So that’s the gist of it, but it’s very imaginary and fiction and stuff.
Justin (Host) (25:57):
Paint us a picture. Is this a kind of illustrated book or comic book or like a short story type of thing?
Stephania Haralabidis (26:07):
Short story type of thing.
Justin (Host) (26:09):
Your inspiration from this, where did it come from?
Stephania Haralabidis (26:12):
My sister and I have this incredible imagination, especially when we were kids, we would sit in the kitchen on the kitchen table and we would just make up these worlds and what kind of people we were and just play these story scenarios. And it was so fun. And then I go, oh, what if I started writing them in little notebooks? And maybe later on, I might wanna write a book about it. So I started doing that and it was really fun. So it came from that, our imagination.
Justin (Host) (26:40):
It’s funny because I, I feel like you’re almost this true life version of Athena at this point with everything that you’ve accomplished and which actually leads us to our last question of what do you think makes you uncommon?
Stephania Haralabidis (27:00):
Hmm. I think my work ethic, my love of life and my brutal honesty, those three, I think, but I don’t know. I haven’t met everyone.
Justin (Host) (27:16):
Are there any kind of last statements that you’d wanna leave our listeners with?
Stephania Haralabidis (27:21):
I was taught a very valuable lesson when I was 15. I made my first national team and I actually wrote it down. Getting a big head and a massive attitude will lead you down the wrong path. There will always be someone out there that will want to beat you. There might always be someone that is two steps ahead of you or is more talented, but do you know what makes someone truly stand out? Their attitude?” So being kind to someone and showing them compassion and helping them is something that will make you a better person, a better athlete. And that’s something that I wanted to share.
Justin (Host) (28:03):
Oh man, I wish this was like filmed in front of a live studio audience cause then everyone would just be clapping and standing up.
Stephania Haralabidis (28:11):
I do not want that.
Justin (Host) (28:15):
Stephania, thank you so much for being on the podcast. I really appreciate it. I’m sure our listeners are gonna love this. So to all of our listeners, thank you so much for tuning in. You can schedule a one-on-one video call with the expert you heard from today or browse other esteemed experts by visiting TinnCann.com. That’s TinnCann.com. If you have ideas of who you’d like to hear from or talk to on TinnCann drop us a note at email@example.com.
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