It’s an Olympic sport and no, it’s not played on horses. RACHEL JONES finds out more about water polo.
If you have the technique of a synchronised swimmer, the aggression of a rugby player, the speed of a swimmer and the accuracy of a basketball player, there’s a sport that wants to hear from you.
And if that sounds like a tall order, they’d love you to get in touch anyway.
Most people don’t combine the skills of the scrum with grace in the water, so Portsmouth City Water Polo Club are happy to hear from mere mortals.
But if you think this is a mere splash in the pool, think again.
Water polo is a tough sport. Players need to tread water for almost entire training sessions or games and sporting combat in the water is just as hard as it is on land.
‘It is a contact sport and obviously you tackle to get the ball off your opponents. Basically, you need to be able to take the knocks of a rugby player,’ says player Nicola Buckley, taking a break from training at Portsmouth’s Mountbatten Centre. .
As she speaks, other members of the club warm up with some speedy swimming exercises and then begin throwing the water polo ball to one another, all while treading water.
So far, so civilised. But in the thick of a game there will be scraps among rival teams and anything from grabbing and pulling to dunking someone under the water and even trunk and costume pulling takes place in order to gain the ball from a competitor.
Water polo involves two teams trying to score goals at opposing ends of the pool. That’s a very basic explanation and of course teams employ tactics and tackling to get their way. There are special water polo swimsuits to deal with costume pulling and at the high levels, competitors wear gum shields.
‘People get their costumes ripped so you can buy special water polo ones that are completely closed up at the back and really tight, so people can’t grab or stretch them,’ says Nicola.
But keeping your cossie on is only half of the problem. Water polo players need plenty of strength.
They employ the same treading water technique as synchronised swimmers. It’s called eggbeater and is designed to keep players steady in the water and propel themselves upwards to catch, throw and shoot.
‘We’re always happy to hear from synchronised swimmers because they’re so good at eggbeater,’ says Nicola.
‘But people usually learn it fairly quickly. Our coach sometimes tells us to get up so far that trunks and costumes are out the water. At first you think what, that’s not possible. But if you look at the guys at the top, they come so high out of the water the tops of their legs are showing, They’re really impressive ‘
And there’s plenty more to learn.
‘You need hand-eye co-ordination, like a basketball player, muscle strength and it’s obviously good to be a fast swimmer. And if you’re going to do it competitively you need to be happy to tackle and be tackled. I’m not very good with violence but in a match you really get into it. But it’s all part of the game and off pitch we’re all nice and civilised.’
As Nicola speaks some tackling takes place in the pool and in this training session it looks determined but safe.
Swimming over someone isn’t allowed and there are plenty of rules and regulations, she explains.
Although she admits the referee doesn’t always see what’s going on below the surface.
But Nicola has plenty of reassurance for newbies.
‘You don’t have to be that competitive and it’s not that aggressive in training. Some people just come to the sessions for fitness, because it’s great exercise. Most people know water polo from when they are on holiday and everyone’s piling on top of each other. But there are a lot more rules and a lot more reasoning when you play properly.’
Many of the club members are ex swimmers. But she says new members don’t need huge amounts of experience.
‘More than anything, I’d say you need to be confident in the water,’ says Nicola. ‘It doesn’t take long to build up stamina and fitness.’
The club is eager to hear from would be water polo players, whether they want to play competitively or just join in training sessions. There is a particular need for female players because currently there aren’t enough to form a competitive side. The men, however, have been playing in tournaments.
‘The problem is, a lot of people don’t know what it is,’ says Nicola,. ‘And yes I have been asked if we’re on horses. It’s an Olympic sport so I’m hoping London 2012 will change that and get a few more people interested.’
Some might be drawn to the contact sport element, others may want to test their fitness and stamina but the club hopes plenty will be drawn to the team play and social side.