Building a Dream: Afghanistan’s National Water Polo Team

Feature by Julia Lam

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts, March 16. FIFTEEN miles east of Kabul, in a Soviet-era swimming pool guarded by an armed sentry, Jeremy Piasecki is building a national water polo program.

With backing from the Afghan Olympic Committee and from FINA, the international aquatic sports federation, Afghanistan Water Polo is setting its sights on competing in the 2016 Olympic Games.

It is probably an understatement to call the very idea far-fetched. Security, employment, education and basic utilities remain in short supply for much of the war-battered country, let alone organized sports or swimming pools. According to one estimate, some 80 percent of Afghan men and 98 percent of Afghan women don't know how to swim.

The extraordinary story of Afghanistan's water polo team begins with Piasecki, a 30-year-old native of Fallbrook, Calif. A Marine Corps reservist, Piasecki deployed to Afghanistan in January 2008 as a contractor, to serve as a civilian advisor to the Afghan Special Forces. He was posted with the 201st Afghan Commando Battalion at Pol-e-Charkhi, a sprawling garrison perhaps best known for the prison where Afghan Communists once executed tens of thousands of political prisoners.

As the Afghan soldiers came to know Piasecki, they began asking about his life in America. He told them about his family – wife Leilani, who managed the family ice cream shop, and their children, Isabella, then six years old, and Westy, then two. He told them about his hometown in southern California, and about his years of active-duty service with the Marines.

What really caught the soldiers' attention were Piasecki's stories about coaching water polo. Back home, he coached high school and club teams while juggling his military duties. "They kept on asking me about ‘swimming football,' asking me to teach them to play," Piasecki says of the Afghans' reactions.

Rumor had it there was a swimming pool on the base. No one seemed to know exactly where it was, so Piasecki went looking. And in April, with snow still on the ground, he found it. "There were wood scraps, metal scraps, tires, plastic bottles, all kinds of stuff that doesn't belong in a pool," he recalls. No sign of things that did belong: cover, filter, heater.

Piasecki's initial request to use the pool for swimming lessons was rebuffed by the base commander, who explained that whatever the builders' original intents were, its current function was providing Pol-e-Charkhi with a backup water source. The commander assigned a soldier to clean up the pool, but brushed off Piasecki's successive queries about starting an aquatics program for the soldiers. He wanted a reservoir, and soldiers focused on soldiering.

One day, Piasecki noticed the soldiers rushing through their tasks, trying to leave early. Evidently someone had organized a swim meet.

"I have never seen a more exciting swim race in my life," Piasecki says. "Hundreds of people there. And the guys who were swimming were just giving it their all. Many of them had never swum in a pool before. Maybe some of them had swum in a lake or a river. No one could swim any of the strokes properly, except two guys who could sort of paddle pretty good freestyle."

At the pool, the soldiers introduced Piasecki to the Afghan officer who served as the 201st's "sports officer," and had organized the meet. The officer had already heard about the American who coached swimming and "swimming football" back in the States.

Piasecki recalls, "He basically said to me, okay, we're going to take the 20 best athletes on the base, and they're going to be your team. When can you start coaching?"

He pauses. "It wasn't even a question of, ‘are you interested.' It was, ‘We need you to coach this team.'"

From the ground up

On the first day of practice, 80 soldiers turned up, all eager to learn to play. The sports officer initially insisted that the team be restricted to the 20 he had selected, but eventually relented and allowed practices to be open to all interested. Piasecki wound up with a group of 36 soldiers who attended practices unfailingly, save for those times they were away on missions.

Lieutenant Commander Steve Scott, a U.S. Naval officer stationed at Pol-e-Charki, volunteered to serve as assistant coach after hearing about Afghanistan's newest sports team. "It was a really big deal on the base," he says. "It was a point of pride."

Piasecki and Scott began with the basics, cobbling together their rudimentary Dari, the Afghans' limited English, diagrams and demonstrations. Each evening, they split up the soldiers into two groups, patiently teaching them proper swim strokes, passing technique, and the rules of water polo.

Learning to work as a team was a tremendous experience for all involved.

"Tribal issues are huge issues [in Afghanistan]," Scott says. "If you don't come from the same village, the same tribe, or sometimes just the same family, you might not trust other people. So just getting to work on these issues is big."

At times, some things were lost in translation. Teaching the soldiers about the Eggbeater Kick, or the treading kick that water polo players use to stay afloat, posed particular challenges.

"It isn't really natural," Piasecki points out, "and I mean, who has ever done eggbeater in Afghanistan?"

As with many other skills, eventually one player picked up the technique, then a few more, and they successfully taught it to the others.

Very little came easily. With the sports officer's help, Piasecki secured permission from the base commander to limit pool use to swimming and water polo (he had discovered people using it for bathing, laundry, and other activities that, as he puts it, "shouldn't be anywhere near a pool"). But the commander still wanted to preserve the pool as a backup reservoir, and denied Piasecki's requests to sanitize the water with chlorine.

After several meetings, Piasecki figured that he had better pick his battles. He settled for using fresh water, and emptying and refilling the pool every two to three days.

Equipment posed another challenge.

"I was going to buy swimsuits," Piasecki says. "But you won't find many swimsuits in Afghanistan."

He settled for cycling shorts, and scrounged up goggles. For caps and balls, he turned to his water polo friends and colleagues in California, who delivered magnificently.

As for goals, engineers on the base were eager to help out. Unfortunately, the diagrams that Piasecki brought them had English captions, and the final product turned out to be more like metal hockey goals. The team settled for placing the cages on top of the pool deck and aiming high when they took their shots.

And there was the matter of the 24-hour armed guard – necessary, Piasecki determined, to protect the soldiers while they set down their weapons to train in the pool.

In spite of it all, Piasecki says, the soldiers' enthusiasm never waned. He says, "None of these guys had ever participated in organized sports. It was a first-time opportunity, and they just gave one hundred percent. They showed up on time every day, ready to practice, unless they had to go out on missions that day. There was no drama."

He chuckles. "And if there was any drama, I probably didn't understand it."

What was it about water polo that filled the Afghans with such enthusiasm? At this, Piasecki turns contemplative. "Well, some of them had swum in lakes and rivers before. And the opportunity to play something like soccer in the water, that probably sounded pretty cool to them.

"[But] honestly? I personally believe that they were so interested in it because someone was interested in them."

Citius, altius, fortius

At the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, while Michael Phelps and other superstars dazzled primetime audiences, a young Afghan quietly made history. In the men's 58-kilogram taekwondo competition, Rohullah Nikpai won the bronze medal – Afghanistan's first-ever Olympic medal. From Beijing, Nikpai told reporters, "I hope that this will send a message of peace to my country after 30 years of war."

"He's a national hero," Piasecki says, maybe "the only national hero who's alive who isn't a warlord."

What could a whole team of national heroes mean for Afghanistan?

Piasecki began talks with the Afghan National Olympic Committee and the nascent Afghan National Swimming Federation – somehow finding time between his duties with the 201st and his hours coaching at the pool. With the officials' blessing, he set out to lay the foundation for a national program – a team that could belong to all of Afghanistan.

A call for national team tryouts drew 70 contenders and 500-plus spectators. Among the contenders were many of the soldiers from the original garrison program, but there were also numerous aspirants from elsewhere in the country.

Their aquatic and athletic abilities ran the gamut. At one point, Piasecki had to jump in to rescue someone. But the Afghans' enthusiasm and competitive spirit rivaled that of athletes at any other country's national trials.

In the end, Piasecki selected 26 players, an A team and a B team. Scott's deployment had ended shortly before tryouts, so Piasecki also recruited two Afghans to serve as assistant coaches.

The athletes range in age from 19 to 32 (Piasecki hopes to groom the older players as future provincial coaches.) Their average level of education is at about the third-grade – ranging from college graduates to players who signed the team roster with thumbprints because they could not write their names. More than half are civilians, including students, farmers, laborers, store clerks, small business owners, a linguist at the British Embassy, a mason and a goat herder.

Piasecki says, "Some people will say, don't you find it difficult to coach a bunch of adults who have never played water polo before? And why do you think they can be a national team, and even think about going to the Olympics?

"And I'll say: because they have the drive and desire to do this. They want this. They've seen so much bad stuff. But this is a good opportunity for them, and they don't want to fail at this opportunity."

Scott, who is now serving at the Pentagon, says, "It's one of those little pieces that make up the big picture. But put it together with bunch of other small pieces, and think about the results you can get. They are a symbol of what can be achieved for the country."

Goals and dreams

Upon the end of his term of service in January of this year, Piasecki returned to Fallbrook. Managing the Afghan water polo program is now his full-time job, while Leilani keeps the family business running.

Making ends meet at home has not been easy.

"It's a little scary at times," Piasecki says. "I know this doesn't pay the bills. I can't call the mortgage company and tell them about water polo in Afghanistan."

But for the moment, he believes, taking on another job would be tantamount to giving up on his team. And that is not an option.

With the help of family, friends, and colleagues, he has formed a nonprofit 501 (c) (3) foundation, called The Dream of Afghanistan Athletics. The board of directors includes Leilani Piasecki, Steve Scott, and Grier Laughlin, a former All-American swimmer who is a noted swimming and water polo coach in Colorado. Scott McCook, a management consultant whose daughter has played water polo for Piasecki, serves as director of development. Bahram Hojreh, currently coaching for Los Al Water Polo in Los Alamitos, California, and Amr Soli, currently head coach for the San Diego Suns Water Polo Club, have also joined the staff.

Afghanistan Water Polo's next goal is a training trip to the water polo heartland of southern California. It would be an opportunity to introduce the Afghans to a higher level of play, and to give them pool time beyond the three months of the year they have had at home (only during the summer months is it warm enough to train in an unheated, outdoor pool at high altitude).

But the real goal, one could say, is providing the Afghans with an opportunity to experience life far away from rocket fire, landmines, and other daily reminders of war.

"If we could get these athletes experience outside their country, think what they can take back," Piasecki says. "What we're doing here – we're helping them on a grander scale than just water polo."

Fundraising has been slow going, especially under current economic conditions, but Piasecki remains optimistic. He and McCook have secured some support in the form of donations, equipment, publicity, and promised pool time. They hope to pull together donated frequent-flier miles to fund the team's airfare from Afghanistan. Bringing the team to the U.S. as soon as the end of this spring remains "very attainable," he asserts.

"There are people back in Afghanistan who are depending on us to come through," he says earnestly. "They need this. They need national heroes.

"Think of what this can do for Afghanistan as a whole. That is the driving force of what we're trying to do here. We're trying to make Afghanistan a better place."

Afghanistan Water Polo's mission is to inspire the growth and the pursuit of domestic and international excellence in the sport of water polo for the people of Afghanistan. For more information, including volunteer and sponsorship opportunities, see http://afghanistanwaterpolo.com/. You can contact Afghanistan Water Polo at 760-451-1783, contactus@afghanistanolympicdream.com, and PO Box 438, Bonsall, CA 92003.

Afghan Water Polo

Afghan Water Polo

Afghan Water Polo

Afghan Water Polo

Afghan Water Polo

Afghan Water Polo

Afghan Water Polo

Afghan Water Polo

Afghan Water Polo

Afghan Water Polo