BY Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor
Today, tomorrow and Sunday the USA Water Polo Junior Olympics—which over the past two decades has grown into the largest water polo tournament in the world—opens Northeast Region Zone Qualifications in Greenwich, CT. 42 teams from Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania will compete in five different age groups over 65 matches.
The Northeast, and the Pacific Northwest & Hawaii Zone, which opened regional qualification play last weekend, are the first of eight qualification tournaments for the Junior Olympics—better known as JOs—that will occur all across America between now and June 19, culminating at the end of July in an entire week of elite competition for boys and girls in Irvine, CA.
Greg Mescall, USA Water Polo’s Director of Communications, explained that when it comes to age-group polo play there is no bigger tournament than the JOs.
“USA Water Polo isn’t aware of another water polo tournament that brings together that number of athletes and teams for one event in one area,” he said by email. “There are certainly other youth tournaments but none to our knowledge that match the size and scope of Junior Olympics.”
According to Mescall, 840 teams participated in regional qualifiers in 2016, with 668 teams advancing to the Junior Olympics championships. The world’s largest youth water polo organization, USA Water Polo has approximately 24,000 members eligible to compete in JOs.
Last year 8,600 of those athletes in five different boys and girls age groups (U10, U12, U14, U16 and U18) competed for almost a week in northern California, culminating in championship matches last July at Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Complex. This year, even more athletes and teams are expected, as the events staff at USA Water Polo have secured 24 pools, approximately 100 referees, and between 6,000 to 8,000 hotel nights for all the athletes that will descend upon Irvine from July 22 – 30.
The tournament will conclude with championship rounds on July 25 for boys and July 30 for girls at the William Woollett Jr. Aquatics Center in Irvine’s Heritage Park.
Mescall described the overriding priority for an event as diverse as JOs: ensuring that all involved have a good time.
“It’s a lot of things but a positive experience for our athletes, coaches, referees, their families and their friends is paramount,” he said. “The logistics of an event this size are many and having all the details come together for eight days of great competition is a main priority.”
“This is something the water polo community looks forward to every year and we are excited the 2017 edition will be here before we know it,” he added.
Great Volunteers Make for a Fantastic Tournament
Behind every big event there are inspired volunteers who shape and steer its development. Two such people influential in the success of Junior Olympics are Ed Reynolds and Bill Smith. Reynolds, a former USA Water Polo board member who is now a U12, U14 girls coach and board member for the SOCAL Water Polo Foundation, and Smith, president of Greenwich Aquatics, spent time this week explaining how JOs began and what it has become.
According to Reynolds, a New Orleans native who as a teenager settled in Southern California and swam at Foothill High School before attending USC, to arrive at the current tournament’s balance of scale and exceptional competition took considerable time and effort. Involved with coaching and organizing age group polo for 23 years, Reynolds explained that a youth national championship has existed since the 1980s. Starting in 2006, with a major reorganization of USA Water Polo, the tournament evolved into the behemoth that exists today.
He said that there were two major hurdles needed to be resolved. One was quality versus popularity. Even though the sport at all levels is dominated by California clubs, over the last decade water polo has enjoyed a consistent upsurge in popularity.
In order to maintain the highest level of competition and respond to competition demands of clubs from all over the country, there are now three different competitive brackets: Platinum, for the country’s best teams, who qualify at the top of zone competition; Gold, the next highest level; and Classic, which Reynolds called a “festival” for all clubs eager to be exposed to age group polo in California.
“To satisfy the idea of whether JOs is a festival or a national championship the tournament has been broken into two brackets in every competitive division,” he explained. “For the older age groups [U16, U18] there are five times as many teams that compete then there are with the U14’s and U12’s”
He described this structure as an ideal way to balance the drive of elite clubs to compete at the highest level with the reality that not every club that participates in JOs is able to keep up with clubs like his. SOCAL, which in eight of the last 11 years had been awarded the Chairman’s Cup, given to the country’s top age-group club based upon cumulative success at JOs, US Open of Water Polo, and Champions Cup.
Location was another major issue Reynolds and his fellow board members, including USA Water Polo CEO Chris Ramsey, board chair Mike Graff and Smith—all instrumental in reshaping USA Water Polo beginning in 2006—addressed. In seeking to represent the sport outside of California, JOs in the past have been held in locations that include Fort Lauderdale, FL and Ann Arbor, MI. Despite the enormous logistical challenges of running a tournament where the majority of clubs are California-based, the thinking was that the sport would grow if those regions were exposed to age-group polo of the highest level.
Reynolds stated that research proved there wasn’t truth that hosting JOs outside of California would result in more age-group players. In 2011 it was decided that California would always host, with the locations flipped between Southern and Northern California.
The stability created by a consistent location has proven to be a boon for the sport. Not only are logistics made vastly more manageable by the scale and familiarity of the California pool network, the attraction of traveling to the Golden State for the country’s best water polo is an irresistible lure for non-Californian teams.
“Teams from the East Coast, Central United States and Texas love to come to California,” he said. “They get to play the teams they’ve heard of—SoCal; SET in Santa Barbara—and get to swim in great venues that don’t exist in other parts of the country.”
Smith Key to East Coast Age Group Polo
Smith, who left the USA Water Polo board in 2014 but recently rejoined as an at-large member, played club polo at Villanova and is still active in masters play. He is also responsible for kick-starting the growth of the sport in the Northeast. In 2000 he helped found Greenwich Water Polo, which evolved into Chelsea Piers Water Polo, one of the top youth clubs in Connecticut. In 2007 he founded and is president of Greenwich Aquatics, the region’s premier age group program.
Smith not only understands the lure of California but appreciates the challenges when non-Californian teams go head-to-head with some of the world’s best age-group players. In 2001 he brought a U14 Greenwich Youth Water Polo girls team to JOs for the first time and absorbed a time-honored lesson of youth athletics: when you’re new you play like you’re new.
“I remember when I took that first team out, some people discouraged us from going,” Smith said. “’Do you really think you should be going out to [JOs],” the said. “This will be humiliating for the kids and they’ll drop out.’”
“I said that the first year it’s going to be that way, by the second we may even know who the teams are out there and by the third, fourth or fifth year they may even know who we are.”
Greenwich Aquatics, housed in an expansive YMCA facility in downtown Greenwich, CT, is hosting this weekend’s Northeast Regional Zone Qualification.
An experienced player who has competed all over the world, Smith understood that part of the challenge with expanding the scale of JOs was to address the regional circumstances that distinguish polo throughout the country. One of the biggest is environment; Northeast water polo is played exclusively indoors, a reality that Smith said was lost on one Californian he spoke with at JOs.
“Everything is outdoors in California and everything here has to be indoors if you want to do anything close to year-round,” he said. “We had just beaten the Stanford “A” team to win the U16 Gold Division [in 2011]. It was a huge.”
It was mentioned to Smith that his club was “legit” even though they were not from California. Then there was perhaps the inevitable question about facilities: “Doesn’t it snow in Connecticut?”
Smith’s deadpan response was: “Really it’s no problem. We come out with mallets, hack off the top of the ice and after a couple of laps were really good to go.”
United by A Desire to Create a Legacy
What distinguishes both Reynolds and Smith is their passion for the sport and willingness to roll up their sleeves and make what is a monumental endeavor that much more scalable. Reynolds, an engineer by training and presumably a rational thinker, spoke of his involvement with age-group polo as a “sick virus” that had infected his entire being.
Given his club’s unparalleled success, it might appear the Reynolds unaware of the challenges facing emerging programs. In fact quite familiar with the biggest obstacle for any youth athletic endeavor: managing player and parental expectations.
“We teach the girls this concept of ‘ROOTS’ [Rules, Opponents, Officials, Teammates and Self] to respect ourselves, we respect the officials, we respect our teammates, and respect the game,” he said. “When you get into a tight spot you have to have a frame of reference.”
Smith was less descriptive of how polo has transformed his life, but perhaps that’s because the results illuminate his dedication to growing the sport outside of California. Last year Greenwich Aquatics achieved what many would say is the ultimate goal of any age-group program: one of its former players was selected for the U.S. Olympic team. Thomas Dunstan, who a few years earlier was competing at JOs for Greenwich, was a member of the U.S. Men’s National Water Polo Team that competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Despite that obvious marker of success, he is cognizant of both the journey to achieve such an honor and the challenges to continue to advance age-group water polo throughout the country.
“I’m enthusiastic to grow the sport and bring it to a higher level,” Smith, who will be on the Greenwich Y pool deck all weekend nourishing the sport that he loves, said. “I would put it under the acronym ‘growth with quality.’”
With the current version of JOs as evidence, it’s clear that the efforts of Smith, Reynolds and many others continue to reap tremendous benefits.
“The challenges with an event this size are all the moving parts working in concert,” said USA Water Polo’s Mescall. “Venues, hotels, teams, referees, scheduling to name a few. Thanks to our excellent staff, outstanding local organizers and countless others in the water polo community the Junior Olympics seem to get better every year.”