In the early days of water polo in 19th century Scotland, the game was more like “water rugby,” and players were allowed to wrestle opposing players under water and hold them there until they surrendered the ball. Players scored goals by placing the ball on the opposite deck, but the goalie could defend by jumping off the deck directly on top of the approaching player.
In most ways, the sport has evolved from this violent historical version. Pulling or holding an opposing player underwater will result in a penalty. Goalies defend a goal box from inside the water, and must constantly tread water in the goal while their team defends the deep end of the pool.
Players can even be asked to submit to a fingernail check before the game to ensure safety from scratches. But the civilized modern version of water polo retains the feeling of urgency, the speed of play, and the rush of strength and adrenaline of the rougher days of “water rugby.”
The Redmond Water Polo Jamboree, an annual tournament of 26 teams (boys, girls, and co-ed) from all over the state is less cutthroat than in the olden days of the sport, but no less exhausting and exciting. The jamboree, held last weekend, is an ideal pre-season event for competitors to come together to meet for the first time and get a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of other teams in a whirlwind of 142 short, 8-minute games. The pace and number of games ensures that with only 7 players in the pool on a side, even brand new players get playing time to prove themselves over the course of the 3-day event. It is tradition that the teams – often including parents and siblings – camp out at Cascade Swim Center throughout the jamboree. The RHS parking lot fills with RVs and the grassy park along Rimrock Drive fills with tents and towels.
The jamboree dates back to 2000, before Ridgeview High School was built, when RAPRD began operating the water polo programs after being approached by some RHS players committed to developing a Redmond water polo program. One of these founding players, Jay Rowan, is honored on a plaque outside Cascade Swim Center.
Many of this year’s players are younger than water polo in Redmond, a fact that baffles veterans of that early program like RHS head coach Denise Maich. She coaches both girls and boys teams with her assistant coach Ricardo Monroy, and her brother Joe DeLeone coaches both Ridgeview teams with his assistant coach Spencer Gorman.
Whereas many of those early players left team sports like soccer and football to play water polo, an interesting trend is that for many current players, water polo is often their first, or even their only team sport. Some players do martial arts, or cross country, or snowboarding, and most of them are also on swim team. Competitive swimming requires hours of individual practice and, even in relays, features each swimmer in the water alone, separated from opposing teams by lane lines. Each swimmer swims their own race, or their own relay leg, and their points support the team’s overall score.
Yet it is the team dynamic of water polo that seems to be a major draw for these otherwise very independent solo athletes. Caitlyn Owen, 14, who has never done a team sport before water polo says that the sport is a mix of independence but also support. Her teammates from Redmond High School, Mackenzie Carlson, 18; Annabelle Crispen, 14, and Sage Russell, 14 agree that the feeling of being on a team is one of the most rewarding aspects of water polo. It is a feeling they pour considerable energy into building and maintaining. Carlson, the girls team captain, explains that team captains proactively build team spirit by organizing events like house parties and campfires to bring the group together in their off-time.
I discovered team bonding even extends into the virtual world when Crispen mentions “the group chat,” and Russell confirms that there are actually multiple girls team group chats across all social media platforms. But the girls are quick to assure me that water polo “is not like other teams where there are cliques or one person has just one other friend.” Carlson emphasizes how much of the captains’ job, in and out of the pool, is reinforcing this inclusivity. “If even one person doesn’t listen, or one person misses a practice, it affects everyone,” she says.
Augie Tobish, 16, is going into his junior year at RHS. For him, what sets water polo apart is the athletic challenge; the difficulty of being in a different environment. “The human body isn’t designed to be in the water.” I mention the demanding physicality of the sport; guarding another player face to face, treading water with arms and shoulders out of the water to defend and steal. I ask what he would tell younger kids who might have come to this year’s jamboree and wondered whether they are up for it. “I definitely recommend it,” Tobish doesn’t hesitate. “It is hard, and can be frustrating, but it is great for character building. It’s a great toughen up thing to do,” he says. Augie’s brother Gavin Tobish is a rookie this year. I ask if he gives him a bit of a hard time, and Augie grins.
Jaime Tracewell, 16, of the Ridgeview girls team, is also going into her junior year. This is her second year playing water polo. She was already on swim team, and did cross country, but laughs and admits she is “not that into running.” For Tracewell, water polo is the best of both types of sports. “It’s team driven and individualistic,” she says. “Everyone has their own position and knows what to do for themselves in that situation, but everyone still needs to work together as a team.” Tracewell doesn’t see any conflict between retaining her individuality and working as part of the larger group. “I still have a lot of freedom in what I do and how I do it, while still having a team that supports me and I support them,” she observes.
Asked about rivalry between teams, and how players feel about the opposition in such an intense, physical game, Tracewell sees the competitiveness and intensity as added value. “Yeah it can be super rough,” she acknowledges, but the people you’re playing against are very gracious and friendly. We like having a strong team to play against. It tests you and shows who’s made of what.” Considering what she has learned in water polo that she applies in her life out of the pool, Tracewell says “Being able to take charge, that leadership quality.” She adds that water polo has taught her “the ability to be aggressive and also kind – a delicate balance.”
Ridgeview coach Joe DeLeone, agrees that water polo builds skills into players that helps them grow up in and out of the pool. “It is challenging, physically and mentally.” He acknowledges, “it makes you work hard, and you have to work as a team or you’re not going to succeed.” It is less about individual talent or ability, he says, than it is about the ability to play together with a common purpose.
Kimberly Kawelmacher, whose daughter Rachel is a Redmond rookie this year, sees the potential of water polo as a space for kids to practice adult skills. By learning team work, and having to show up for pool and dryland training on time, learning to listen to instructions and not let teammates down, she says water polo “works through some life lessons, but it is a fun outlet to learn that responsibility.” Kawelmacher’s family moved to Redmond from Texas just last month and she notes that RHS is bigger than their whole town. For her, the jamboree has had a practical benefit: “It is a really good way to meet people before school starts,” she observes. When asked if she is worried at all about waterpolo being a bit of a rough sport, Kawelmacher laughs. Her daughter has 3 older brothers, she says, and she has done karate for years. “She can handle it.” Regarding advice to other new parents, Kawelmacher doesn’t hesitate: “If you’re going to do it, jump in feet first.” She gestures around at the tents and towels everywhere marking the boundaries of the RHS team’s campout territory. “Get into it, be part of the team.”
A number of local families camped out together, not just the kids on the team. As I was leaving, a water polo dad was starting to pack up the lavish accommodations that had built up around the entrance to an enormous RV in the RHS parking lot next to the pool. Coolers and chairs created an impromptu outdoor living room and an iron skillet with a Dutch oven lid indicated there had been a kitchen out there too at one point. “Where you from?” I asked, thinking he had a long drive ahead when the games wrapped up a little before 5pm. “Here!” he laughed.