“We are extremely pleased to welcome Natalie Benson to Fresno State,” Bartko said. “From her collegiate career to her Olympic experience and now as a college coach, we know we have found the right person with the integrity, the drive and the coaching expertise to put Fresno State on the water polo map. She is a special person and I look forward to introducing her to the people around the Valley and to start this very exciting time in our department.”
Involved in the sport for two decades, Benson transformed herself from a player who reached the pinnacle of sport the in college at UCLA and then for Team USA, where she competed in two Olympics, to becoming one of the top up-and-coming coaches in the U.S.
Last month, it was announced that Benson, who also serves as the head coach for the USA Women’s Cadet National Team, had been appointed to the NCAA Division I Water Polo Committee.
“I am thrilled and honored to have been named head coach of the new women’s water polo program at Fresno State,” Benson said. “The addition of our great sport is fantastic for the growth and visibility of water polo in the United States. Excitement from the Valley as well as the water polo community is high, and we have a wealth of talent right in our backyard. This program offers a tremendous opportunity to young women looking to compete at the highest level.
“Thank you to Jim Bartko, Christina Roybal, the athletic administration, and members of the selection committee for the opportunity to become a member of the Bulldog family. My family and I look forward to this experience.”
At her first collegiate coaching job, Benson compiled a 56-49 overall record at Marist in three seasons, going 31-7 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Her team won the regular season championship in 2015, finishing second twice and reaching the conference tournament championship in each of her three seasons. A two-time MAAC Coach of the Year, she has guided two players to MAAC Rookie of the Year awards, six first-team and eight second-team All-MAAC selections. In the classroom, her student-athletes have combined to be named to the MAAC All-Academic Team 16 times.
Regarded as one of the best women’s water polo players of all time, Natalie (Golda) Benson was inducted into the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame on May 30, 2015. An integral part of two Olympic medal-winning squads for Team USA at the 2004 (Bronze) and 2008 (Silver) Olympic Games, Benson also led the United States to three Fédération Internationale de Natation World Championship medals (2003, 2005, 2007), including two gold medals. The 2003 FINA World Championship followed a 2001 FINA Junior World Championship title, both which were firsts in program history.
Benson joined the Senior National Team in the midst of a dominant college career that landed her a spot on the recently announced Pac-12 All-Century Women’s Water Polo Team. In her four seasons in Westwood, she guided the Bruins to three NCAA championships, was a three-time All-America selection and ended her career with 158 goals, which at the time was the third-most in program history.
After redshirting the 2004 season to compete in the Olympics, Benson returned to UCLA for her senior year and led the Bruins to an undefeated season (33-0), the first in program history, and another NCAA title. She was subsequently named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2005 Women’s Water Polo Championships, while also earning the Peter J. Cutino Award, given to the ACWPC National Player of the Year.
“When you read her accomplishments in the sport of water polo, I know we have found the right person to lead and start our program,” Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro said. “National champion, Olympian and Hall of Fame coach, Natalie embraces all the qualities to spearhead this new team. The water polo community will be very impressed.”
In 2007, along with her 2004 Olympic teammates Nicolle Payne and Heather Moody, Benson was inducted into the New York Athletic Club (NYAC) Hall of Fame. The trio became the first female inductees into the NYAC Hall of Fame, which at the time had 121 members since its first induction in 1981.
Benson’s coaching career began in 2006, serving as an undergraduate assistant coach at UCLA where she helped lead the Bruins to their fourth national championship in six years. After completing her international playing career in 2008, Benson began coaching at Huntington Beach Water Polo Club out of Huntington Beach, Calif. She led the 18-and-under girl’s teams to a gold medal at the 2011 Junior Olympics and a silver medal in 2012 and 2013. In 2011, she was awarded the Doc Hunkler Distinguished Coaching Award, presented annually to the top scholastic coach in the nation.
Benson also served as the head coach of the 2013 USA Water Polo’s Women’s Cadet National Team, leading the group to a gold medal at the UANA Pan American Youth Water Polo Championships (17U) in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Benson received her bachelor’s degree in history from UCLA in 2006.
She and her husband, Eric, have two daughters, Elise and Claire.
About Fresno State
Fresno State Athletics features 19 NCAA Division I sport programs that will so go up to 21 sports with the addition of wrestling and women's water polo for the 2017-18 academic year. Athletics play a key role within the educational mission to advance knowledge and develop individuals to drive our collective progress. Our commitment, through determined effort, dedicated teamwork, creativity, openness, honesty and integrity is to focus on the best interests of our student-athletes and of Fresno State. In preparing our student-athletes for future success at the highest level, we will hone leadership and character that transcends the arena of athletics to promote the greater good.
The timeline for water polo is as follows:
July 2016 – Hiring of assistant coach
Summer 2016 – Recruitment of student-athletes begins
November 2016 – Early signing period; recruits can sign National Letters of Intent with the Bulldogs
August 2017 – Student-athletes arrive on campus
Spring 2018 – Water polo program begins competition
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