In Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay, under the watchful gaze of YPro Water Polo’s Irakli Sanadze, boys eight to 18 swim laps in a cramped and crowded pool. With fellow coaches Yevgeniy Prokhin and Roman Agabs, Sanadze and his club are making a powerful statement about how water polo is growing in New York City’s most populous borough.
YPro, now in its ninth year, is not alone. Counting its roster, plus those of Brooklyn Heights St. Francis Water Polo and Imagine Swimming’s Mako Polo, approximately 180 children are currently engaged in this physically and mentally challenging sport in Brooklyn three to four times a week.
The results have been mixed, competitively speaking. While YPro enjoys consistent success in the Tri-State League, a youth league sponsored by Greenwich Aquatics in Connecticut, BHSF and Mako Polo are regularly outclassed by teams from Greenwich and Chelsea Piers Stamford. But the tenacity of these programs—all members of USA Water Polo—is impressive: with minimal pool time, shallow/deep pool configurations and membership drawn from New York’s five boroughs, youth water polo in Brooklyn has gained a toehold, and is perhaps a leading indicator of the sport’s viability on the East Coast.
Primarily drawing children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union republics of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine, YPro Water Polo is one of the more competitive youth clubs in the Northeast, regularly challenging teams from Connecticut that practice in pools ten times the size of the club’s 10 x 25 yard facility located in the basement of the Kings Bay YM/YWHA.
By email, Coach Sanadze of YPro spoke of the difficulty of bringing water polo into the mainstream. “The biggest challenge in growing our club has been recruiting an American audience to a European sport,” said Sanadze, also active as a FINA, LEN and USA water polo referee. “Once parents and children learn of our sport, they become adventurous enough to try it and ultimately fall in love.”
Eleonora Pechenik, whose son Daniel Drozdov, aged 13, has been playing with YPro for two years, agrees.
“Daniel used to do swimming, but I wanted him to do a team sport,” Pechenik said recently at a Tri-State League match. “Everything [about YPro] has been positive: structure, better in school, interaction with his teammates.”
The Godfather of Brooklyn Water Polo
The story of youth water polo in Brooklyn begins with Carl Quigley, Associate Athletic Director at St. Francis Brooklyn, who for 34 years (1975-2009) was head coach of the Terrier men’s water polo team, regularly one of the East’s best. Quigley has helped launch the careers of hundreds of young athletes, both with his college team and also through Brooklyn Heights St. Francis Water Polo, the youth club he founded in 1979.
Quigley early on developed an innovative approach to build interest in potential young players: enlist Terrier athletes to assist as coaches for the youth club. The process has had multiple benefits. “Forcing [college players] to articulate the nuances of the game made them better athletes,” he explained. “They were forced to think about how it was to throw, to drive, to take a shot.”
While his program’s longevity is noteworthy, Quigley believes that connecting players from all over the world with young athletes is what distinguishes BHSF.
“In all the years that have passed, I’ve seen that growth and development in the collegiate players we recruit. [B]ecause they were forced to verbalize—whether they be from Serbia, Croatia, California or from New York—it forced them to explain what came so naturally to them.”
Sandy Castillo’s two sons—Joaquin, 9, and Noah, 8—are coached by Bosko Stankovic, a native of Serbia, All-American player for St. Francis (2010-14) and BHSF’s head coach the past two years.
Despite swimming regularly at a young age, Castillo’s sons were “bored doing laps.” He and his wife Miozoty actively searched for an alternative to swimming but found nothing until a friend mentioned the St. Francis program.
After their first practice, both kids were exhausted. “Wow, this is hard!” they told their father. But they liked that water polo is a team sport and that they got to throw a ball around the pool.
But Castillo is puzzled by water polo’s low profile and sees it as a major disadvantage to the sport’s growth. “We never encountered anything—not a flyer, not a poster—that indicated that there was water polo anywhere [in Brooklyn],” he said.
The Makos Make a Splash
Much attention has deservedly been paid to Wolf Wigo, Quigley’s star pupil who went from swimming as a teenager for the St. Francis youth club to two NCAA titles with Stanford and to captaining the 2004 US National Team at the Athens Olympics. But perhaps BHSF’s more lasting success has been 36 years of youth development under the tutelage of Quigley and graduates of Terrier men’s and women’s programs, including Zoli Danko, currently the head coach of Imagine Swimming’s Mako Polo program.
Operating out of the same St. Francis pool as BHSF, Mako Polo is plugged into a network of 3,800 children swimming throughout New York City. Originally from Hungary, Danko works full-time for Imagine and spends approximately 10% of his time on water polo, assisted by Mike Djuric, a Serbian native.
“Pool time, obviously,” responds Danko when asked about the biggest drawback his program faces, though that situation has improved. “We started with one practice a week; now we offer three to four.” Imagine also fields a swim team, so Mako Polo players swim with them for conditioning.
Danko cited a lack of local competition as another issue, forcing the team to travel regularly to Princeton for scrimmages in the university’s expansive DeNunzio Pool.
Competing as a club for only two years, the Makos have made great strides in quality of play and in converting NYC parents who typically look to more conventional sports for their children. With athletes competing in U12 and U14 age groups, the Makos have gotten better quickly, so much so that there are few openings for new members.
Seth Wilson of Manhattan and his 10-year-old son Chase have embraced the sport. While taking swimming lessons with Imagine, Chase was spotted by Danko, which turned out to be fortuitous. “It’s been a really good sport for him,” Wilson said about his son, who has played two years for the Makos.
Acknowledging water polo’s relative obscurity, he added: “You have to go a little off the beaten path to find it, but it’s worthwhile.”
And while his club is still quite young, Danko sees progress. “The fact that we started from scratch and built up to 50 players, that’s our biggest accomplishment.”
Pool Space Is Not the Only Problem
With only two facilities regularly available for water polo, one pressing need is to expand into additional pools. So far, only BHSF has ventured out, renting pool time at Long Island University, mostly for conditioning. YPro has been able to compete despite its limited facility. The Makos are in the best position to secure additional pool time, as Imagine Swimming runs swim classes in 15 pools throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Kim Tierney Wang, Senior Manager of Water Polo Operations at Greenwich Aquatics, explained that there is a fundamental conflict between swimming and water polo.
“In general, swim coaches do not like water polo,” she said. “If they offer water polo, that means that they’re going to have to give up pool space. That’s going to take away from their swim programs.”
Saying that Greenwich has New York City-based players because “there’s just no place to play,” Wang added: “In New York City, think about all those people who live there! There’s a good amount of swimmers [but] no water polo.”
Wang cited the New York Athletic Club, which regularly dominates masters tournaments throughout the country but does not have a youth program, and Asphalt Green, which fields an adult club but not one for kids at the finest aquatics facility in New York City.
“Why haven’t they started a program?” she said.
According to Craig Charlson, Asphalt Green’s Director of Aquatics, finding space for youth water polo at the organization’s Upper East Side location is difficult due to the demands of the organization’s swim program, the city’s largest.
"We have a busy schedule of swim practices and classes for New Yorkers of all ages and abilities, seven days a week,” Charlson explained. “We're currently able to allocate space for our adult water polo team and for youth water polo clinics. As the clinics grow, we will evaluate our options and potential to expand the youth program."
YPro, BHSF and Mako Polo all know that the potential exists; it’s awareness that’s the problem.
“Once kids and parents see water polo they love it,” Danko, the Mako Polo coach, said. “It’s hard to sell when they have no idea what it is.”
Additional editing by Chip Brenner - This article appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of SkipShot magazine
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