Feb. 27, 2013
By Greg Mescall
When it comes to inventions and their creators, a few roll right off the tongue: Edison’s light bulb, Whitney’s cotton gin, Guttenberg’s printing press.
And in the world of water polo, there’s Weaver’s Masters National Championship.
Bryan Weaver, that is—the Redondo Beach, CA, native who took a few weeknight workouts with assistance from Master’s Chairman Kelly Kemp to a National Championship.
Now a staple of the USA Water Polo calendar, the Masters celebrates its 25th anniversary this June 30-July 2 in Irvine, CA. Close to 100 teams sporting two genders and spanning an age range from 20 to knocking on the door of 70 will offer intense competition (along with the annual social).
But rewind a quarter century to the winter of 1988, and the event we know today almost never got off the ground. It took Weaver’s tireless work and—as is often the case with most great inventions—a little luck.
“It was serendipity,” says Weaver. “I was coaching the El Segundo masters swimming team, and on that team were a lot of former water polo players. Early in 1988 I threw out there, ‘Okay, if you really want to play water polo, let’s play Tuesday nights at 9pm.’ I figured a couple of people would show up, and the first night we had something like 20 people. I was pleased and shocked. We did some of the introductions, and it was incredible: I had recognized them as El Segundo Olympians. We went through the summer playing Tuesday nights; we may have started a second night. It took on a life of its own.”
If you were looking to start an “older generation” water polo movement, you couldn’t have picked a better spot than El Segundo. Before the modern era of Olympic Team selection—including tryouts, evaluations, and mandated selection procedures—the club tournament winners took their entire group to the Olympic Games. In 1952 and 1964, the El Segundo club won the right to play in the Olympics and interim competitions, and El Segundo legends such as Bob Hughes and Chick McIlroy were chosen for the team.
By 1988 you have downright fertile ground for water polo competition featuring guys in their 30s and 40s. Those Tuesday night workouts led to guys wanting more than just a once-a-week experience, and Weaver was just the guy who could pull it off. He approached USA Masters Swimming, and since Weaver was prepared to do all the work, they happily granted a sanction for the event for the winter of 1988. It also didn’t hurt having Kelly Kemp around. He was another member of the workout group, and a good friend of Weaver’s.
At the time Kemp was chair of the Masters committee with USA Water Polo and had created a Masters championship process. His first foray into Masters—the California Saltwater & Masters Championship staged in October 1988—was a combined age-group/Masters event and struggled due to freezing temperatures in the lagoon where matches were to be played.
“It was super-cold water; 58 degrees,” remembers Kemp, a result of the local power company failing to heat the lagoon. “The age groupers refused to enter the water after the first game. As for the Masters men and women, one team pulled out, and we had El Segundo Masters, Gold Coast (Irvine), Santa Monica & Bay Club.” They played a single round-robin with those three teams, but clearly it was not the championship-type event USA Water Polo was hoping for.
Enter the Weaver-Kemp meeting—which Weaver describes as an instant bonding experience. “We hit it off right away,” Weaver remembers. “I had the pool, the support, all the necessary items in place. When Kelly came along he wanted to know, ‘Can El Segundo be part of this?’” The answer was a definite yes.
While Weaver went to work as the tournament director, Kemp worked behind the scenes obtaining sanction from USA Water Polo—which proved crucial down the line—as well as other necessary permits to hold the championship. Kemp had written a Masters charter for USA Water Polo and developed member applications, sanction forms, club applications, and by-laws—all with the hopes of Masters continuing to grow.
Then just a week out from the event, catastrophe struck at a water polo workout in Irvine. A player who was wearing goggles during a workout was injured, and his eye was nearly removed. The incident was serious enough that USA Swimming promptly pulled its sanction and cut the proposed field of 12 to 15 teams down to seven. Weaver had organized hotels, purchased medals, set up pool time, and it was now all in jeopardy. The teams still would have been protected under the USA Water Polo sanction, but that wouldn’t stop squads from leaving. Oddly enough, Weaver viewed the loss of USA Swimming’s sanction as ultimately positive.
“The timing was crushing to us,” said Weaver, quoted in a 1988 Daily Breeze (Los Angeles, CA) article. “Actually, losing the sanction was kind of a relief. Things seemed to be going too good.”
Despite the bumps in the road, the Masters event took place, with athletes playing down in age groups to fill them out. That first Masters National Championship featured 60 athletes playing 25+, 30+, and 35+. The 25+ group was the only true division with competition featuring six different teams, with the Santa Monica and Bay Club taking the title.
They played the tournament at the Urho Saari Swim Stadium (more affectionately known as the El Segundo Plunge, a common name for indoor pools built in the early 1900s). It was a shallow-deep pool, remembers Bob Damskey, who took part in that first championship and nearly every one since. The facilities may not have been the most ideal for national-championship water polo, but that took nothing away from the event. “The local community was very supportive of it, too,” recalls Damskey. “They took a lot of pride in Saari; they were still viable in the community at the time. Let me tell you, even in those first games there were a lot of people watching.”
Adds Weaver: “You talk about someone being in the right place in the right time; I knew all along I was the only person who could pull off this event. I had no idea I was starting something that has become what it is today. They just wanted to play. It was fun.”
With the groundwork laid, the Masters National Championship was born, and a slow, steady build followed. Scoreboard Magazine—now called Skip Shot magazine—put the 35+ champions on the cover, a clever strategy that planted a seed of competition in athletes’ minds nationwide. That first event awarded champions in 30+ and 35+, even though those teams didn’t compete against anyone in their age group. The hope was that athletes who stayed home that first year would have a legitimate team on which to place a bull’s-eye when shooting for a National Championship. Weaver noted, “You talk about a picture being worth a thousand words—that one started the whole movement in my opinion.” He continued to act as the event’s guiding force and could count on people such as Kemp, McIlroy, Michael Garibaldi, Bruce Bradley—and in later years Phil Weintraub and others. After the inaugural year’s 60-athlete tally—and Weaver mailing 270 entries to every U.S. masters water polo and swimming club in the United States—the roster jumped to 85 the next year. By 1991, 120 athletes were in the competition.
“Bryan as the inaugural tournament director was the guy leading the way,” said Garibaldi, USAWP hall of famer and Masters water polo pioneer. “I got involved with him, and we kind of put teams together for that first Masters.”
“Initially, each of us just had a vision to play—to provide a reason to play—and to continue to play,” said Kemp. “We were volunteers. It was ‘go do what you can, tell USA Water Polo every year [what you've done], give us your growth figures, and we’ll make a determination somewhere along that four-year plan if you’ll be a standing committee or not.’”
The event took a turn for the better when it found a near-permanent home at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, CA, where the championship was played four times from 1992 to 1996. The event ballooned to a (then) all-time high of 453 athletes in 1996. In an age before a widespread Internet, the word on the Masters was growing.
As the Masters moved north and maintained steady growth, Weaver took a step back, getting married and becoming a participant as opposed to the tournament host. “It evolved very quickly from the time we had that first Nationals,” said Garibaldi. “Within four years you could see teams spread all over. Word of mouth and just selling the idea of having a national championship. It just started to grow and even got better when women started coming in.”
Soon athletes decided that domestic competition wasn’t enough, and guys like Weintraub and Damskey ventured overseas. Garibaldi had played international water polo in the late 1980s as a reintroduction to the game, but that was more of a chance opportunity than the norm. Weintraub and his Second Effort group, which had been part of the Masters National Championship since 1990, went to the 1994 World Masters in Brisbane, Australia.
“We had a phone tree,” said Garibaldi. “There was a nucleus of guys Phil had who played at Beverly Hills High School and Cal State Northridge—eight to 10 of them.”
“We didn’t know there was a Masters program or any other teams besides ourselves. We showed up on the weekends and chose up teams,” remembers Weintraub. “The fact that there was an organized event, that we could have championships, [that] we could actually have competition and play with kids our own age [was great]. It was very small; they weren’t coming from all over the place, but it just kept snowballing.”
The late ’90s saw a dip in Masters’ numbers as the event's organization faltered. As the Masters championship grew, the means to host a tournament of that magnitude became more of a burden than a welcomed responsibility. And to that point Masters had operated independently with nothing more than sanctioning from USA Water Polo—provided the event didn’t lose money, it was permitted to continue. Still it didn’t have the backing of other national championships.
With enrollment dropping under 350 athletes around the 1998 and 1999 tournaments, a Masters committee meeting was held at the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, CA. Weaver headed there having been out of the administrative side of Masters for nearly eight years. When he left the meeting, much to his surprise, he was the new Masters committee chairman. “I got bushwhacked big time,” he jokingly remembers.
“Bryan has been the backbone of Masters water polo. I think without Bryan…” said Kemp, pausing, “he’s the one who carried them beyond the hard times, to the next generation of growth.”
Weaver focused on two mandates to revitalize Masters: The first was including women. To that point a woman had participated here and there, but now Weaver decided it was time to create divisions specifically for female athletes. This was met with some pretty strong resistance, but Weaver pushed ahead. Second he made the event’s social element a requirement for participation. Previously socials were encouraged but not mandatory. This rule happily led to such legendary moments as Doc Hofer’s 2003 BBQ in Roseville, CA. With those two mandates in place, participation jumped to nearly 500 athletes in 2000, and Masters was back on track.
The early part of the new millennium saw Masters’ continued upward movement. When the organization realigned in 2006, it was another chance to further entrench the culture of Masters USA Water Polo. These days the Masters National Championship has the full support of USA Water Polo, and no longer is Weaver “on the hook” to book pool rentals and block hotel rooms—nor is Weintraub called up on to work his phone tree (although he does it anyway). It’s all now handled by USA Water Polo staff.
The Masters has grown to such a size that there’s now debate among the Masters community about splitting the event in half by gender or age. That’s a more than realistic prospect, given that 25 years are already in the books, and few who were present at the start could have imagined what the Masters has become today.
Kemp—who returned in 2009 to coach a Los Alamitos Masters club featuring his sister, Crystal, and her cocaptain Libby Azevedo, after he was sidelined by injuries for many years—noticed quite the change: “I saw intensity at the tournament,” Kemp said, “and Bryan’s been involved the whole decade and has done a hugely fantastic job. He’s the glue that has kept everyone and everything together from the end of the ’90s to the present. Masters has grown immensely and intensely, and the play and camaraderie just gets better and better.”
“Amazement is a good word for it,” said Weaver of the Masters’ evolution. “It puts a little semi-smirk on my face that I did something that has been good for so many, and I did it out of selfish pleasure because I wanted to play. But all these other people are the same way. There is satisfaction in that it’s a vehicle that provides so much fun and entertainment and gives players a reason to stay in shape. We have to keep going, keep playing.”
“At the time I never considered myself a pioneer, but I considered myself a contributor to the growth,” said Garibaldi. “After 25 years has gone by with my involvement, I’m proud to be where I am, that I’ve been able to contribute to water polo. It’s always meant a lot to me, and I’ve always liked giving back.”
“We were a bunch of guys who had been out of the sport for 15 to 20 years; and back then to now we’ve got whole generations of kids, players, adults who’ve never stopped playing,” concluded Weaver.
At this point, another 25 years seems like a given, ensuring there will always be a place to play water polo—as long as you’re willing to get in the water.
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