WATER POLO – A FAST, FIERCE FUN-FOR-ALL POOL SPORT
Submitted by AWP Historian Chuck Hines
This article appeared in the July 1964 issue of Boys Life, the national magazine of the Boy Scouts
FOR THE BOY who loves to swim and who also enjoys fast-moving, robust competition, there isn’t a better game than water polo. A sport that goes back more than 80 years, it has never been widely played in this country because swimming and diving tend to monopolize activity in most pools. Lately, though, the game has begun to fan out a bit.
The object of water polo is a familiar one – defend your own goal and get the ball into your opponents’ goal, as in horseback polo, soccer, lacrosse, and ice hockey. The game has even more in common with basketball, since you pass and shoot the ball with your hands rather than with your feet or a stick. As with basketball, water polo demands skillful ball-handling, quick thinking, and good teamwork.
It also calls for a lot of stamina, especially when played at the national level in a pool where the water is over every player’s head at both ends. A pool with a shallow end is better than nothing, but major tournaments are staged in pools with deep water throughout. Players must keep themselves continuously afloat except for a brief rest at the end of each quarter.
Although there are only five or six minutes of actual play per quarter, the clock is stopped frequently by foul calls, thus adding another two or three minutes to each quarter. The players are always moving in high gear, requiring plenty of endurance to survive one entire period, let alone a full game. The larger the pool, the more hard swimming there is to be done. Dimensions range from as small as 60 feet by 25 feet indoors to outdoor tanks of Olympic size, which is approximately 100 feet by 66 feet.
There are seven players on a side – three forwards, three backs, and a goalie who guards the netted goal that is 10 feet wide and extends three feet above the water surface. At the start of every quarter, each team lines up along the rear wall at its end. The referee stands at poolside on the center line, holding an inflated ball the size of a volleyball but slightly heavier. He blows his whistle and tosses the ball out into the middle of the pool. Each team sends its fastest swimmer out to capture the ball, and the action commences.
The idea in water polo, even more so than basketball, is to work the ball in very close to the opposing goal before shooting. A good goalkeeper can generally block a long shot, leaping halfway out of the water with a powerful ‘frog kick’ and lunging from one side to the other. But on a close-up shot, when the ball is rifled into an unprotected corner of the net, it’s difficult for even the best goalie to move there in time.
In passing and shooting, only one hand may be used. A water poloist has to perfect as great a variety of passes and shots as a basketball player, getting the ball away accurately from awkward positions while being pressed hard by the defense. It helps to learn to pass and shoot with either hand. The ball is advanced by passing and dribbling, which in water polo does not involve touching the ball with the hands. A swift swimmer’s forward motion will create a wave that carries the ball in front of him, con-trolled by his stroking arms.
When players are just beginning to learn, there inevitably is a great deal of misdirected passing and shooting and aimless floundering around. But with experience, players acquire finesse. The ball will whip down the pool in a rapid progression of precision passes without ever touching the water, and a forward near the goal will reach up and stab the ball into the goal. For onlookers and players alike, water polo at its finest is an exciting spectacle of athletic artistry.
It also can get pretty rough! A player who doesn’t care for body contact is unlikely to be happy in water polo, which has much of the give-and-take of football or rugby. There is so much close-quarter milling around in front of the goal that players must be willing to take an occasional bruise from a flailing arm or elbow. Sometimes the violation comes below the surface where it’s harder for the referee to detect it. However, with expert officiating, this sort of thing is kept in check.
In any case, American water polo used to be far rougher than it is today. In European countries, the game has always been played with a fully-inflated ball and under rules described above. In the U.S., though, well into the 1920s, we generally favored a version in which a softer ball was used – you could hold it in the crease – and the rules were so wide open that it was practically a free-for-all. You could take the player with the ball underwater, which is illegal today, and try to get it away from him. These underwater wrestling matches were won by the man with the strongest muscles and set of lungs. Sometimes there were near-drownings.
Those days were recalled by Carl Bauer, former Physical Education Director for the Chicago Central YMCA and presently Athletic Director of the Missouri Athletic Club in St. Louis. He says, “I used to take them down and show them the bottom of the pool. I’d let them count the tiles.” But Carl and most other veterans agree that water polo then wasn’t nearly as good a game as it is today. The “old game” put such a premium on brute force that it never attracted much of a following, and most pool managers and swim coaches were opposed to it. The European game, contested entirely on the surface, was played by the YMCAs of New York City from 1908 to 1915, in hopes of qualifying a team for the 1916 Olympic Games scheduled to be held in Berlin. However, the Games were cancelled due to the outbreak of World War I. After the war, the California colleges started promoting the more attractive surface style of playing, and that state has gradually become the capitol of the sport.
Size and strength help in water polo, but nowadays speed and agility count for more. Of course, you have to be a good swimmer to start with. Many of the best players also have been outstanding swimmers, from Johnny Weissmuller of the 1920s to Californians Roy Saari, Chuck Bittick and Marty Hull of the present day. But even the fastest swimmer will find that until he masters the ball-handling and team tactics, he will be outmaneuvered consistently by players who could never keep up with him in a 100-yard freestyle race.
The famed New York Athletic Club and the Illinois Athletic Club of Chicago, which were powerhouses in the “old game,” have also adjusted to the modern style and remain strong nationally while promoting the sport locally amongst the younger generation. A good example of how teenaged boys can excel in the sport is the Bishop Loughlin High School team of Brooklyn, NY, featured in the five photos that accompany this article. The pictures were taken at a game between BLHS and older teenaged players from Yale University, coached by Fred Bassett. The BLHS team won by a score of 5-3, which was not surprising since they were the 1963 Eastern high school champions. On top of that, they defeated several Eastern college varsity teams. Yet their starters were/are all 16-year-old eleventh graders who had never heard of water polo until introduced to the sport three years ago by Harry Benvenuto, the BLHS swimming coach who also coaches swimming and water polo for the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn and at the Brooklyn Central YMCA, where he is Director of Aquatics. The teams practice and play their home games in the Y pool.
Bishop Loughlin’s lineup consists of forwards Bill Harris, Dennis Christy and Edward Haggerty; backs Charlie Gulatta, Jimmy Mettle and Ken Schriefels; and goalie Thomas Walsh. “They’re a wonderful bunch of boys,” says Coach Benvenuto. “They can practically coach themselves. If I have to leave the pool for a few minutes, they’ll practice just the same as if I were there.”
Most of the boys, who have played football, basketball and baseball, say they like water polo the best. And they prefer it to straight swimming. Dennis Christy spells out a basic difference between the two forms of aquatic competition. “In water polo, you always have a chance because it’s a team game. In a swimming event, if another swimmer is clearly faster than you, there’s not much you can do about it.”
The BLHS boys, who also represent the Brooklyn Central YMCA in national competition and have picked up a few All-America accolades, concentrate on perfecting their team play. They get tremendous gratification out of upsetting older and stronger players through their superior ball-handling and tactics. “Teamwork is the whole game,” declares Ed Haggerty, the captain.
Coach Benvenuto considers water polo to be a broadening experience for swimmers in more ways than one. “First,” he states, “it teaches the boys to work with others to attain a common goal. Second, it develops all-around watermanship as they learn to handle themselves under difficult physical conditions. Water poloists almost inevitably make fine lifeguards. Third, the sport seems to attract athletes with high spirits and an itch for action. Whatever their age, whether young or older, they have an exuberance and vitality that makes them fun to be around.”
That’s as good a recommendation for water polo as any I can think of.
Addendum: The three men mentioned in the preceding article have all been chosen to various Halls of Fame for their achievements.
For Carl Bauer, check out www.ishof.org/Honorees/67/67cbauer.html, while more information on Fred Bassett is available at www.usawaterpolo.org/sports/hof/mtt/fred_w_bassett_839000.html.
As for Harry Benvenuto, he served as Director of Aquatics at the Brooklyn Central YMCA from 1947 to 1982, during which time he not only taught thousands of Y youngsters but also coached the Bishop Loughlin HS and Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn swimming and water polo teams. He was subsequently inducted into the Athletic Halls of Fame at both schools. His high school and YMCA water polo teams were among the country’s best for two decades and, in 1964, shortly after this article was written, Harry and his boys won the Men’s Junior Nationals over 15 other AAU, YMCA, and collegiate teams. Several of his players went on to represent the New York Athletic Club in Senior Men’s competition. Eventually retiring, Harry, who suffered from a long-time physical disability, moved to warm-weather Alabama, where he spent his later years teaching swimming locally for the Boy Scouts. He was one of the great leaders of YMCA aquatics during the second half of the 20th century, who also willingly served other organizations. Harry lived to be 94, passing away in October of 2010. You can find his obituary, which doesn’t begin to do him justice, at www.legacy.com/obituaries/tuscaloosa/obituary.aspx?n=harry-p-benvenuto&pid=145924172&fhid=8345.