2019 USA Water Polo General Assembly: Celebration and Innovation

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MIT's Bret Lathrope was one of the many winners at the USA Water Polo National Awards Dinner. Photo Courtesy: Jun Tolibao / USAWP

This year’s USA Water Polo General Assembly, the annual get-together of “individual and organization members and other constituencies of the United States Water Polo family,” was held January 26 and 27 at the Renaissance Newport Beach Hotel in Newport Beach, California. It featured a notable addition to Assemblies of years past: a series of detailed presentations by leading figures in American sports. Billed as the organization’s first-ever “Development Summit,” it was designed to assist coaches, referees and club administrators from the organization’s eleven zones improve their skills and approach to polo and continue the sport’s upward trajectory in the U.S.

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Chris Ramsey and Dan Klatt, 2018 Sandy Nitta Distinguished Coach. Photo Courtesy: Jun Tolibao / USAWP

Chris Ramsey, USAWP’s CEO, delivered opening remarks to approximately 200 delegates assembled from 11 USA Water Polo zones around the country, and he reached back 50 years to the classic Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album for the Assembly’s theme for 2019:  “You’ve Got to Admit It’s Getting Better.” How? Ramsey stressed the sustained growth that the organization, and the sport, is enjoying. There are now some 48,117 members across the country—the highest number in the organization’s multi-decade history, he pointed out—and revenue from a variety of sources has provided a surplus for the past 10 years. It’s an achievement worth noting, given the deficit the organization was running before the regime of Ramsey and current Board Chair Mike Graff commenced in 2006.

More good news: it will be difficult for the U.S. Senior Women, unquestionably the world’s best women’s team, to improve on a 44-1 record in 2018. The Americans have won 10 straight major tournaments dating back to 2015 and are prohibitive favorites for a third-straight Olympic gold at the 2020 Tokyo Games, detailed in an afternoon presentation on a painstaking approach to detail and data by Adam Krikorian, Team USA Head Coach.

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Team USA Head Coach Adam Krikorian flanked by Olympians Betsy Armstrong and Kami Craig. Photo Courtesy: Jun Tolibao

The chosen theme was perhaps most fitting for the U.S Senior Men, whose recent efforts have not been nearly so successful as the women’s. Ramsey noted more than once that the American senior men have—paradoxically—the youngest squad in international polo and are rapidly improving. That claim was buttressed when, just before the assembly opened, news arrived that the U.S. had routed Argentina at a UANA tournament in Brazil. By so doing, Team USA qualified for the 2019 FINA World Water Polo Championships, the most important international tournament after the Olympics. The Worlds are an important benchmark for the Americans prior to the 2019 Pan American tournament in Lima, Peru in August, where the U.S. men will look to qualify for their ninth-straight Olympics.

What About Athlete Safety?

Concerns regarding athlete safety, of course, have been roiling all American amateur sports organizations. To address the issue for the Assembly, Ramsey turned the floor over to Christy Sicard, USAWP’s Senior Director, Membership Development, and Richard Esterkin, the organization’s legal counsel, who spoke about the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a national organization “providing education, resources and training to promote respect and prevent abuse in sport” since its launch in March 2017. They emphasized the importance of increased awareness of bullying, hazing and other abuse issues and spoke of updated prevention policy changes that will be implemented next June.

Counsel Esterkin reemphasized a point made earlier by Ramsey: SafeSport is responding to an exceptionally high volume of claims, and its funding, primarily provided by National Governing Boards such as USAWP, currently is not sufficient to sustain so many. Additional oversight therefore will be needed to keep American athletes safe—a disturbing thought.

John Abdou, USAWP’s Chief High Performance Officer, delivered remarks about the state of the organization’s Olympic Development Program (ODP); a key point of pride was the fact that this “pipeline” program, which has been in existence for a decade, is now delivering players to the national teams, including Johnny Hooper and Ben Hallock to the men’s, and Jordan Raney and Paige Hauschild to the women’s. And an important ODP announcement was that the first-ever ODP East Regional Tournament in Greensboro, NC, was a success and will beget more activity. Abdou also clarified how proposed rule changes to the sport—ratified last month at an extraordinary FINA conference in Hangzhou, China—will impact polo in America.

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Socializing in the balmy Socal weather. Photo Courtesy: Jun Tolibao / USAWP

Abdou, perhaps the person most closely connected to Americans’ participation in polo on all levels, further revealed that, starting next fall, there will be a Division III Men’s National Championship competition. This represents the culmination of some years of discussion among USAWP, the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) and the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC), and, according to Abdou, represents tremendous growth opportunities, as a number of DIII schools are expected to be attracted to this championship opportunity.

Read His Lips: No Fiduciary Hanky-Panky

Graff, a staunch supporter of Ramsey’s since the USAWP Board tapped the former director of external affairs at New York City Ballet as USAWP’s CEO in 2006, echoed many of the organization’s key talking points. One information update was the status of a potential new home and training center for USAWP, being negotiated with the city of Irvine. It, said Graff, presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a top-flight aquatics center in time for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. According to Graff, the costs and timeline for progress are fluid, but essential to the proposal will be the organization’s ability to cut a deal with Irvine city government and secure funding for the project, which may cost as much as $50 million dollars. Securing a new home for the organization would cap a spectacular run for Chairman Graff, whose term ends in 2021.

In an afternoon question-and-answer session with zone delegates, Graff was adamant that financing for the new high-performance center would not come from operational funds; furthermore, whatever is decided will be executed under the best fiduciary practices.

That Q&A session was remarkably candid, and a number of salient—and controversial—topics were fielded by Ramsey, Graff and USAWP board members, including Houston Hall, Bill Smith, Jessica Steffens, Peter Varellas and Brenda Villa. One consideration was the issue of a current lawsuit filed by Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP on behalf of Alice Mayall for her daughter, who allegedly sustained a debilitating concussion in a USAWP-sponsored tournament. Graff invited comments from USAWP’s Counsel Esterkin, who had no substantial updates regarding the suit.

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Serious hardware for the country’s best age group clubs. Photo Courtesy: Jun Tolibao / USAWP

The conversation then turned to the usage of protective caps by goalies and field players. Levon Dermendjian, head of referees, remarked that it is permissible for goalies wear to protective head gear in matches, and Genai Kerr, a former Olympian who is now instrumental to USAWP efforts to grow the sport, pointed to Tuff-Caps, a product that has padding built into a traditional polo cap, as an example. This has always been permitted but will now likely be more prominent in youth polo.

Tributes and Networking

The National Awards Dinner that Saturday night was the natural highlight of the event and included tributes to a pair of American water polo luminaries who had recently left us. Late in December, Bill Barnett, the long-time boys and girls water polo coach at Newport Harbor High School who had also coached the U.S. men’s teams at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, died; and less than two weeks later, Bob Horn, the UCLA men’s coach who had led Team USA at the 1964 and 1968 Games, passed away. The moment was made more poignant by the fact that Craig Ackley of Colorado Water Polo received the Barnett Distinguished Coaching Award.

As the evening wound down, and the assembled delegates, coaches, board members and USAWP staff mingled, conversed, and networked, Swimming World noted Krikorian chatting comfortably with Dan Klatt, the highly successful coach of the UC Irvine women’s team, who also happens to be the head women’s coach top assistant. Very soon, these two men will help determine the fate of the strongest women’s water polo team in the world; but for the evening they smiled, chatted and reveled in the camaraderie of the sport.

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The assembled winners. Photo Courtesy: Jun Tolibao / USAWP

2018 National Award Winners

Monte Nitkowski Distinguished Coach: Bret Lathrope, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Sandy Nitta Distinguished Coach: Dan Klatt, UC Irvine
Bill Barnett Distinguished Coach: Craig Ackley, Colorado Water Polo
Doc Hunkler Distinguished Coach: Sarah Greenawalt, Riverside Water Polo
Ted Newland Distinguished Coach: Michael Agostino, 680 Water Polo
Brent Bohlender Distinguished Coach: Adam Roth, Rose Bowl Aquatics
Brent Bernard Distinguished Referee: Val Vasilchikov
Tom Hermstad Distinguished Referee: Scott Voltz
Aaron Chaney Distinguished Referee: Eli Fellers
Barbara Kalbus Distinguished Volunteer: Chris Bakkie, Des Moines Water Polo
Burke/Ratkovic Zone Chair of the Year: Kim Tierney-Wang, Greenwich Aquatics/Northeast Zone
Bryan Weaver Distinguished Male Masters Athlete of the Year: Peter McConville, Sunset San Diego
Bryan Weaver Distinguished Woman Masters Athlete of the Year: Katie Maclean, Oakland Water Polo
Masters Club of the Year: Sunset San Diego
Chairman’s Cup – Top Female and Overall: SOCAL Water Polo
Chairman’s Cup – Top Male Club: Vanguard Water Polo

With Chip Brenner

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