With Its First-Ever National Invitational, USA Water Polo Shows How To Do Beach Water Polo

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The Clearwater Community Sailing Center in Florida hosted beach water polo on May 18, 19. Photo Courtesy: USA Water Polo

Last weekend Clearwater, Florida, hosted the first-ever USA Water Polo national beach water polo tournament. The Clearwater Beach Challenge included 31 teams from Brooklyn, Florida, New Jersey and Texas competing in 12U Mixed, 14U Mixed, 16U Boys, 16U/18U Girls and 18U Boys divisions on the Gulf side of the Atlantic Ocean.

clearwater-usawp86 matches in two action-packed days at the Clearwater Community Sailing Center underscored the fluidity, accessibility—and logistical challenges—of this variant of the oldest Olympic team sport. According to Ryan Cunnane, USAWP’s Director of Events, it’s a much faster game, with three field players and a goalie, and participants getting many more touches than they might in a six on six format. He also pointed out that ocean current and winds as well as positioning referees, coaches and spectators must be taken into account for a real beach polo experience.

All of which will be missing this July, when the 18th FINA World Aquatics Championships will host a beach polo demonstration featuring four men’s and women’s teams each playing a match. Ostensibly, this exhibition is intended to promote a variant of the sport anywhere there’s deep water available. Except there’s nothing like that in the vicinity of the Nambu University Municipal Aquatics Center in Gwangju, South Korea, where the world championships will take place. Play will take place in the same polo course as that for the men’s and women’s competition—a temporary pool in the middle of a soccer pitch.

Earlier this week, Swimming World spoke with Cunnane about the appeal and value of beach polo, especially for younger players, the logistical challenges of dealing with natural—and unpredictable conditions—and what USA Water Polo, and others, might learn from this foray with a faster, more dynamic version of polo.

– Why is beach water polo instructive, especially for age-group players?

It’s three-on-three with the goalie, so you really can’t hide anywhere. Offensively you have to be active; defensively, the action doesn’t stop with a goal scored, so you have to be thinking about playing [both] defense and playing offense. Substitutions and ejections are much faster because the course dimensions are smaller.

But for developing athletes in our younger age groups, in beach water polo you touch the ball more often just by the raw numbers. There are three of you rather than six [in a regular polo match]. And you have freedom of movement, so you can become a center, outside shooter or a perimeter defender—then you turn around and you’re headed to offense.

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Photo Courtesy: USA Water Polo

There’s a lot of benefits for the younger athletes of playing in a more fast-paced environment—and you also get to touch the ball more often. [Plus] you defend different positions all the time.

It’s a free-flowing game. You really see some benefits come out of a full weekend of beach polo.

– Is this the first time USA Water Polo is running an event with beach polo?

This is the first USA Water Polo beach event that’s nationally sanctioned, with invites out to the while country. But we do sanction several beach events throughout the year. We have [tournaments] on the West Coast—Long Beach, Santa Barbara—there’s people who play beach water polo in lakes. They may not play true beach rules but they are playing an open water style—waves and wind and all those variables you don’t get in a pool.

This is played all over the country but this was our first foray into doing a USA Water Polo national event.

– Setting up for beach polo is probably more than just dropping water polo nets in the water!

Correct! It’s not that simple; if we had dropped some goals, they’d probably be down in Cuba by now—which is where they’d be floating to if we didn’t anchor them.

It’s the ocean, so there’s variables. We were dealing with three and a half tide differences throughout the course of the day. High tide wasn’t at first game; it was in the middle of the day. Low tide started around 4:30 p.m. The tide’s got to go somewhere, so you had a current that ran right underneath all three courses, and you had to compensate for that.

We want to make the courses as straight as possible, so we had to use long cable runs to secure the course to. We also had to use some tension straps to get them anchored to the south side of the course.

You get a straight course with a lot of tension using the docks and the pilings. Burying them in the sand wasn’t going to work with the speed of the current. So we did our best with tension straps and cables.

– What was the weekend’s biggest takeaway?

With all of those variables in mind, it was a lot of people’s first time playing beach water polo, so it was their first introduction to the different rules, like running haves, no stops after goals, ejections were touch the corner and come back immediately into play.

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Photo Courtesy: USA Water Polo

It’s the beach, it’s sunny, it’s beautiful Clearwater, Florida. There was a relaxed atmosphere. While people were trying to win, the score wasn’t the most important thing. It was that people were out there playing; they played three games a day, played for half an hour, took a break at the beach and come back.

It was a really great atmosphere, but we were running three courses on the 40-minute [mark]—86 games played over two days. That we were able to do that in the ocean was a success on to itself, but the main takeaway was that you have to spend a lot of time factoring the variables, and there’s not one solution that will fit each venue. You have to take into account what’s available from a fixed structure standpoint, compare that t the current and the tide and see what will work best for your location.

– How might your experience with beach polo be instructive to FINA and it’s proposed exhibition of this polo variant at the 18th World Championships in July?

FINA is the expert on running these games, so if there’s a pop-up pool in the middle of a soccer field that’s gonna run beach, then they probably have a well thought out plan about how this is going to flow—and best showcase their newly sanctioned version of water polo.

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Beach Water Polo, FINA style. Photo Courtesy: FINA

I’ll leave it to the experts to determine what’s best, but from our brief experience here operating this beach tournament, some of the fun is the variables that are in play, and also having a beach feel to it where you are in the ocean.

You can almost make the ocean feel like a controlled environment, so I would encourage FINA to look for the locations and venues that fit that.