On Deck With Jack Horton, Referee, Coach, Photographer and Life-Long Polo Enthusiast

Jack Horton on site at Princeton overseeing CWPA men's polo action. All Photos Courtesy Jack C. Horton

Editor’s Note: Swimming World is down in Coral Springs, Florida for the annual South Florida International Tournament. Offered by Michael Goldenberg, his daughter Elina and extensive coaching staff from the South Florida Water Polo Club, this annual age group tournament—started in 2003 by Istvan CsendesJim Shoemaker and Bruce Wigo—draws teams from all over the East Coast as well as from the Bahamas, Calgary, Chicago, Peru, Puerto Rico, Rome and other locations.

Growth of Florida water polo has been eagerly anticipated, but only recently are decades of effort being recognized. Perhaps the most obvious indicator of the sport’s success in the Sunshine State is the unparalleled achievements of Rio Olympian and 2017 Cutino Award winner Ashleigh Johnson, a 2012 graduate of Miami’s Ramson Everglades High School.

But, as Jack Horton attests, there’s more to Florida polo than Ms. Johnson, impressive as her accomplishments have been.

A life-long Floridian who attended Florida State and University of Central Florida (UCF), Horton is a former high school water polo coach at Winter Park High School and Lake Brantley High School in the Orlando area. A FINA-rated referee representing the U.S.—now retired—he is currently a member of the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s Technical Committee as well as a member of the NCAA Water Polo’s National Evaluators Group. He’s also an amateur photographer with a roving eye focused on natural detail.

horton-ball-feb19Earlier this week, Horton spoke with Swimming World about his career in polo, including his remarkable success in Florida high school polo, the particular demands of career as a referee and why it’s been difficult for polo to catch on in an environment that at first glance seems ideally suited for the sport.

– How did you get involved with Florida polo?

I was born and raised in Central Florida. I was a competitive, year-round swimmer, and swam twice a day. When I got to Florida State University I started playing club water polo. I was tired of playing wall tag.

I grew up playing soccer and other ball sports, so water polo was just a ball sport where I could use my swimming abilities. After I graduated and got back home I continued playing club polo in the Orlando area. From there, I got into officiating—I was lucky and advanced pretty quickly. A couple of times I was in the right place at the right time with the right people watching, which helped.

A lot of referees and coaches for the United States, people I consider great water polo people – they really helped me along the way—including Andy Takata, Brett Bernard, Bob Lee, Bob Corb, Tom Hermstead, Don Holbrook, John Montrella, Sandy Nitta, Garry Robinett and Dave Albertstein. There’s so many more. They were all pivotal in my development. I knew I could never referee like any one of them, but I took bits and pieces of how they referee and used that.

I worked my way up officiating collegiately on the East Coast. I became a FINA referee for the United States and at the same time started coaching high school water polo. I started boys’ and girls’ teams at Winter Park High School where I coached for four years. I had four teams win the state championship.

– You started both Winter Park and Lake Brantley programs from scratch and brought them to multiple state championships.

I was at Winter Park for four years and then I decided to switch over to Lake Brantley High School and start all over again. Literally, the first practice was: This is a ball and don’t bounce it on the pool deck because it will flatten out and ruin the ball’s surface.


An egret, native to Florida

The first time we went down to Miami for the State Championships we played Miami Beach [in 1991] in the Championship game. I told my team that we would have to win by two or three goals and then it would be a one goal game. I wanted them to be mentally prepared if things didn’t go their way. We won 11-10. I had a parent who had one of the original cell phones—they were like bricks back then—we had to call the Florida Highway Patrol to get off the pool deck after we’d won.

[The other team] wasn’t real happy that someone from outside Southern Florida had won the state title.  After that first State Title I knew what I was doing at practice was working, as I had 4 starters that had no competitive swimming background.

I coached at Lake Brantley for six years and had five teams win state championships.

– Was this because you had a core of great swimmers or did you discover athletes who could quickly master the intricacies of polo?

It was a combination of things. Through officiating, I got to see some top-level teams—like Commerce (in Los Angeles). I’ll never forget these little girls from LA getting in the pool and just kicking butt.

They were very smart and deliberate in their actions, and I would study that. That was the basis for teaching my teams how to play individual and team defense. Also, being around collegiate teams you get to see lots of strategies, you see things they do, you put that to paper and learn it.

Also, when traveling with teams you have opportunities to learn a lot of strategies and techniques. That helped me a lot too.

I also wanted to break the game down into little pieces and then work on those little pieces relentlessly. We couldn’t be perfect—but we could get really close to perfect in all those little pieces, without getting too complicated. My focus was to just do the simple stuff really well. We also did not scrimmage often at all, it just seemed like a way for the players to re-enforce bad habits.

At Winter Park I had football players who would come out and wanted to play. I had swimmers and non-swimmers. At Brantley I had a couple of state champions [in swimming] that sat on the bench. They were part of the second wave behind the starters.

I also wanted to make it very clear to the team members that I was going to approach practices with 100% effort. I figured if I was putting everything I had into practice that I could then ask [my players] to put everything they had into it. That seemed to work as well for me.

I also talked about life lessons with them, because things happen in games that aren’t fair or don’t seem to be right. The same types of things happen in life—how do you handle that and how do you move forward? I needed them to believe in me and the best way for me to have that happen was to show how much I believed in them.

– You’re coaching and refereeing and traveling nationally and internationally. You must have been busy!

Yes, I was, I didn’t have much of a life outside of teaching and water polo. It was very rewarding in the connections you make with young people.

In the fall and summer I would be traveling a lot for water polo. During the summer I would be away from home for weeks at a time. It’s what I did and I wouldn’t trade those times for anything.

In the spring I had water polo practices; I’d run separate practices because I learned in my first year [of coaching] that I couldn’t treat the girls like I treat the guys. In my mind, they’re very different types of players so you treat them that way.

We ended up going six days a week, two, 2-hour blocks. Some of our home games at Lake Brantley, we’d have practice the day of games. It was a matter of things we want to work on and we may or may not get to work on them in the game.

I convinced my players that we play for each other; the goals I had for them were to play better as an individual at the end of the season than at the beginning, and better as a team at the end of the season than at the beginning. We never talked about—and the players knew not to talk about it in front of me—winning certain games or making it to state. That was not something to be discussed.


I didn’t believe in setting goals like winning this or winning that.

– But you and your players did get a great deal of satisfaction from achieving goals like winning state titles.

Of course! And at times I would have them stop, look around and take a moment to soak it all in. I would tell them that if we play our best and don’t win—what matters is that we played our best. Hats off to the other guys if they played better and beat us.

When you win big events (like a State Championship), it’s a tremendous bond for the players that they have for the rest of their lives.

It was a great run—very satisfying and of course time consuming. I probably got burned out at the end

Now I evaluate and train officials at the collegiate level and somewhat at the high school level here locally. It’s nice to be able to give back; I think of all those guys who helped me along the way—who would pull me aside and say: Think about this or try this.

It’s important to be able to pass that stuff along. I can’t emphasize enough how many people were so helpful in my career—and so willing to share what made them good, and without being threatened. Some people don’t want to share anything because they don’t want to give any secrets away.

– In describing how hard it is to officiate water polo, you mention a quote: “What goes on above the water is the referee’s business and what goes on under the water is the players business.” How do you interpret what is unseen?

You can tell by body movement, you can tell by a player who rolls on their back, looks directly at an opponent that’s swimming up on him—let’s say they’re on a counter-attack—you keep swimming so why would you roll on your back? You see them make eye contact—then you see the knee come out of the water, you don’t see their foot. And then you see the other player react. You can be certain that was a kick, and the rules don’t care if there was contact or what impact that foul will have on that game or that player, or that team’s coach.

There’s a lot of grabbing and holding in water polo. It’s all done down low; if you can’t see it you can’t see it.  You can’t start making things up as a referee.

I think we’re getting better in the women’s game but it’s very hard because their uniform is so much bigger than the guys, and there’s so many more entry points for which to grab and secure a firm hold and thereby control that opponent. So, you look for unnatural movement [in a way] that would be very difficult for a player to move their bodies… unassisted, on their own. This is by no means foolproof but it can be very helpful for the referee.

– Sometimes you have to discern what might be an Oscar-quality acting performance…!

Some people are more vocal than others. Some react in a way that you would not think to be normal—and yet that’s how they react. A referee needs to be careful about deciding what they think something is—they really have to go by what they actually see.

As referees get better they learn where to look. A ball is shot, it’s a miss, now the game is going the other way—then two players are stationary face-to-face. One referee should be advancing [with the play]; the other one—in my mind—needs to be very much aware of those two. If they’re not, they’re messing up because things might escalate.


You have the players who are smart about this who are watching the referee. If the referee’s obviously looking at them, he’s just de-escalated the situation, which is very important. If something happens, then hopefully the referee sees who did what—quite often, if they’re squaring up, there are two guilty parties.

– I imagine you are closely studying the various new rules that FINA recently ratified for application in tournaments starting next month.

Mark Koganov, who is Vice President of FINA’s Technical Water Polo Committee, I know him well. In the past I’ve had conversations about ideas I had regarding how to have less whistles—and to make the game easier for non-purists to watch. This men’s NCAA season we instituted a more thorough application of the rules as written, calling the rules as written which results in calling the game tighter. I think the results so far (when applied properly) have been very favorable.

I do like it; I think it’s good evolution of the game. Too much physicality will eventually be the end of water polo. You have to let people swim. I like man-ups; all the things you can do during man-up and man-down situations, and the different defenses—playing man-to-man here and playing a zone over there… but, to the general spectator, it’s another boring six-on-five.

I like the FINA rule that—outside of a certain distance—I get a minor foul. It was changed to; you can shoot but you have to shoot right away. I wondered: If we want to punish the defense, why not put in a rule that they can shoot whenever they want.

No, [the player] had to shoot right away. Couldn’t hesitate, couldn’t fake—and the defender could defend. Now that player can move around and fake the ball before they shoot. That will make the outside foul a more painful experience for the team on defense and lessen the number of whistles.

This may cause defenders to decide they don’t want to commit an outside foul; it may mean more outside shots coming in, off of fakes, which is very exciting to the average fan. Faking the goalie from six meters is pretty exciting. it’s also probably going to open up the center forward position and make it harder for teams to continue doing what they have for a long time, which is to foul and then drop and [double the] center forward.

They’ve tightened up the area inside [5 meters], with penalties whistled more, which I think is good as well. Again, for the average fan it’s like a penalty kick in soccer: it’s exciting.

– What about referees “swallowing their whistles” with a minute left in the game and not calling a five-meter penalty?

This comes up often—it came up this past weekend at a women’s tournament at Bucknell. A referee made a comment: I didn’t want to do that because [that call] could be a deciding thing. I pretty adamantly said: There’s two people who decided that; the player who caused the foul and—by proxy—her coach.

horton-eagle-feb19If there’s a penalty called with two seconds left, and in the first five minutes of the game you would have called that penalty—then you have to call it with five seconds left in a tie game. You must detach yourself from that situation; you, the referee, didn’t do this. You’re merely doing your job—what you’re being paid to do. That is: responding to the players’ actions according to the rules.

You see it in all sports where you have referees who can pass the rules test; in your average game, they’re beautiful! Then, things get tight, and they tighten up too.

I tell the referees you can’t show emotion. Don’t have nervous laughter before a big game—it just doesn’t look good!

My girlfriend, Dr. Shawna Resnick, is a PhD who teaches psychology. I told her about this—that this is something all sports have—where [the referee] swallows their whistle at crucial moments, however you want to say it.

She looked up a bunch of stuff, shared it with me, and it all made sense. The referee wants to belong to the group. And there’s this sense of belonging that humans have. Decisions made at a crucial time [means] they risk not belonging.

When I was officiating, I found that you do the best you can [and] the score does not matter. If it’s 20-1 you referee the same as if it’s a much closer score. if someone wants to blame anyone for the lopsided score, well that’s easy: the team that’s losing? It’s their coach and how they prepare their athletes for the games.

That player caused [the action] and you’re merely responding to it as the rules permit. It’s asking a lot and I know some people just can’t do it, but the referees must try to be consistent from the very start of the game to the very end of the game, no exceptions—and that’s true in all sports officiating.

– How is it a sport like football is so dominant in Florida but water polo—with a great tradition of swimming success—struggles to find traction among the state’s sports?

That’s easy; for water polo you need a pool and pools are expensive. Take lacrosse. For lacrosse, you need a patch of dirt, and guys get to run around and beat on each other with sticks. When I first saw lacrosse at Winter Park High School—and they were just starting in Florida—I thought it would take off. It’s the same season as water polo; and I knew they’re were going to draw some of my athletes and this sport is going to grow

It’s easy; for lacrosse, you need a field. For water polo, you need a pool.

– There are pools all over Florida!

But it’s not like California, where you have a large population concentrated close together and transportation highways all over. You can get from here to there relatively easily. And a lot of high schools have deep-water pools; far more than Florida High Schools.

This is the problem; if you don’t have a pool on campus then you have to rent the time, which is expensive. And, the most efficient thing to do with a pool is: swim team!

Not a lot of high schools have pools; that’s one thing when you first go to California, all the games are at high schools with these beautiful pools.

horton-dunes-feb19[In Florida] the issue is the number of pools. That’s something that South Florida has over Central Florida; they’ve got more pools and they’ve got a larger population close together. You look at NorCal and SoCal and you look at San Diego; a lot of people and a lot of pools.

The other thing that helped the big colleges out there is they have major football teams. That’s a big driver of revenue. My mother went to USC—I grew up watching Trojan games—and it’s a huge football program. It likely supports a lot of other sports. I don’t know exactly [how] but I’m sure they get a lot of TV money.

My parents met at Stanford—they both graduated [from there]. They’ve got a great football team, which makes things easier than some of the schools out East where they have football but it’s not nearly as big.

– In that analogy, you’ve got four major college football programs—Florida, Florida State, Miami, UCF—that could sustain varsity polo. But they don’t….

Okay, let’s take Florida State, [part of the] ACC [Atlantic Coast Conference]. I don’t think Florida State, or Clemson, or NC State are going to pick up the sport unless the entire conference does. And then you have the Title IX, where there’s a push for equal numbers as far as scholarships and to maintain that balance.

It seems that many college athletic programs are content with the sports they offer and adding more is something that just doesn’t happen that often.

As I understand it, USA Water Polo is committed to growing the sport in your state. What will that take?

I think the biggest need is coaching material aimed at the HS and/or age group coach who knows nothing about water polo. Quality material made available for free so that they can teach the skills and strategies needed to be successful. The Collegiate Water Polo Association is making great strides in this area.

– But Florida is now producing impact players like Ashleigh Johnson. How does that change the perception of polo in your state?

What an amazing athlete! Do you know what she did in the 50 Free?! [Set state record at 23.46; since broken by Isabel Ivey of Oak Hall 22.51]. And the program that they have at Ransom Everglades  is just incredible. It’s in a private school and they’ve got a great pool. It’s a great program.

Local kid makes good and gets Olympic gold medal—in a sport you’ve never heard of!

December 16, 2017; Santa Margarita Catholic High School, Santa Margarita, California, USA; Waterpolo: USA Water Polo Exhibition Series: USA vs Netherlands; USA Goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson with a savePhoto credit: Catharyn Hayne- KLC fotos

Ashleigh Johnson. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

There’s a lot of contact, and girls—a lot of them like the contact. And you can’t fall down and get hurt. And you’re playing in the water with a ball. Who growing up didn’t throw a ball around in a pool somewhere and then get kicked out!?

Ashley [created] a big awareness of the sport down [in South Florida] and that helped greatly.

– As you look back on your career in polo, what is it that you’re most inspired by?

It was really neat with both programs to introduce kids to a sport that they probably never even heard of, and then to take them to a really high level. And for them to be successful.

The lesson that hard work pays off, and working as a team pays off—if you’re working together you can achieve so much—and we would practice specific situations over and over and over and over to get it as close to perfect as we could.

Showing up and being organized and ready—and then being real with my players. I know many of them still to this day; one was over at my house last night. Coaching is a neat classroom where everyone wants to work really hard.

Especially when you’re successful, that feeds into you are doing something unique and you are doing it very well.

Then the officiating, like I said earlier I was very fortunate that so many people were very helpful towards me in so many ways. That aspect of people handing down knowledge to you, and then getting the opportunity to hand down that same knowledge (and some of your own) to others is a very important thing to me. I like to help others so that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

When I reflect on my life, I do have some regrets, but water polo is not one of them.