Humility and happy accidents with Tilly Kearns
If you’ve had any exposure to aquatic sports on campus, the name Tilly Kearns will immediately bring a smile to your face. Kearns, a double-redshirt junior water polo player and Olympian, is an active social media user whether she’s playing in Tokyo or right here in Los Angeles. Her energy can only be described as positively electric, but does that persona really live up to the real thing?
After a heart to heart with Kearns, I can attest that it does.
With the origins of her water polo career came Kearns’ positive and humble attitude. She dove into aquatic success at a young age, and hasn’t been out of the pool since.
“As soon as I started [water polo], I loved it straight away,” Kearns said. “I would swim and I played all the sports as a kid, but as soon as I tried water polo, I figured that was the one for me.”
Kearns’ future in water polo, which has since earned her opportunities to play across the world from Australia to L.A., was not entirely predicted — if at all. Two members of USC’s 2013 championship team, Hannah Buckling and Anni Espar, were the root of Kearns’ knowledge of USC’s program, and the rest is history.
“They put it on the radar and they said, ‘Hey, you should look at this school, the coach is looking for players,’” Kearns said. “[The coach] reached out to them and said, ‘Is there anyone who you think would be a good fit at USC?’ and they put my name forward, so it kind of happened by accident.”
USC wasn’t Kearns’ only draw to come to the United States for college. A change of scenery and coaching style were necessary for Kearns’ ultimate goal: the Olympics.
“Ultimately, I chose to go to the States in the first place because I wanted to make the Olympics, and I knew that if I stayed in Sydney, where I’d grown up and I’d done the same training my whole life … I wouldn’t have been good enough to make that team,” Kearns said. “I came here knowing that the caliber of coaches would get me to the Olympics, and ultimately they did.”
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics, despite its delays regarding the coronavirus pandemic, was the pure exemplification of Kearns’ childhood dream to be an Olympian.
“I grew up watching my dad, who was a professional rugby player,” Kearns said. “I would see him singing the anthem with his team standing arm-in-arm, and then see all of his archived photos and stuff like that, so I knew from the get-go that I wanted to be an Olympian.”
Kearns describes her father, Phil Kearns, as her hero, and someone who had an attitude on and off the field that she wanted to replicate in her own sport.
“It was sort of subconscious, but I always just really admired him,” Kearns said. “I’m very grateful because he was never that parent that pushed me towards something or gave me unsolicited advice — he always just took the backseat and I guess he was really proud of me, but he didn’t really make it that known, he just let me forge my own path.”
Another quality Kearns’ parents instilled in her was humility, something often taken for granted among collegiate athletes. These young people are put on a pedestal for their whole lives because of their incredible skill in their sport. This can, in many cases, lead to an inflated ego and a cocky attitude, but Kearns is the prime example of an exception.
“I think being humble is a hugely important trait,” Kearns said. “That’s something my dad and my mom had both sort of instilled in me to, you know, achieve quietly.”
“Achieving quietly” — a new quote added to my own very low-stakes club sports pre-game ritual — is a pillar of Kearns’ success and something engrained in her team at USC.
“That’s what’s so special about this program, is that we do play for each other,” Kearns said. “My teammates work for me, I work for them … It goes hand in hand, and I think that’s what separates us from a lot of other colleges.”
USC’s water polo programs are legendary in the aquatic sports world. With seven National Championships and multiple almost-championships over the past few years, the Trojans are eager to prove themselves this season. The pressure adds to the excitement, Kearns said, especially when they face the team who has knocked them out of first place in multiple championship finals.
“We lost to Stanford [over] the weekend and that one really hit home because the only team I’ve ever lost to with the Trojans is Stanford,” Kearns said. “Every time I play them there is pressure there, but I love it.”
The saying “pressure makes diamonds” is true in the world of sports. Those final moments of game time, where the crowd is cheering and the coaches are screaming and the refs are frantically trying to get everyone in line. When two foes are tied with just seconds to go before the final buzzer. When the game-winning goal is just a stroke away. That is the pressure that makes diamonds of these moments in the pool for Kearns.
“I’ve never been the one to put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself, but if I do, I do it intentionally because I feel like I do play my best when there’s pressure on me,” Kearns said. “I think this season feels very different to the first two because I’ve lost two national championships in the final game, and they’ve been close games, they’ve been against the same opponent, so now I’m sick of losing and I really want to win — that’s always in the back of my mind.”
A strong will to win and a team-oriented mindset are what will potentially earn Kearns a National Championship in a few short months, both things she already possesses. Her life in the sport of water polo speaks for itself in terms of success — this is just the next chapter. Kearns’ respect for her past, her program and her progress are what make her a champion.
But a ring would be nice, too.
“I’m pretty proud of my younger self — I think I always kept a pretty level headed mind to my water polo,” Kearns said. “There hasn’t really been a point where I have been really suffering with … my identity as a player, so I am really proud of little Tilly for getting me here.”
Dana Hammerstrom is a sophomore writing about the mental health of collegiate athletes, as well as the emotional pressures they face in her column “Heart to Heart.”