How USA Water Polo’s Olympic Development Program Fought COVID-19

May 27, 2012; Newport Beach, CA, USA; General view of a FINA water polo Mikasa ball during the exhibition game between the Hungary and the United States at Newport Harbor high school. The United States defeated Hungary 12-9. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

How USA Water Polo’s Olympic Development Program Fought COVID-19

The date was March 11th, 2020. Email inboxes of many of the nation’s most promising female athletes dinged with disappointment. After passing through the first two tryouts, USA Water Polo’s Girls’ National Championships remained the next gateway of success to pass through. A mere 48 hours before flights would lift off, carrying hundreds of the best female water polo players to Northern California, doom ensued.

Along with USAWP’s Olympic Development Program (ODP) coming to halt, so did high school seasons and club seasons. Farrah Kunkel, the Pacific Northwest’s girls’ head coach reflected on her emotions, sharing: “I felt sad, and frustrated that we were unable to travel with those athletes who had worked so hard to make it to where they were. It was very disappointing, and unimaginable. There was also a lot of confusion, the fear of the unknown.” Kristin Gellert, also a PNW coach, added: “The timing was rough, but I know that USAWP was doing what they felt was the right choice for all participants.”

Adapting to the Times

As the governing body of water polo, USAWP scrambled. Throughout the summer months, they tried to foster a sense of community through zoom meetings and webinars. The team’s strength coaches had athletes barefoot, in their garages, doing breathing tests. Marie Rudasics, a Division I commit to Arizona State University, shared how she used “a laundry basket to hold a bunch of dumbbells for squats,” as well as wearing a wetsuit in lakes, just to get water time. Aquatic athletes turned runners, and bikers, and lifters.

Rudasics also commented that she “…still had access to resources and coaches gained through ODP, and those mentors helped (me) get through the weirdest summer ever.” This goes to show how the community of water polo rallied. Providing a coach’s perspective, Gellert appended, “…of course we all would have prefered to be playing and competing, but given the allowances at the time, I thought this was a good use of resources and provided opportunities for growth and unity, which is what the ODP system is striving for, even in non-pandemic times.” She also stated: “It was a great time of learning and unity across the states.”

For close to 10 months, the USAWP calendar was empty. Pools were emptied and closed. Chlorine, itself, did not pose enough protection. Tournaments came to a halt and seniors waved goodbye to their teammates through car windows, masked. After previously experiencing a surge of interest, boosting membership, water polo was named one of America’s fastest growing sports. However, with no opportunities on the horizon, clubs lost athletes and were forced to combine.

Progress

Now, as the calendar has turned, so has the tide. With summer again approaching, though sporadic and in unique locations, tournaments have begun to fill the void. Historically, California has been the hotspot for water polo. Boasting mostly outdoor pools, nice weather, and many local Olympians, the state governs the sport. Though, because of the heavily imposed and regulated COVID restrictions, the Golden State was no longer an option. The water polo community looked to other states, oftentimes with only youth clubs and less experience, to rise up. Texas, Utah, and others heroically answered this call.

With tournaments scheduled and club water polo starting to take off, ODP was left in a hard place. The question of the times: was the right call to follow the pattern of club water polo or to remain more reserved in scheduling activities and events? For a while, this segment of the organization remained quiet. But then, the first camp was scheduled.

Now, across the nation, athletes have participated in the first tryout of a condensed season. Though not as drastic as the last, this year remains affected by the complications of the virus. The rules governing the game have been altered in many states, with Oregon, for example, playing five on five, instead of the standard six on six. When high school season began in Washington, Gellert’s native state, she shared: “Seeing where their level of fitness is, now that we are in a high school season, shows just how hard they worked, even through all these obstacles.”

A Normal Year

In a normal ODP cycle, as they are called, the first tryouts are held in the winter. Athletes attend a camp, normally within driving distance, and are placed through a timed swim test, technical body positioning, strategy talks, shooting drills, and physical scrimmages. Then, teams for a regional tournament are chosen. At this tournament, regions take two teams, if they have enough players to fill multiple rosters. After combining lineups and making cuts based on game time situations, the zone coaches cut their rosters in half to create one all-star team for the National Championship tournament. In 2020, this is where it all ended.

Normally, at said national tournament, athletes gain serious visibility in front of national team coaches and USAWP staff, sometimes even Olympians. These idols of the water polo world evaluate players and make selections for yet another camp: The National Championship Selection Camp (NTSC). This camp is truly the ultimate test. It is three days of constant pool time. Not only do athletes have to perform in the water, they also have to navigate networking with coaches, fueling themselves properly, and playing among a new group of athletes. At the end of the three days, coaches sit the athletes down and read a list of names, as to who made the respective age group’s national team. Dreams are crushed and tears of joy shed. 2020 excluded this tradition.

The Present

Now, this year, 2021, athletes attend zone camps, then regionals, and then advance straight to NTSC. This may seem like an easier route, with a whole step being removed. This approach negates the national tournament, subtracts visibility, and does not allow athletes to scope out their competition until far later in the process.

With that said, the privilege of hosting an ODP cycle, though modified, is not lost on USAWP. The organization has long recognized the importance of technique, community, and visibility. With ground lost in 2020, coaches across the nation are fervently trying to assist athletes in getting back to where they were a year ago, let alone advancing. The ODP community persists, with the ensued longing of 2020 being used as a motivator, as any pool time remains a gift.

Reflection

Reflection on the times has been pivotal as both athletes and coaches see opportunities as far more of a privilege, than ever before. Kunkel summed up her experience, saying: “…this experience taught me how to slow down, hug my family and remember what is truly important in my life.” She later added: “With a grateful mindset, it is much easier to focus on what you have rather than what you do not have.”

In closing, Gellert expressed her pride, her words ringing true for USAWP’s Olympic Development coaches across the nation: “I’m thankful for what USAWP offered to coaches and athletes when no one could physically play water polo. I’m proud of myself as a coach and the dedication of my own athletes, who pushed through every obstacle, and came out stronger on the other side. I’m not sure I would have been able to do that as a teenage athlete, and I’m so impressed with the perseverance and dedication shown over the past year.”