USAWP’s Ramsey Wisely Reverses Course, Lobbies Newsom to Open Pools in California for Polo

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Pool in San Joaquin, California is fine for swimming, but not for polo... yet. Photo Courtesy: Sarah Crocker

Last month in an interview with Swimming World, USA Water Polo CEO Christopher Ramsey claimed his organization didn’t need to pressure California politicians to reopen pools for polo in the Golden State.

“I don’t see it as our position to lobby the state of California,” Ramsey said on January 8, referring to coronavirus protocols that have almost completely shut down the sport in the state the past 10 months. “Our responsibility is to help our clubs be ready to get back when things shift. Now, with a vaccine it will shift.”

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California Governor Gavin Newsom. Photo Courtesy: Rich Pedroncelli / CNBC

Apparently, the COVID-19 situation in California has not yet shifted enough to satisfy polo’s national governing body. In a letter sent last week to California Governor Gavin Newsom, Ramsey reversed course, asking the leader of America’s most populous state to reconsider an executive order that has shuttered public pools for polo since March 19, 2020.

Complicating the USAWP CEO’s appeal; since last June, swimming has been permitted in public, while polo is not. Changing gears despite the pandemic’s toll of 3.5 million Californians infected and almost 48,000 deaths, Ramsey underscored current events—collegiate polo has been played in the Golden State the last three weekends—while acquiescing to the demands of USAWP membership.

“65% of USA Water Polo’s membership live and play in California, as well as most of the sport’s Olympians,” he stated. “California has already acknowledged that water polo is safe by allowing NCAA Pac-12 Conference training and competition. Participants include UCLA, USC, California, and Stanford, all of which are playing without evidence of their actions leading to higher infection rates.”

For some, Ramsey’s political maneuvering is a long-time coming. Last month, Steven Munatones and Sean Plotkin posted a petition seeking support for a call to reopen pools for polo. Calling on the Governor to rely on S.O.A.P.—Safely Open All Pools—approximately 1,000 signers have agreed. Newsom has yet to respond, likely because of criticism regarding his handling of the virus and housing issues in the state, a situation that has emboldened opponents to launch a recall petition.

[Munatones on Water Polo in California: Lockdown is Absolutely Crushing]

Munatones and Plotkin cite that swimming competition has been allowed in California for months, while polo at the age group and high school level is considered unsafe—a direct result of effective lobbying by USA Swimming.

“The perception of water polo being bad and dangerous and swimming being good and safe is, largely, due to top-level leadership and lobbying efforts of USA Swimming,” Munatones said in an email. “This is just one of many differences between USA Swimming and USA Water Polo.”

Plotkin points out that many parts of the country are allowing full scrimmages and tournaments, led by Utah, which over the past six months has held a number of competitive age group tournament. Texas and Florida have also held competitive play while a number of states are allowing practices as well as scrimmages.

[Stringham on Utah’s Salty Splash Tourney: Did it So Kids Could Play Water Polo]

Ramsey’s changed approach resonates with other polo supporters. According to Geoff Price, a parent organizer for Let Them Play Water Polo, the letter sent out by the USAWP CEO “plants a rallying flag.”

“We have to advocate for our sport as a determined community, and immediately, or the ban on water polo will linger into 2022,” he added in an email. “We are presenting evidence. USA Water Polo is presenting evidence. And the sport is mobilizing at the grassroots.”

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Tony Azevedo (right),  Jack Merrill of Connecticut Premier Water Polo. Photo Courtesy: Jenn Lewis

Five-time Olympian Tony Azevedo, listed as a senior advisor to Let Them Play Water Polo, was blunt about how the long layoff has negatively affected polo and young athletes.

“California’s ban on water polo has dangerous consequences on many levels, including the mental and physical well-being of our athletes and the destruction of the state’s entire aquatic ecosystem,” he said.

“After a year of COVID, there is now overwhelming evidence that indicates the low risk of infection in water polo. It’s time to follow the evidence.”

Gavin West, a high school junior, co-authored a petition to First Partner Jennifer Newsom, a former soccer athlete at The Branson School and Stanford.

“We are appealing to First Partner Newsom because she is a former elite youth athlete,” West wrote. “This perspective has been lost on the Governor’s health advisors, who have mischaracterized risk-reward of banning athletics when evidence shows that COVID-19 is very rarely transmitted in game. Her input on the mental and physical toll of inactivity could be crucial.”

All these individuals are linked by what most informed observers believe: polo competition is safe to be played outdoors in properly chlorinated pools. With hundreds of outdoor pools across the state and the country’s largest concentration of polo athlete, California is an ideal environment for a large-scale reopening of polo.

[COVID-19 and Environmental Considerations for Aquatic Sports]

This change will represent a huge boost to athletes as well as USAWP, which last year cancelled the majority of its public events, including national Junior Olympics for the first time in the event’s four-decade history.

At the organization’s General Assembly last month, Ryan Cunnane, USAWP’s Director of Events, announced that it is expected that JOs will return this summer. Holding the world’s largest polo tournament will be a huge boost for the organization, which last year saw membership drop 24%—from an all-time high of 50,000 in 2019 to 38,000 as of this January.

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