Hila Futorian

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Some whole-heartedly believe in destiny, while others would argue there’s nothing in this world outside of mere coincidences.

But the journey of University of the Pacific sophomore water polo player Hila Futorian, who traveled thousands of miles to do more than just prove herself in a swimming pool, could certainly test those that believe the latter.

Surprisingly, her motives aren’t too different from other student-athletes, despite her coming from a much different reality than many of her American-born teammates.

She started playing water polo when she was only nine years old, but as she grew older, she was willing to pause her athletic ambitions as she was committed to serve in the Israeli army after high school.

Every Israeli boy and girl is expected to complete two years of mandatory service in the army when they turn 18 years old.

By that time, Futorian felt like she’d accomplished everything she ever wanted in water polo. After nine years, she was finally ready to pursue something different.

But things didn’t work out the way she hoped after completing a plethora of exams and interviews for different jobs in the army.

“That’s when I decided I wanted to be an athlete. So, I continued in my path as a water polo player on the national team,” said Futorian.

Not your typical 18-year-old experience

Looking back, it’s pretty remarkable to see Futorian’s success with the national team to her early achievements in the U.S.—31 goals, 15 assists and 20 steals as a freshman, along with making the Golden Coast Conference All-Freshman Team in her first year at University of the Pacific.

Some might be surprised by how quickly she matured as a player, but it’s hard to deny her experiences in Israel having a direct impact.

Make no mistake, those two years back home in the army were no cakewalk experience.

When 18-year-olds in other countries were going off to college, getting their first apartment, and learning how to be independent for the first time in their lives, Futorian was training for upwards of four weeks on the basics of shooting a gun and neutralizing terrorist threats.

“It’s basic stuff for Israelis because a lot of this stuff can happen just day-to-day,” Futorian said.

“Like right now in Israel, there are a lot of terrorist attacks. So, they teach us how to prevent it. You see a normal person walking in the street, and that person could take out a knife and start attacking people. Or, you could see a backpack lying in the middle of the street. You’re taught to know it could be a bomb. That’s the kind of stuff we’re taught.”

Imagining a teenager being thrown into a situation like that is enough to unnerve even the most stoic individual. But Futorian claims she was never afraid of fulfilling her duties for her country.

Serving for the army isn’t something that was just thrown at her at the last minute.

Like every other Israeli teenager, she had been preparing for that moment ever since she was a child.

Of course, it doesn’t make it any easier when bad things happen.

And bad things do happen.

“It’s not everywhere all of the time, but things do happen here every once in a while,” said Futorian. “You just need to be careful and look around you when you go in the street. You especially need to be watchful as a soldier because the terrorist attacks are usually aimed at them or big targets with a lot of citizens in one place. But I don’t think it was scary. I’ve never looked at it as scary. I was just really responsible and knew how to act if something happened to me in real life.”

Thank God it didn’t.

“But I have good friends that things have happened to. One of my friends is a commander in the army, and a few of her soldiers died. So even though I’ve never experienced it personally, I do have friends that have been involved in incidents.”

Lighting a fire from within

Fortunately, Futorian was able to finish up her duties safely and turn her full attention back towards school and water polo.

COVID-19 had reinvigorated her interest in the sport so much that she started to seek out opportunities at colleges in the United States.

Few things can rekindle a passion for something than having it taken away from you for an extended period of time.

COVID-19 left Futorian feeling more thankful than ever just for being involved in the sport. However, the realization that it could all be taken away at the snap of a finger lit a fire under her to see just how far she could go in the sport.

“Through COVID-19, I got to the point when I realized I wanted to pursue my dream and not stop playing water polo after I finished with the army. I wanted to keep experimenting with what I could do and see what I was capable of achieving,” said Futorian.

“I was out of the pool for a long time during COVID-19. We had two months of quarantine without going outside at all. So, I understood I didn’t want to finish the athletics chapter in my life at that time. That’s when I started thinking about coming to the United States.”

Futorian started emailing multiple universities in hopes of finding a school that was the right fit. She even created a YouTube video of some of her performances to help improve her chances.

That’s when the Tigers came in with an offer.

“I just took the best decision for me, not only water polo-wise but also academic-wise,” said Futorian. “I also liked that it was a private school and not too big.”

Through COVID-19, I got to the point when I realized I wanted to pursue my dream and not stop playing water polo after I finished with the army. I wanted to keep experimenting with what I could do and see what I was capable of achieving.

Appreciating the journey over the destination

It was a bumpy transition at first, especially with the differences in the way water polo is officiated in the U.S. compared to Israel.

Futorian admitted that she put a lot of pressure on herself when struggling to catch on in the beginning.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise from such a fierce competitor who traveled miles away from her home country to do more than just participate in water polo.

She wanted to help her team win.

It’s an admirable trait that her teammates have helped her rein in a bit, especially in those moments when she was being too hard on herself.

“People told me, ‘You need to be easier on yourself. It’s your first year. It’s okay that you do that’,” Futorian said. “I was just making a lot of rookie mistakes in the beginning.”

Despite the struggles, Futorian was an immediate starter in a year where she proved to be one of the best freshmen players in the entire conference. It’s a remarkable journey from nearly quitting water polo altogether and entering the army to being a decorated student-athlete right out of the gates.

“I came here to learn more about myself and see what I can do in water polo,” said Futorian. “All of this is a new experience—attending school in the U.S., living in California, playing water polo and all of the mistakes that came with that. Everything I’m doing now is part of the journey and part of something that will make me not only a better player in the end—but also a better person.”