For Caylee Waters, Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse has been all that and more. It has reaffirmed and renewed her love for the sport.
Waters, a goalkeeper, is returning for her second year of AU lacrosse after finishing last season second in the overall individual points standings.
The season was a revelation for this national champion as a player and volunteer assistant coach at the University of North Carolina.
“Absolutely,” Waters said. “Actually, when I was at AU last year, I was working as a product manager for a sports software company, and I had been doing that for about three years. AU showed me this whole other level of love for lacrosse that I have. It made me realize that I wanted to be around lacrosse 24/7. That truly did bring out the best me. It just matched my energy.
“So I quit my job after AU because I want to focus on lacrosse. I was living in North Carolina, and they (the university) wanted me to be a volunteer. I thought, ‘Yeah, this is great. I want to be part of a team. I want to compete.’ So now that I’ve been a coach at UNC and I was able to learn a lot from (coaches) Jenny (Levy), Phil (Barnes) and Emily (Parros), I’m going to look for an assistant-coaching job so I can be a part of lacrosse in that connection because it truly does make me happy, and it’s where I want to be.”
The thing with Athletes Unlimited, last season it was a really pivotal experience in my life.Caylee Waters,Goalkeeper
Lacrosse might seem an odd choice for someone who comes from a family of divers. Both of Waters’ parents were accomplished divers. But the springboard wasn’t for Waters, so she immersed herself in a different sport.
“I was attracted to lacrosse because it was a social thing at first,” she said. “I love sports. When I grew up, it felt like sports were around me 24/7, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I was used to starting sports at such a young age. What attracted me to lacrosse was that I was in fifth grade, and my friends were doing it, and I wasn’t part of it. I was like, ‘What is this sport that they can do that I can’t?’
“That was the competitive part of me. I would play with them recreationally, outside of their practices. I thought, ‘I want to get good at this; I want to be on their level and play with them.’ I kind of did it for fun because that’s what my friends were doing.”
Waters helped North Carolina to a national championship in 2016. Playing in AU’s first season in 2021, she quickly found out that its unique scoring system benefits those who stop the shots as much it does those who take them. In fact, three of the top five finishers on the leaderboard last year were goalkeepers.
“It’s interesting,” she said. “Goalkeeping is a pretty isolating position, but it goes to show how much of an impact the goalies can have on the game. The scoring system, I’m not necessarily sure how they calculate it and make it work, but making saves, they definitely value that because it also gives possession to your team. It can add another element to the game. I like having it there. It’s competitive when it comes to, ‘Hey, let’s try to win this quarter and let’s try to win this game.’”
The on-the-field experience was eye-opening for Waters.
“I wouldn’t really say that this surprised me, but watching the games that my teams weren’t playing in, I think the games just felt so professional at such a high level that as I watching, I felt like such a fan of lacrosse,” she said. “I think it just goes to show that stage allowed for people to be much more creative and push that, push it within that sport.
“As a goalie, I was having to be locked in at all times because there could literally be goals scored left and right, who knows what. I had a goal scored on me when Michelle Tumolo was on the other side of the restraining line – probably one of those big, fun highlight plays. It was like, ‘Whoa, how does that even happen?’”
Waters also likes the off-the-field aspects of AU, particularly empowering female professional athletes.
“It’s very important,” she said. “It’s also something that I am kind of still grasping. As an athlete myself, I feel like I still look at other female athletes, whether it’s tennis stars, soccer stars, and I’m being empowered by them. A lot of times it’s flipping the switch of, ‘Wow, I’m in that position as those athletes, too, of empowering the young girls.’ Here I am being empowered by other athletes.
“It’s just such a cool experience and interesting to be like, ‘Oh, I have that role and that sort of inspiration, as well.’ It means a lot to know that, hey, there are little girls who look up to us and even hearing parents thanking us. This is how meaningful it’s been. It’s really special, because we want to continue for those girls. It’s kind of what people say: You’re going to leave it better than you found it. So thinking and moving forward, just being able to look back at the experience in 10 or 20 years and hopefully seeing young girls at a professional level that‘s even bigger and grander than what we’re experiencing now.”
So after one season in AU, the flame for lacrosse has been rekindled in Waters. Her renewed passion for the sport led her back to her school for a different perspective on a national championship.
Not that Waters is a one-dimensional person. She enjoys listening to podcasts and doing New York Times crossword puzzles. She also said she wants to become a professional pickle ball player someday.
But first things first. She has a lot of lacrosse left to play and coach.
“The thing with Athletes Unlimited, last season it was a really pivotal experience in my life given that it kind of helped show me how involved I wanted to be in lacrosse and just feeling empowered by the other people around me and to make those big life changes of quitting my job and having something else lined up,” she said. “It just allowed me to be myself and be happy and have the courage to pursue other things even if it wasn’t all lined up.
“I can’t speak highly enough of how it’s helped shape me and empowered me to find the courage to do what’s best for me. I’m psyched for Athletes Unlimited coming up.”
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