It was early 2009, and Cal men’s water polo coach Kirk Everist was just about to meet his newest group of recruits.
One of the prospects on the trip was a tall skinny kid from La Jolla High School in San Diego. His name: Hunter Gettelfinger.
Everist had yet to see Gettelfinger play in a live game, but two Cal water polo players, and a respected club water polo coach in San Diego, recommended that Everist give him a chance. But when Gettelfinger first walked onto the pool deck, Everist was perplexed.
Witnessing his overall appearance and laid-back vibe, Everist thought that Gettelfinger looked like someone more interested in surfing and sitting around all day than in being a committed student. But his test scores and grades showed that he was.
During one of the nights of the trip, Everist came by the dorms where the recruits were staying to chat with them. When it came time to talk to Gettelfinger, the two took a walk around the campus.
Everist was struck by the high school senior’s ability to engage in a conversation and to convey why the university was right for him. By the time Everist and Gettelfinger returned to the dorms, the head coach was convinced that the kid was right for the school — and for his team.
“You certainly cannot get an impression just by looking at him,” Everist said. “There will be an immediate, ‘I know what that guy is all about.’ And if you made that mistake, you will be way off.”
With long blond hair, an untidy goatee and well-worn jeans, Gettelfinger can blend in with the eclectic student body at Berkeley. The 23-year-old enjoys surfing and playing the guitar, and he lives in one of the cooperatives near campus.
As a member of the water polo team, the 6’3’’ Gettelfinger is a valuable player.
After redshirting his freshman season, Gettelfinger played in all 28 matches for the Bears in 2010. That year, Cal lost in the national championship match in overtime to USC.
The following year, Gettelfinger played in all but two matches for the Bears and was the 10-highest scorer for the team.
Just like his coach predicted, he was thriving at the school. But it wasn’t always that easy.
It was late 2011, and Gettelfinger had just finished his sophomore season. He was coping with an ailing shoulder, feeling like he was sacrificing his own personal happiness to try to balance his practice and class schedules and was longing to explore the world outside of Berkeley. So he decided to take a mental and physical rest.
This was not the first time that Gettelfinger decided to take time away from school. Between eighth and ninth grade, he was home-schooled, taking online courses in English, mathematics and Spanish. His parents encouraged their son to use the less rigorous school schedule to think, be creative and relax.
“When Hunter does something, he does it 100 percent,” said Elaine Alrutz, Gettelfinger’s mother. “You can go 100 percent, but you’ve got to have downtime.”
And downtime is what he got. Home schooling allowed Gettelfinger to spend more time developing his other passions. Surfing and playing the guitar turned into two of his “spiritual and creative” expressions. This was an experience that he was missing while in school. He viewed it as a “time to do something else and allow myself to live more.”
So when he felt the moment was right to step away from Berkeley, he was already aware of the benefits of taking a break from school.
His parents, specifically his father, encouraged Hunter and his two siblings to prolong their college experiences, to look at the “real world” and come back to school refocused. “Academic learning is one type of of learning,” Gettelfinger said. “And being out and having experience is another type. So as much as I have learned in my classes and experiences here, I needed to do something else.”
After mulling it over during winter vacation, he disenrolled for the 2012 spring semester. What he would actually do during the time period was unclear. “But the path laid out before me as it did,” he said.
For six months, Gettelfinger got the time he needed to reset and re-evaluate his life. There was no one solution but a blend of unique events.
That included hiking and taking in the starry night sky in the Sonoran desert in Mexico with his father and his father’s friend for about two weeks. Carrying enough food and water to sustain them, Gettelfinger began to value a simpler lifestyle.
Already with an appreciation for sustainable agriculture, Gettelfinger then traveled to an organic farm outside of Tucson, Ariz., where he worked for two weeks.The opportunity to work the land as a farmer was an experience Gettelfinger “wanted to have for a really long time.” And living in a former goat-milking room in a barn was a step up from his previous living arrangements.
During this time away, his teammates, friends at Berkeley and family members were on his mind. Although he needed a break, he also started to feel a strain on his relationships back at school.
Gettelfinger then made a trip back to Berkeley, where he talked with Everist about his decision to leave. Everist was convinced that this was best for Gettelfinger and that he would come back and be in better physical and mental shape. “I trust his feel for his world,” Everist said. “He obviously needed time to think and do some things.”
Instead of ending his time away, he left again to spend a month at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, in Carmel Valley. He was working six days a week, washing dishes, composting and pouring concrete. That was supplemented with group meditation sessions in the morning and evening.
It was during this period that he came to terms with the answer to a question he was struggling to deal with: What were his responsibilities, as a Cal water polo player, to the world around him?
“When you step away from it, take a step back and gain this perspective, you see what a privilege it is to be a part of Division I athletics at Cal,” Gettelfinger said. “And that it is OK to be privileged and have those opportunities and not to feel like you are just wasting your energy.”
He then went down to San Diego, where Cal was taking part in an end-of-semester spring tournament. With a renewed sense of energy, he was ready to come back and reconnect with his teammates.
Gettelfinger returned to Berkeley and, after a two-week break for the start of summer, began training again with the team.
The decision to come back was just as difficult as the challenge before him. With six months off from playing water polo and just a few months away from the start of the team’s 2012 fall season, Gettelfinger had to get to work right away.
With a rested shoulder, a balanced mind and a fresh disposition, he did. And instead of viewing his academic and athletic lives as a chore, he gained a newfound appreciation for his athletic and academic life.
“Being able to step away allowed me to make a choice. I can go back if I want to, and I do not have to go back. And I felt that agency in that choice,” Gettelfinger said. “Having those experiences and feeling grounded and balanced internally and mentally just allowed me to come back to the game with a new perspective,” he said.
His restored mindset also translated into strong play. When Gettelfinger returned to the team for the 2012 season, he picked up right where he left off. He played in all 25 of the Bears’ matches and finished fifth on the team in scoring. Gettelfinger also excelled in other areas: He led his team in steals and was fifth in assists. Just months after returning to the sport, he earned honorable mention for All-American honors.
A year later, the fifth-year senior’s desire is even stronger than before because his collegiate water polo career is almost over. “Cal water polo has given me so much in my life,” Gettelfinger said. “I am going to give it all I’ve got for one more semester.”
Although his water polo career is set to end sometime in December, his academic career at Berkeley will extend beyond this semester. Gettelfinger plans to take another break from school before graduating. He sees it as an opportunity to once again take time to learn in a different way and explore his interests. It is a step that he has taken before.
Stephen Hobbs covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].