By Robert Nilsen
Earlier this year the USA Water Polo Olympic Development Program in collaboration with DJ Global Wave announced men’s and women’s rosters for the USA Water Polo Futures Trip. Fast forward to the first week of August and the time for the Futures to compete has arrived. The team members are in Budapest, Hungary, where they will be competing against a host of club teams as they work on improving their water polo skills. A few athletes taking part in the trip offered their thoughts on the sport of water polo and what they hope to learn on their adventure.
Shaye Story is 15 and started swimming after she was diagnosed with arthritis, finding that water activity is easier on her joints. Not long after, Story saw one of her sister’s water polo practices, and that inspired her to join a club team in Hawaii.
"There are only a few schools that field high school teams, so it’s a small community,” she said. “It’s really fun to know everyone at the other schools, and it’s really helpful to come out and play ODP because you play better teams.”
Story may be relatively new to the sport, but she already has had some highlight moments recalling a big win for her high school team when it won the state championship “for the first time in a long time, and my friend scored the game-winning goal.”
While native to Hawaii, Story also has trained with the Rose Bowl Water Polo Club of Pasadena, CA, during recent summer vacations in an effort to immerse herself in water polo even further.
Adding to her club experience is her time in the Olympic Development Program, which has proved valuable as she’s networked with other water polo players from around the country while picking up new skills. It's that desire to improve that has led Story to an international adventure on the Futures trip.
“I hope to further my development as a water polo player, meet new people, make more connections, go to Budapest, and become better,” she added.
Tessa Welch choose to play water polo when she was 8 years old. Her summer league swim coach created a water polo team in Texas that she and her twin brother joined. They both loved the game and have been playing ever since.
“It isn’t a huge sport, but it’s definitely growing,” 15 year old Welch said. “If you do water polo, you also have to swim. If you tell others you play water polo, most don’t know what it is, so it’s fun explaining that you tread water and fight like crazy the whole game.”
Welch already has experienced great moments in her career, including when her high school team made the state championships. In one game she scored five goals against a team that they had lost to by 7, and her coach was overcome with tears of joy. Welch also has enjoyed her time on the Olympic Development team, as she’s traveled to California several times and has also participated in the Holiday Cup at the Colorado Olympic Training Center.
“It’s fun to play different teams and people from all over the USA,” she said, adding that she was humbled, honored, and proud when she played in the Team USA suit for the first time on her ODP team.
Welch is always looking to improve, which has led her to take part in the upcoming Futures trip: “It should be really fun to go to Hungary and play other teams I’ve never seen, and hopefully it will make me a lot better as a player.”
Seth Berke comes from a water polo background, as both of his parents played at the University of Maryland. Berke started swimming at the age of five and became hooked on water polo as soon as he tried it at the age of 10.
“Water polo is a growing sport in Florida,” Berke, now 16, said. “We have more than 64 high school teams and dozens of clubs. The ODP program, strong coaching and refereeing, and involvement from USA Water Polo in our region has really helped the sport grow in popularity and has helped raise the players’ skills.”
Berke has already experienced great moments in his water polo career, including the district championship game this past season between his high school—St. Andrews—and defending district champions Boca High School. Recalling the game against his team’s rival, Berke noted “they had been beating us all year by a good margin. The whole team stepped up and helped pave the way for me to score 11 goals — and we won 12-10. We also won the District Championships and advanced to the Regional Finals.”
In addition to his high school water polo experience, Berke has been doing ODP since he was 12, which has given him the opportunity to improve by learning new techniques and skill sets from great coaches. ODP also has allowed him to play and become friends with some of the best players in the country.
While participating in ODP Berke received the ODP Nick Johnson Inspiration Award three times (2015, 2017, and 2018). The Nick Johnson award recognizes athletes on a yearly basis that fully embody the vision and values of the Olympic Development Program. Receiving the award is really important to him because of what the award means and because of how important it is to the water polo community.
Berke is always looking to improve, which has led him to take part in the Futures trip. “Playing against teams from other countries will be a new experience and opportunity for me to learn and grow. Plus, it’s an amazing honor to represent the United States!” he said. Berke is expecting the trip to be tough, but he always likes challenging himself and is training hard for the trip and believes he’ll pick up what he needs to work on from competing against strong players with different styles. He hopes to come back to Florida with new goals and ideas for taking his training to the next level, all of which he’ll share with his high school team.
Speaking of teammates, another member of Seth’s ODP squad—Rene Peralta—also is excited about the Futures trip. “I want the experience of playing international water polo, especially in Hungary since it’s known as one of the best nations for water polo,” he said, adding that he hopes to take what he learns and show it to his team back home to make them more competitive.
Isabel Williams started swimming at a young age. But after seeing her sister’s friend play water polo and getting encouragement from the coach, she decided to try the sport herself.
Williams who is 16 plays in Maryland where water polo is a small sport. “There’s not a large exposure to it,” she said. “There are some private schools that have high school water polo. My high school didn’t, so I played on a year-round club team, and we would have tournaments throughout the year.”
Williams was invited to train with the Rose Bowl Aquatic Club in Italy. Adding to her club experience, she also takes part in the ODP program where she has had a lot of fun. “It’s really great to see people from the East Coast competing with the rest of the zones,” Williams said.
She’s had great success in ODP, including when her team took 5th place in the tournament, which was the highest finish for an East Coast team in a few years. Williams is really happy that she got selected for the Futures trip and is excited to go to Hungary so she can see different playing styles. She believes that the trip will make her better and push her to be the best water polo player she can be and help her bring back what she learns and so she can help increase the popularity of water polo in Maryland.
Noah Schor started out swimming but grew bored with it. Then he saw a local water polo team in Chicago was advertising through the swim team, so he decided to join the squad in 6th grade. His first coaches—Jim Lock and Scuba Steve—influenced his decision to keep playing.
“Water polo in the Chicago area is a lot smaller than in southern California, but it’s growing pretty fast, Schor said. “It’s a high school sanctioned sport here, with over 100 schools playing.”
Among Schor’s playing highlights include last year’s high school sectional championship tournament. “We had an inconsistent season, and it took us a while to work together because we changed up our starting lineup quite a bit,” the 17 year-old said. “But we put together three pretty perfect games and won our third sectional title in a row defeating a team we’d lost to twice during the regular season. I was super proud of my teammates, and my coach Ryan Lodes did a great job leading us.”
On top of his high school experience, Schor also has taken part in the ODP program where he’s become a lot better because of traveling to regions where water polo is bigger. Through ODP he also has gained experience playing for college coaches—and it’s how he met his current coach, Tim Daniel of Northwest Chicago Water Polo Club.
Schor’s best ODP moment was playing in the All-Star Division in his last ODP National Championship season. He said it was a really cool experience as the highest level of water polo he’d played to that point. And since Schor is always looking to improve, he decided to take part in this Futures trip.
“I think it will be a really good experience,” he said. “It’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime trip that will make me a lot better.”
Kerem Tan Kocyildirim
Kerem Tan Kocyildirim started playing water polo in Pennsylvania at the age of 8, and he has played it ever since. “It is not very popular, and there’s only one team in the whole city,” Kocyildirim , 17, said. “We have to travel long distances to compete.”
Kocyildirim has already experienced some top moments in his career, including winning the Pennsylvania Middle School State Championship and being selected to attend the USA Water Polo National Training and Selection Camps. On top of playing in high school, Kocyildirim also has taken part in the ODP program for the last six years and says it’s “helped me develop into the player I am now because of all of the new things I've learned over those years.”
His best OPD moment was coming out to California with his teammates to compete against the rest of the zones. Kocyildirim also has played in other countries, specifically Greece and Montenegro where he competed over the past two summers. And now he’s excited about the opportunity to go to Hungary on this Futures trip. He expects to learn new things from the trip like experiencing how they play in Hungary and seeing what the country is like. Kocyildirim knows that the futures trip will make him better by giving him the experience of playing with a new team and helping him develop into a better player overall. He hopes that this trip will give him more knowledge about how other athletes and teams play and how to play against them. He plans to bring back what he learns to his high school team to help them next season.
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