Weinberg feature

Teen discovers life beyond premier-level athletics
Weinberg spurns water-polo power UCLA
News Sports Reporter

Steve Weinberg is used to the uncomfortable silences.

They stem from the same questions friends, acquaintances and relatives have posed to him during the last few months.

So, have you decided where you'll be playing water polo in college next year?

He has.

But possibly the best high school water polo player that the state of Michigan has ever produced isn't going to UCLA, even though the defending national champions offered him a scholarship and a road that could lead to a starting spot by his junior year. Nor is the recent Huron High School graduate going to any other Division I water polo program, though most were begging for the two-time U.S. Junior National Team member to give them a second look.

No, Steve Weinberg is instead attending the University of Michigan.

Where he may or may not play for the school's club water polo team.

And thus begins the pregnant pause.

I want to do more things in life than water polo, he tells the curious questioners while they were recovering from this stunning bit of news about the kid who, on the outside at least, seemed to be defined by his ability to rifle yellow balls into tiny goals.

"But there's definitely much more to it than that," he adds.

Yes, there is.

And here's some of it.

Just call this story the re-education of Steve Weinberg.

As recently as two years ago, Weinberg ate, slept and breathed the sport that he began playing at the age of 9. This was a teenager who got up in the middle of the night to watch water polo on ESPN, an All-American as a sophomore whose entire wardrobe seemed to be made up of water polo T-shirts. The two-time Michigan player of the year spent two summers playing for the U.S. National Cadet Team at junior tournaments in Italy, Turkey and Yugoslavia. He was on course to play for the U.S. Olympic team one day, he hoped.

When did it all change?

Weinberg can pinpoint a few moments along the way when his attitude toward water polo started to shift: Little epiphanies that led him to contemplate a future outside the sport.

Decision proved to be easy
But it probably all started during the holiday break of his junior year. He was out in California, the only Michigan kid practicing with the cadet team when the actual U.S. National Team came to the training center to scrimmage the juniors. For some reason, his first thought wasn't about the thrill of competing against America's best water polo players for one of the first times in his life. No, he thought about the fact that these 20-something and 30-something athletes were playing water polo, instead of spending the holidays with their families.

"That was really strange," he thought. "Wait a moment. I want something besides water polo?"

Perhaps. In his freshman year at Huron, Weinberg joined the youth council of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, the nonprofit group that hands out thousands of dollars a year to charitable causes that range from Christmas in April to Food Gatherers. He attended regular meetings, voiced his opinion and did not do much else - until the fall of his senior year when he was elected co-chair of the council.

The new responsibilities caused Weinberg to rearrange his priorities.

Suddenly, the Huron student with the 3.9 grade-point average was spending two to three hours a week doing his foundation work.

"At that point, I started realizing that I really enjoyed what I'm doing," he said. "I got greater satisfaction out of what I was able to do (with the foundation) than I did by scoring a goal."

One weekend this past fall, a foundation meeting conflicted with a water polo tournament in which Huron was competing.

He attended the meeting.

"The decision was easy for me," he said.

Standing out
With the onset of his final year at Huron, Weinberg was being recruited seriously by every school with a Division I program. He narrowed his choices: Playing top-flight water polo at UCLA, which has won three of the last six NCAA championships, or attending the University of Michigan, where he would likely prepare himself for a career in nonprofit work or business, rather than water polo.

"They were pretty much polar opposites," he said. "There really was no medium for me."

UCLA flew Weinberg to California for an official recruiting visit last fall. That experience convinced Weinberg to stay closer to home.

It's not that he didn't enjoy UCLA. But his 48 hours in Los Angeles led him to believe that the world of collegiate water polo wasn't for him.

During that two-day span, he only hung out with water polo players - almost all of them upper middle-class white kids from California.

"They all lived together," he said. "They all practiced together. I just wanted more."

He also learned a few other things: UCLA water polo players train 47 weeks a year at the school. Many of the classes he wanted to enroll in would conflict with his commitment to the team. So would career internships and visits home to his family. And finally, since all freshmen are redshirted at UCLA, he would likely be in college until he was 23.

"Spending five or six years in college is not something I wanted to do," said Weinberg, who will turn 18 on July 30. "I just couldn't make that commitment. I just felt like I'd be missing too much."

So he chose the University of Michigan.

Susan and Neal Weinberg had been firsthand witnesses to the evolution of their youngest son from a pool rat to someone perfectly happy being a fish out of water. Although Steve Weinberg said that telling his parents was the toughest part of the decision-making process, his parents half expected it to happen - but later in his career after he had finished playing water polo in college.

And they were anything but unhappy.

"I'm just surprised that he was able to squint and figure out what the next four years would be like," said Susan Weinberg. "We're still surprised - pleasantly surprised - that he was able to parse that out. His choice is, quite frankly, more in line with my own values than where his talents were."

Wasted time? Not at all
So what has all of this meant to Steve Weinberg today? Freedom for the first time in his teenage years, that's what. When he was totally committed to water polo, going three days without swimming or doing some other kind of training for the sport was unheard of. These days, he's taking tennis lessons for the first time in his life, teaching swimming to little kids, going on regular bike rides around northeast Ann Arbor and playing basketball with his older brother, David. The other day, Weinberg jammed his thumb playing one-on-one hoops, an event that would have had him in a panic just a short time ago. Instead, he iced it and forgot about the minor injury.

But let's go back to those uncomfortable silences and other reactions he gets from people. Inevitably, the question comes up: But doesn't that mean you've wasted your life playing a sport that you're not so serious about any more?

Weinberg doesn't see it that way. As far he is concerned, Steve Weinberg the Water Polo Guy has taken a step toward transforming into Steve Weinberg the All-Around Guy or Steve Weinberg the Interesting Guy.

"You could say I have nothing to show for it because I'm not going to play on the Olympic team one day," he said. "But I felt like I experienced so much because of water polo.

"I loved the sport - I truly enjoyed it," he added. "I just didn't want it to be my life."