Diving into water polo

In the third of six features, the Journal hops into the pool with the Queen’s water polo team

The water polo team sets up the offence during practice in the PEC’s pool.
The water polo team sets up the offence during practice in the PEC’s pool.
two water polo players chase the ball while the goalie (bottom) tries to get in the way.
two water polo players chase the ball while the goalie (bottom) tries to get in the way.
A water polo player rises out of the water to make a pass.
A water polo player rises out of the water to make a pass.

Water polo’s one of those sports I thought I could play one day. I figured my summers growing up playing a water-bound version of soccer in my aunt’s pool with my stepmom’s flip flop gave me a decent impression of the game.

Then I discovered they play in the deep end.

Watching the women’s water polo team scrimmage with a few of the guys mingled in, I wonder why I never gave the game a second thought. Though I may be a less-than-savvy spectator, the sheer physicality of the sport is astonishing.

The game is very similar to basketball, with players aiming to block and check to obtain possession of the ball. Many of the minor infractions are almost identical to basketball’s, such as double dribbling and traveling. And like basketball, players can only use one hand.

A check or block in basketball may result in a bit of a tumble in the worst case scenario, but in water polo it usually results in the ball-carrier being plunged underwater. When this happens, it counts as a foul and the other team gains possession.

There’s a majestic quality to the sport—the players seem to float effortlessly in the water. Even practice is filled with exciting moments, like when first-year Master of Policy Studies student Greg Kelley barrels down the side of the pool like a torpedo with the ball floating faithfully in front of him. Then there’s Michelle Campbell bursting almost waist-high out of the water, scooping the ball out of the air and casually passing it to a teammate.

Water polo’s equivalent to hockey’s icing call is an amazing thing to watch. Imagine a dozen players sprinting head long through the water to touch the ball first. The energy is incredible.

Other than the ball and nets, water polo only has one piece of equipment. It looks like a gas mask with two muzzles worn not on the nose and mouth, but over each ear, which players need to protect from impact and water damage.

Second-year law student Katrina Keenan-Pelletier, a member of the Queen’s team since first year, has played water polo since high school. She said unlike most team sports, there aren’t really positions in water polo. There are the “swimmers” and the goalie. The game’s strategy is very reactionary.

“You want to set up in a horseshoe shape around the net when you’re on offense, and when you’re on defense, you just follow what the other team is doing,” she said.

Keenan-Pelletier was drawn to water polo because of its accessibility and its potential to attract athletes of diverse builds. In the pool, it doesn’t matter if you’re 6’1” or 4’9”, what counts is the energy you bring.

“You’ll notice we’re all different sizes, but the water is kind of an equalizer,” she said. “It’s fun. The adrenaline—there’s nothing compared to it.”

Water polo today wasn’t always considered a lesser-known sport. Coach Don Duffy—or “Duff” as he insists on being called around the pool—said budget cuts across the country have resulted in underfunded teams, meaning less time in the pool for practices and fewer teams to compete with.

“When water polo was a real sport, we were fully funded,” he said. “And way back when I started [coaching], the women’s team had about eight hours of practice time a week and we were consistently in the top two.”

The season has been reduced to one school-year term, and it has become harder for the team to compete.

Duffy said the team has been in steady decline during his time as coach.

“We’re still competing. Right now we have four and a half hours of practice time a week, but we’re competing against teams that have 10, 12, 14 hours. It just doesn’t happen,” he said, adding that the team didn’t win a single game last year.

At the national level, water polo remains a highly marketable sport and the Canadian team has been quite successful. This year, Canada’s men’s team finished in eighth place in the world championships while the women’s team lost the gold medal to the United States.

Duffy said he hopes the international recognition of Canada’s teams will help bring more exposure to the sport.

“Having two teams in the top eight in a relatively unknown sport I think will bode well,” he said.

When asked about the team’s goals this year, Duffy’s answer is very blunt.

“Win a game.”

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