Think water polo looks easy? It's not

The 'merely fit' need not try water polo

jcortez@modbee.comOctober 24, 2013 

    alternate text Joe Cortez
    Title: Prep sports writer
    Coverage areas: High school sports
    Bio: Joe started at The Bee in 2000, where he worked on the Sports and Features desks. He was named prep editor in July, 2013. Joe attended Merced High and Merced College, and was the lead high school sports reporter at the Merced Sun-Star beginning in 1990. His favorite athletes are Babe Ruth, Joe Namath and Walt Frazier.
    Recent stories written by Joe
    On Twitter: @ModBeePreps

In my never-ending battle to stay in shape, I vowed last summer that I was going to swim more in my backyard pool.

Only problem: I can't swim.

Oh, I can frolic in a pool with anybody. I can do flips and cannonballs off the diving board, or submarine along the bottom looking for earrings or nickels or whatever else somebody might have dropped in the deep end.

But when it comes to technical, Mark Spitz-like swimming, I'm no good. Very quickly, my form breaks down and I start thrashing like a baby seal trying to escape the jaws of a mako.

Which is why I not only marvel at swimmers, but at water polo players, especially.

I've watched several games this season and it never ceases to amaze me how demanding the sport is. It's similar to hockey in that it's a sport ... with a stunt element thrown in. Ice hockey is essentially field hockey that somebody decided to play in skates. Water polo is pretty much soccer ... in a pool.

And it's for badasses only. Try treading water for about 30 minutes next time you're in your pool. If you can handle that, good job. Now try it with somebody hanging onto your back.

And that's easiest aspect of the sport.

But don't just take my word for it. Consider a 2011 survey by Chris Siddell of The Bleacher Report. Siddell ranked it the most physically demanding sports in the world based on endurance, speed, strength, agility, endurance, skill and physicality.

Water polo ranked No. 1 — ahead of football, basketball, rugby, boxing — you name it.

Need more proof?

According to Johansen coach Brent Bohlender, a member of the U.S. Water Polo and Sac-Joaquin Section halls of fame, a water polo player swims at least 1½ miles per contest. Try that some time.

"It's well over a mile and a half, with lots of starts and stops, starts and stops," he said. "And the ratio of expended energy on the ground versus being in the water is 4 to 1."

That means a sprinter can cover about 100 meters in 10 seconds, while a swimmer can cover 25 meters — one-fourth the distance — in about the same time.

Translation: Humans aren't fish — anything they attempt to do they can do better in their natural environment (land) than in an unnatural environment (water).

Downey's Sam Ciccarelli told me that, during last week's Modesto Metro Conference showdown against Johansen, he was head-butted several times. He wasn't crying about it. He wasn't tattling. It was a matter-of-fact statement. Another day at the office.

Water polo is physical, fast-paced and there's plenty of scoring. Sounds like a sport most Americans would love to follow, right?

Well, there's the rub.

Kids don't play water polo the way they play football, soccer and baseball, where all you need is a ball and some buddies. For water polo, kids need a pool. A rather large one at that.

And fan attendance is sparce. Last week, when Downey played Johansen in one of the biggest games of the season, there was maybe 100 fans on hand.

Davis girls coach Andrea Mazza said her team has been racking its collective brain trying to figure out how to get people interested in attending their matches. They settled on wearing specialized T-shirts on gamedays. And, on a couple of occasions this season, when turning in scores or promoting upcoming tournaments, Bohlender has told me, "we're just trying to keep the sport alive."

Downey High junior Tarah Salazar might have summed it best when she told me last week, "Everybody thinks it's a sissy sport because guys wear Speedos. And they think we stand on the bottom of the pool.

"They have no idea."

It's too bad, because water polo is a wonderful sport. Give it a try.

Reach Joe Cortez at, (209) 578-2380 or follow him on Twitter at @modbeepreps

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