When John Abdou taught and coached water polo at Burbank High more than a decade ago, he was almost as young as his students and players.
Fast forward more than a decade later and Abdou is now one of the key figures behind the scenes of the success of the United States Water Polo program, as the Chief High Performance Officer. USA Water Polo is based in Irvine.
“The role of Chief High Performance Officer includes overseeing all the national teams, from the Senior Olympic teams all the way through the Olympic Development Programs and Pipeline National Teams,” Abdou said. “I also oversee our growth department which includes coach and referee education and events. I am also the liaison for the organization to the U.S. Olympic Committee, NCAA and CIF.”
Abdou played college water polo at UC Irvine, graduating in 2001. He then got started in education at Burbank High, teaching in the Social Sciences department.
“I’ve come a long ways from Burbank. Burbank was a very important start for me. I was working at the Sport Chalet in Burbank,” Abdou, now 39, recalled. “They told me they needed a water polo coach and I was already commuting to Burbank to work at Sport Chalet. So I went over and talked to them about the water polo job and the teaching job.”
Abdou worked and coached at Burbank from 2001 to 2005, before returning to school to work on a master’s degree at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He was the Senior Adviser for Burbank High’s 2005 Senior Class.
Abdou, who now lives in Orange County, spent six years in Pennsylvania, four as Bucknell’s head coach, before returning to Southern California.
”I’ve been fortunate and blessed that a lot of good fortune has come my way,” Abdou said. “I’m (now) in that general manager role like a professional sports team that is spending most of his time in an administrative (role). I don’t get to be on deck that much. Every once in a while I’ll get to do a camp or a clinic and when those come up I get pretty excited to do them.”
In returning to California, he joined the coaching staff at UC Santa Barbara, where his wife-to-be Anna was also at.
“She was getting her (doctorate) while I was there. Once she graduated, the U.S. water polo job opened up. They called me in to talk about it and I accepted almost right away,” Abdou said. “I officially started in January of 2014 with U.S. water polo.”
Abdou said he had done a number of things for USA Water Polo leading up to getting hired into a full-time role.
“I was the men’s National ‘B’ Team coach. I had several leadership positions in the Olympic Development program. I coached a couple of junior and youth national teams. I had different roles with U.S. Water Polo leading up to that, so it was kind of hiring within,” he said of getting hired.
USA Water Polo Chief Executive Officer Christopher Ramsey praised Abdou for his work.
“John Abdou has really broadened our high performance programming, drastically increasing the number of athletes trained and providing coaches and officials with meaningful professional development opportunities,” Ramsey said. “His work is helping our clubs and members maximize their potential to compete against the best in this country and the world.”
In helping develop water polo, Abdou can often be found at airports.
“If a state or city offers water polo in America, I’ve probably been there,” he said. “We’re excited about the sport growing nationally. We don’t want it to be just California. I’ve put in a lot of frequent flier miles the last five years with this job. It has been a big blessing. I have been able to travel the world because of water polo.”
Abdou, who has two young sons, said he gets the greatest satisfaction out of keeping things operating at a high level.
“What I’m most proud of in accomplishments is that over the past five years we’ve been able to build a robust pipeline of athletes and coaches that are ready for the next level. That’s what I spend most of my time (doing), trying to make sure that we develop (and) increase the opportunities for athletes and coaches to develop in our pipeline, so that when the time comes they are ready to step in to major roles,” he said. “If you don’t have a pipeline, you’re in trouble. If you don’t create some sort of pathway for athletes and coaches and even referees to develop in a high performance model, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble when positions open up or athletes retire. It’s not like the NBA where I can go pick up free agents. We now have the infrastructure, a healthy infrastructure and pipeline so that we’re ready for the future. “
Abdou said USA water polo teams will be playing in tournaments in Korea, Peru, Portugal, Kuwait and Trinidad and Tobago this summer. His goal is to be able to be at as many of these events as possible.
“I’m still trying to figure out what I can and can’t make,” he said.
If there is one thing Abdou is certain about, it is that he is grateful to have worked at Burbank High.
“It was my first job in water polo and education from when I graduated college and it set the tone and inspiration for the next steps in my career,” he said.