SPECIAL REPORT: When Water Polo Play Becomes Sexual Abuse

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When it comes to sexual abuse in water polo, is it hiding in plain sight? Photo Illustration: M. Randazzo

SPECIAL REPORT: When Water Polo Play Becomes Sexual Abuse

“This is the sort of thing that has the potential to wreck lives,” said Therese Langan, an authority on the treatment of sexually abused teens.

Langan was referring to the downstream effects of sexual assault on the young players under the tutelage of Bahram Hojreh, a one-time age group water polo coach in Southern California. While head coach for his International Water Polo Club (IWPC), Hojreh is alleged to have physically abused as many as 13 former players.

But the assault on their persons is not the allegation at the heart of the explosive criminal and civil allegations leveled against Hojreh, nor the one that occasioned Langan’s comment. The charge is that Hojreh encouraged, even coerced, his players to perpetrate sexual violence against another underage person.

These accusations are not proven; the former coach’s guilt or innocence will be determined in the Superior Court of The State of California, and the case has not yet come to trial.

[USA Water Polo aware in 2017 of sexual assault allegations against California coach and his club]

But what seems certain is that, on at least two separate occasions, players on Hojreh’s 16U girls squad deliberately sexually assaulted their opponents during competition.

The certainty stems from the number of sworn depositions that have been entered by Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, the Irvine, California-based firm who bill themselves as “AMERICA’S LEADING SEXUAL ABUSE LAW FIRM,” into evidence in a civil suit to be tried early next year. The consequences of this particularly heinous accusation—for Hojreh, for USA Water Polo (which was responsible for overseeing the coach and the competition where the alleged abuse took place), and, most important, for the victimized athletes themselves—will almost certainly be life-altering.

Shocking—but more common than one might think

In depositions last year, parents of opponents accused International Water Polo Club’s 16U girls, in pointedly descriptive and disturbing language, of attacking their daughters three years ago.

A key consideration—and a question being probed in the legal action—is why teenaged girls would intentionally assault their peers in the heat of a competitive match, using tactics occasionally employed by age group boys. It has been alleged that Hojreh actually demonstrated the technique in the water on his players as a means of grooming them for subsequent sexual abuse.

Water polo is a highly physical sport. Grabbing of arms, legs and suits, in defiance of the rules, is common. To minimize this, suits, in particular those for girls, are skin-tight, allowing less play for groping hands. Not that opponents don’t try; anyone who watches polo at any level will notice the tell-tale sign of a suit grab: a player abruptly stopping or being yanked backwards.

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Photo Courtesy: FINA

Given that their suits have more surface to cover, female polo players are more likely to be the recipients of a strategic pull. The majority of contact, which takes place under water, is almost impossible to detect, but evidence is available all over the Internet, where images of displaced, even mangled, suits proliferate.

The grabbing of genitals, though, is rare—although not unknown—among age group boys. It’s rare one suspects, because it’s likely to be met with a punch in the face, or the victim loudly screaming, “He grabbed my …!”

But such incidents of assault involving girls are almost non-existent, which is what makes the allegations in this case that much harder to comprehend.

A 2016 much-publicized incident in a Chicago suburb involved Rebecca Dabrowski who, playing on a boys’ team, alleged that she was sexually penetrated by a male opponent during a high school match. The incident—not prosecuted by local police—was reported in an interview with the alleged victim and met with firm denials by the accused perpetrator.

Last March in Canada, allegations were made against a female player in Calgary who was accused of assaulting opponents. What distinguishes this is that it was a solitary individual, and the assumption is that—like boys engaging in extreme gamesmanship—the attacks were for competitive advantage.

A coach well-known in California, and damaging allegations against him

During the third quarter of a June 2017 Junior Olympic SOPAC Zone qualification match between IWPC and Alliance Water Polo Club in Southern California, an Alliance player yelled of her opponent: “she grabbed my vagina!”. The referee responded by excluding the outraged complainant from the match. Astonished, she stormed off the pool deck.

A scrum of parents, players and coaches ensued, and accusations were lobbed at Hojreh, IWPC’s coach. The Riverside County Sheriffs’ Department was contacted, and a report was filed.

In his deposition, the father of the player who allegedly had been violated, stated: “Both during and following these games, I learned that players on the IWPC team, coached by Hojreh, had been and were assaulting players on opposing teams, including, but not limited to, grabbing other players’ genital areas, inserting their fingers inside the vagina of opposing players.”

Supporting the Alliance parent’s claims was a parent whose daughter, a player with Redlands Renegade Water Polo Club, was assaulted the following month.

“[M]y daughter as well as other players on the Renegades team were sexually assaulted by players on the International Water Polo Club team.” the Renegades’ parent said in a deposition dated August 31, 2020.

Hojreh, a long-time boys’ and girls’ age group coach in water polo hotbed SoCal, purportedly trained his players, as a means of grooming them, to attack their opponents. It will take the justice system to sort this out; in addition to the civil case filed against Hojreh he is also subject to a criminal trial in Orange County Superior Court.

It’s almost unheard of

But, accusations above to the contrary, when it comes to girls systematically abusing girls in the water, there is little precedent.

Swimming World contacted a number of water polo coaches regarding the claims. Responses ranged from outrage about the practice to skepticism about the nature and timing of SW’s inquiry. One prominent age group coach stated that her teams had faced Hojreh’s squads many times, and never had any of her players mentioned anything like what has been charged.

In addition, the same coach speculated that it would be extremely hard for physical contact of this sort to occur in a fast-paced match where most interactions are not sustained (the exception to this is in set or in transition, with the grabbing that occurs between the hole set and the center defender being the most likely opportunity for abuse).

But why would the players acquiesce in such flagrantly off-limits––and risky––behavior?

A plausible explanation is suggested by Rich Foster, one-time board chair for US Water Polo, who believed that the behavior is modeled on how boys play dirty. “It happens a lot on the boys’ side,” he said, and then suggested a scenario as to how the ICPW coach may have pressured his players to commit abuse.

“I think it’s highly likely that the conversation went like this: Girls, on the boys’ side, players actively grab private parts of the other players to gain an advantage,” Foster said. “It you want to be like the boys, you’ve got to do it too.”

Morgan Stewart, a partner at Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, who are the lead plaintiff’s attorneys in the civil case, said that the practice was encouraged by a coach the girls trusted and believed it to be an essential element of their success.

“[Hojreh] told them that they needed to be prepared for this behavior, to expect it [to be] done to them as they moved onto college,” Stewart said in an email. “[I]f they were willing to engage in this behavior to make them better, they could play in college and even onto upper levels like the Olympics.”

“It must just be horrifying.”

Matt Swanson, a successful age group coach for Sleepy Hollow Aquatics (SHAQ) in Northern California, is deeply disturbed by the behavior. In 2016, he started a thread on Water Polo Planet about the illicit practice, entitling it: “Eradicating the grabbing of balls”.

In a recent phone conversation, the disgust in the voice of the former UCLA men’s player—who won NCAA titles in 1995 and 1996—is evident.

“If you injure someone, if you’re overly physical, it will reward you,” he said, adding that this is often a winning strategy. “You can get away with it in water polo, and you will succeed because of it. That means… you’re coaching a team and a style that wins by playing dirty.”

Asked to imagine this sort of practice with girls, Swanson paused to consider the implications.

“You’re talking about 14-, 15-year-old girls. It must just be horrifying.”

Swanson then seemed to equivocate just a bit, which, to SW, presents problems, because it begs the question: where does sportsmanship stop and abuse begin in a sport known for excessive contact?

“With the girls, it’s a lot more suit-grabbing because they’re wearing a full-body suit,” he said. “It isn’t dirty; If you get caught, you get kicked out.

“That’s just like with the guys. If you grab the side of a guy’s suit … that’s the game. You’re not trying to injure them, you’re trying to gain an advantage. That’s a whole different ball game than: I’m going to come in and injure this person.”

He concluded with a shot against any coach who could accept this style of play; in his club it’s strictly prohibited.

“If you’re a coach who’s okay with that—parents are happy, you’re winning ball games, you’ve got a program with trophies on the wall,” Swanson said contemptuously. “If you can sleep at night by doing that, so be it.”

Outrage, of course—but some skepticism as well

Reaction to the case has been strong, especially regarding the now-disgraced head coach. Stewart, lead attorney to the plaintiffs, has suggested that Hojreh’s actions bear similarities to Larry Nassar, the physician formerly attached to the USA Gymnastics program who is now serving 40 to 175 years in jail after being convicted of sexual abuse against at least 150 female gymnasts.

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Larry Nassar. Photo Courtesy: PBS

But a striking difference in this case is that the number of plaintiffs is significantly smaller—Stewart currently counts 13 who have joined the civil action—and the doubtful likelihood of a scheme in which a coach could groom his subjects so effectively that they would perpetrate his crimes against others with spectators present.

Colleen Lischwe, who since 2018 has led both the men’s and women’s polo teams at McKendree University in Illinois, is livid about the allegations—and also the sullying of a coach’s role.

“I thought our role as coaches is to serve as positive models for our athletes, to teach skills that better our team both in and out of the water, and act as a support system throughout the growth process,” she said via email.

Our athletes rely on us for guidance, constructive conversation, and encouragement. To manipulate and abuse these athletes in the way that this coach [allegedly] continued to do for years only shows that his goal was to groom and gain power over his athletes in order to fulfill his own personal agenda over the needs and safety of those he was entrusted to support and guide.

Lischwe concluded with force: “This man is not a coach, he is a predator.”

Ian Davidson, an age group coach in San Diego involved with USA Water Polo as head coach for the US. Boys Development squad, is torn by what he knows of the case. His San Diego Shores girls’ teams had faced off numerous times against Hojreh’s IWPC teams.

“Nothing was ever reported to me. Braham’s teams played incredibly hard, extremely physical and at a high level for the age group” he said in a recent phone call. “Being retrospective of the time period is very challenging, especially within the context of the information that continues to surface.”

Admitting that it’s a “difficult thing to grapple with,” Davidson tries to reason how someone who had spent so much time trying to create polo opportunities for his players could be so devious.

“I always want to see the good in every person,” he said of Hojreh, whom he does not consider a friend, but who he assumed was similarly devoted to the sport. “Someone who gave up that much time, to be on the pool deck that much, to not make that much money?”

Simultaneous victims and perpetrators

Stewart has said that at least one of the IWPC players has admitted to the behavior—and that only two have been accused. It will take a trial to sort out these details.

No matter the legal ramifications, the girls will almost certainly be affected long term by the events and the fallout from them—especially those who could have been prosecuted for a crime, even as juvenile offenders. According to Therese Langan, a licensed social worker, experienced in treating both adolescents who have been sexually abused and those who have caused sexual harm, this is a life-defining event.

Noting that the influence of the authority figure in circumstances such as these is a powerful factor, Langan believes that this is why impressionable teenaged girls could be coerced to sexually assault their opponents in public.

“Even though it’s in the pool/in front of spectators [parents], it’s known to be a violent game where players scratch and pull and kick,” she postulated in a phone call. “[It’s] not such a stretch for sexual assault to take place, especially if it is encouraged by a coach.”

Then, she added: “Sexual assault within a sport can become normalized when systemic acceptance of sexual assault is so prevalent in our society.”

Langan believes all of the Manly, Stewart & Finaldi clients in this case will need extensive therapy to recover from their trauma. For her, taking responsibility for harm caused as well as healing from the inflicted trauma are important parts of treatment for the victimized perpetrators.

“Work in both of these areas has to take place for the healing to happen,” she said.

The case has the potential to be devastating for the sport itself as it becomes widely known that, in spite of being entirely taboo, there is tacit acceptance of grabbing genitalia during water polo competition.

A technique for intimidation and dominance in a highly physical sport— where half of all action is hidden from officials’ view—it will ideally draw universal condemnation from the watchful eyes of would-be polo players’ parents nationwide.

Editor’s Note: In response to this article, USA Water Polo provided the following statement regarding it’s relationship with Bahram Hojreh:

Even in the instance of JO qualification a club hosted a sanctioned event but USA Water Polo staff did not run the event and were not on-site. To say USAWP was responsible for overseeing the coach and competition would suggest that USAWP staff were to be on-site and that is not accurate. That would be the case for say a Champions Cup or Junior Olympics or another USAWP hosted event.

Swimming World is committed to protecting the privacy of victims of sexual abuse as well as the identities of underage athletes.

With Chip Brenner

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