From health scare to international success: Water polo alumna surges forward

Toula Falvey

Toula Falvey

The pain was so intense and the future so uncertain that Toula Falvey ’22 thought she might have to give up the sport she loves.

Instead, buoyed by support from her University of the Pacific water polo teammates and coaches and resilient in the face of a career-threatening illness, Falvey is now a standout for the Great Britain National Team.

Falvey was hit by the serious health scare after her junior season with the Tigers in 2021. The four-year letterwinner traveled to England to train with the national team when she experienced abdominal pain and vomiting and was later admitted to the hospital.

Doctors discovered Falvey had renal vein thrombosis, a blood clot in the vein that empties blood from the kidney.

“Going from training with the national team to not knowing if I was going to play water polo again was heartbreaking,” she said.

Fast forward to 2024, Falvey is playing professionally and recently helped Great Britain to a seventh-place finish at the European Championships in Eindhoven, Netherlands. The team’s performance advanced the nation to the 2024 World Water Polo Championships in Doha, Qatar.

It will be Great Britain’s first appearance in the event since 2013.

Falvey’s turnaround came after doctors were able to save a kidney through surgery. In 2021, Falvey returned to the United States to see specialists at University of California San Francisco Medical Center. She later returned to campus prescribed with blood thinners and worked with the coaches and training staff on non-contact activity.

Prior to her senior season at Pacific in 2022, Falvey took a blood and disorder test that would determine if she could play. Good news came out of those tests, and she received approval to take to the waters.

Falvey went on to become a 2022 All-Golden Coast Conference Second Team selection and also earned conference All-Academic Honors. Upon graduation, she pursued a career professionally and earned a spot on the Great Britain national team. The Novata, California native has dual citizenship in the United States and Great Britain as her mother is from England and her grandparents still live there.

“Playing for Great Britain has definitely been a dream of mine,” she said. “I would say we are the underdogs [in the World Water Polo Championships]. We don’t have any funding. We barely train together. But we are a good team, and I think we are a shock to everyone.”

In her four years at Pacific, Falvey appeared in 81 career games and scored 116 goals.

Falvey was part of Pacific’s 2019 Golden Coast Conference championship team as a freshman. She stuck with the program after the 2020 season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ranked third in the conference with a high of 39 goals on 74 shots in 2021 as a junior.

Her senior year would end up being her best. She was named co-team captain with Mariana Duarte ’22, ranked eighth in the conference in goals per game (1.8) and top-10 in total goals (45) en route to her all-conference selection.

“Being a student-athlete at Pacific, it’s definitely endurance,” Falvey said. “Going to school and playing at such a high level. I learned different lessons each year, especially playing at Pacific during COVID. My last year at Pacific, I was a captain with Mariana. I learned a lot just from teamwork and trying to develop our team. I’ve definitely used that in my new career.”

With the 2024 season around the corner for Pacific, first-year head coach Candice Vorbeck uses Falvey as an inspiration for the team.

“This team is familiar with success, and our international representation has played a huge role in that. We love seeing our current and former athletes competing at the highest level,” Vorbeck said. “We have big goals for this upcoming season and a Golden Coast Conference title is definitely one of them.”

The Tigers are looking to avenge their fall in the conference title game to Fresno State last season. Falvey still follows the team closely and has watched every game since she graduated.

“I’m super excited to watch the girls play this year,” Falvey said. “Definitely a tough loss with that final against Fresno State. They’ve been our biggest rivals in the conference. I think it’s an exciting opportunity for the girls to get after it this season.”

Current student-athletes are eager to get the season underway and view Falvey as a role model.

“Toula is a great example of what Pacific women’s water polo is about,” said senior Annikah Lillie ’24, a former teammate of Falvey. “We are excited to get after it this season and hopefully continue the legacy left by great players like Toula.”

Pacific begins the season at the Stanford Invitational Saturday, Feb. 3. The Tigers will play their home opener against Loyola Marymount Sunday, March 10 at Chris Kjeldsen Pool in the Douglass M. Eberhardt Aquatics Center. See the full schedule and purchase tickets online.