Basketball players? Decathletes? Forget about it.
As a recent TV commercial proclaimed while images of buff, battling bodies splashed across the screen, "Water polo is a real sport."
Find out just how real it is this weekend when water polo's top college players gather at the International Swimming Hall of Fame Aquatic Complex in Fort Lauderdale for the National Collegiate Athletic Association Water Polo Championships, being held outside the sport's mecca of California for only the fourth time.
"It makes hockey look like table tennis," contends Bruce Wigo, the Fort Lauderdale-based executive director of United States Water Polo, Inc., the sport's national governing body. "It's a very physical, rough game, and I'm not sure people realize that. If they like hockey or soccer, they should love it."
During a match's four seven-minute periods, players on the seven-person teams -- six in the "field," plus a goalie -- never touch the bottom of a pool that measures nearly 100 feet long. A player swims the equivalent of two miles or more, his or her heart rate rarely dropping below 170 beats per minute. And each change of possession means a straining sprint to the opposite end. Wigo explains that the sport requires the cardiovascular conditioning of cross-country skiing and long-distance running, as well as the upper-body strength of wrestling and other so-called "combat sports."
And, he points out, "They pound each other."
Wigo adds that in the past few years high-school-level participation in water polo in Broward County alone has jumped by more than 100 percent. "Four or five years ago," he notes, "there were four schools here with teams, now it's up to twelve." And he adds that more than 40 high schools in Broward and Dade counties currently boast water polo programs. Those facts, asserts Tom Jacobs, NCAA's senior assistant director of championships,played into the decision to hold the 1997 tournament here: "We know that high-school water polo is very strong in the area."
A bit of history: Water polo evolved from a midnineteenth-century British game in which a form of rugby was played in rivers and lakes. By 1869 a rubber ball had replaced the original -- a pig's stomach -- and a year later the first official game was held in London's Crystal Palace Plunge pool. The sport has been played at the college level in the U.S. since the 1880s, and it achieved Olympic status at the French games of 1900. In 1928 Germany and Hungary began a reign of international dominance that lasted into the Eighties, at which time Yugoslavia, the U.S., the U.S.S.R., Spain, and Italy started fielding more competitive teams.
Since the NCAA championship's inception in 1969, the tournament has been held outside of the Golden State only three times: in Mexico in 1972, in Rhode Island in 1977, and in Indiana in 1989. Because the majority of the eight teams were invariably from California, it was cost-effective to stage the event on the West Coast. That thinking changed when the championships switched to a four-team format in 1995.
Now, according to Jacobs, the idea is to take the tournament on the road more often to promote the sport. One element of that promotion is the NCAA Youth Education Through Sports clinic. A part of all regular NCAA championships, the daylong event is designed to give kids the opportunity to learn about a specific sport from top NCAA coaches and student athletes and about college recruiting, academics, and life skills.
During this weekend's clinic, which begins at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, former water polo standout and current NASA astronaut Steve Smith will dole out advice on how sports can play a role in preparation for later life. He should know. Now age 38, the six foot, three inch Smith was a two-time All-American water polo player at Stanford University and captain of its 1981 NCAA championship team.
Declares Smith, who drew pictures of himself as an astronaut as early as third grade: "I'm confident that I'm an astronaut because I played water polo. It shaped who I ended up being. It taught me all the skills and morals."
And skills and morals unquestionably figure into the water polo equation come game time. Just ask Rich McEvoy, the Cooper City High School star and 1994 Florida High School Player of the Year who now plays goalie for the University of Southern California (they may -- or may not -- make it to this year's finals).
"There are a lot of little heated battles between individuals," admits the 21-year-old McEvoy, a sophomore studying communications. Mostly those battles take place beneath the water's surface. "If you get hit and punched long enough," McEvoy continues, "eventually you're going to hit and punch back. Sometimes you go through a whole game without something like that happening, but once it happens that element is there.
"At an event like the NCAA's, where you're fighting for the national championship, there's going to be a lot of punching and kicking and grabbing throughout the entire game."
-- John Ferri
The NCAA Water Polo Championships will be held Friday, December 5, and Sunday, December 7, at the International Swimming Hall of Fame Aquatic Complex, One Hall of Fame Dr., Fort Lauderdale. Semi-finals: Friday, 7 and 8:30 p.m. Finals: Sunday, 1 and 2:30 p.m. Tickets cost $4 to $8. Call 954-468-1580.