I’m the first to admit I was nervous about water polo.
It’s a fierce and fast sport and the most in/famous water polo match is probably the semi-final between Hungary and the Soviet Union at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. The match took place against the backdrop of the Hungarian revolution, which had been crushed by the Soviet army, and the violence in the pool between the two teams led to it being dubbed the blood in the water match. With the Hungarians leading 4-0, the game was even called off in the final minute because of fears about crowd reactions after a Soviet player punched open the eye of a Hungarian player. The Hungarian team went on to win the gold medal after beating Yugoslavia 2-1 in the final.
The origins of water polo date back to the mid-19th century when a form of rugby football was developed and played in lakes and rivers in England and Scotland. Early games were characterised by players’ brute strength and ability to keep opponents submerged. Gradually rules and regulations were introduced to manage play and players, and water polo was the first team sport to be introduced to the Olympics programme in 1900. A century later, women’s water polo became an Olympic sport at Sydney2000 after protests from the Australian women’s team, which won gold after beating the USA team.
I was keeping my nerves in check when I contacted a couple of local water polo teams to ask about joining them. The organiser for one team told me I’d have to complete a swimming test and a beginners course, and suggested it would be dangerous for me, as an amateur, to play with their professional players.
Anna, from Beckenham Water Polo Club which is part of Beckenham Swimming Club, was far more welcoming and invited me to join one of the weekly training sessions. I found out after the session that the Beckenham club includes players who’ve recently represented England and Scotland – and the whole squad looked pretty professional to me.
At the pool, I stuck in my contact lenses (my first time wearing them to swim) and realised I’d forgotten to bring swimming goggles. Natalie kindly loaned me a spare pair. In the pool, men’s team coach Nick gave us the swimming drills to warm up. Fiddling with my goggles, I missed what he said but watched in awe as people powered up the pool. I took my place at the side of the pool where I figured I’d interfere the least with anyone else and started to make my sedate way towards the deep end.
The pools where I usually swim have a gentle slope. The pool at West Wickham has a diving platform – which I hadn’t noticed. About halfway down the pool there was an abrupt drop, which I could see only too clearly because I was wearing my contact lenses. Each time I swam over the drop, it startled me. And then there was the water churned up by about 15 people hurtling up and down the pool at fearsome speeds.
I was relieved when Nick called a halt to the swimming drills. But my relief didn’t last long.
I’d read about the eggbeater – the technique water polo players use to stay afloat, where they rotate their legs in large circles in toward each other to keep afloat during a game – but it hadn’t made sense to me and I was wondering how long we’d be in the water.
Anna explained the technique and suggested I tuck a ball under one arm for extra buoyancy and stability. ‘It’s how we teach water polo to kids,’ she said. It helped. And I needed all the help.
We got into small groups and began practicing passing the ball, without it touching the water, between the five of us. The goalkeeper is the only player who can touch the ball with both hands, so all the other players need to be able to catch and pass the ball with one hand. I managed this once – with my left hand. Nick told us to widen each circle, so different groups were mixed together, and to practice passing over a greater distance. I managed this even less, and spent more time apologising to other groups as I bobbed after each pass I’d missed.
Next up: goal shooting practice. Which involves launching yourself out of the water to slam the ball at the goal. There’s a lot going on in that move.
While some of the squad set up the goals, I grabbed the chance to chat with Anna. She told me most water polo players have swum competitively at school or college and gravitate to the sport for a fresh challenge. We talked about the need for players to be able to change their pace and direction quickly, and how much the water polo swimming style varies from traditional front crawl because players need to see where they’re going, where the ball is, and where their team and opponents are.
Once the goals were set up, Nick set two different drills. I watched for a while, noticing how people trapped the ball between their arms, propelling it towards the goal through their swimming action, before lifting the ball up and shooting at the goal. After a bit of encouragement I had a go. It seemed to take forever for me to reach the goal and I couldn’t get my palm in the right place. I threw the ball and it bobbed gently across the water to the left of the goal. If it had been possible to hang my head I would have done.
Nick arranged the group into two teams, and we practiced a few 6-on-5 routines. I went where I was told and, after encouragement from our goalkeeper, tried to block the sightlines of the attacking players by waving my arm in the air.
After each team had attacked and defended, Nick called for us to play a game. If I’d thought people had swum fast during the drills, it was nothing compared to their speed during play. I’m not a fast swimmer and quickly decided the best I could do was lurk around the middle of the pool on the off-chance I could be useful if the ball landed near me.
Play moved up and down the pool, goals were scored, players jumped out and others jumped in. I splashed around, usually a good few seconds (or minutes) behind the main area of play, marvelling at the pace of play, the stamina of the players, and the accuracy of their passes and goal shots.
Suddenly the ball came towards me and I lurched at it. As I did so, a player on the opposing team swam fast at the ball, ploughing past me. I was caught in his slipstream and disappeared under the water. As I came up for air, some of the players asked if I was OK. I was. And I was happy he’d forgotten for a moment that I was such a rookie player.
At the end of the session I looked at the clock and realised we’d been in the water for almost two hours, and I’d been moving for most of that time. Water polo is a great sport – a combination of strength, stamina, and skill. If I’d learned to swim front crawl years ago, it could have been a sport for me. But as a latecomer to swimming, I think I need to spend more hours in the pool building up my speed and pace before I don a water polo cap again.
Water polo. 14 June 2016
West Wickham Leisure Centre
TeamFreya: Anna, Catherine, Holly, Natalie
Cost: no charge for taster sessions