In an Olympic year when all eyes were on Rio and the U.S. Women’s National team in its successful quest for a second consecutive Gold medal, 14 women long past their athletic primes provided an inspirational tale of friendship, endurance, and a seemingly boundless love for the sport of water polo.
The Fighting Flamingos—hailing from California to Florida, from New Hampshire to Washington, from Arizona to Maryland—make up a 55+ age group that in June captured its third-straight Women’s Masters National Championship last in Irvine, CA.
And their collective success is all the more remarkable considering they almost never practice together.
The team has dominated its age group at USA Water Polo Masters Tournaments for a decade. But the foundation for their success was established long before the club began in 2006. That’s when Congress passed the Education Amendments of 1972, Title IX, which stipulate that any institution of higher learning that accepts federal funds has to provide equal opportunity to both gender for all educational benefits, including athletics.
Title IX—Catalyst for Change
Chris Bloese, Debbie Cavanaugh, Lisa Dahl, Tracy Grilli, Lynn Kachmarik, and Cindra Mirales are cornerstone players for the Flamingos—so named because the team is registered in Fort Lauderdale, where Cavanaugh, the team’s player-coach, resides. Filling out this year’s roster were Rosana Andrade, Michele Canale, Dion Gray, Marsha Godoy, Jennie Jacobsen-Huse, Vaune Kadlubek, Patricia Shillington, and Ilene Tucker.
All the Flamingos, between 55 and 59 years old, are members of the original Title IX generation, the cohort of female athletes first provided broad opportunities for high school and college athletic competition.
“My freshman year in high school, Title IX happened, and there were a number of girls—older sisters to friends of mine—who found out that because there was no girls track team, we could be on the boys team,” said Grilli, the Flamingos’ founder, in a phone interview from her home in Londonderry, NH. “There were 13 of us on the boys track team; that’s how Title IX affected us.”
For Cavanaugh, freshman year was also a watershed moment, when Title IX resulted in the girls at Ransom Everglades High School in Miami got sports of their own. Cavanaugh participated in cross-country, field hockey, softball, basketball, and water polo, though her primary sport was swimming. She earned a partial scholarship to the University of Miami where Title IX helped transform the Hurricanes into a swimming powerhouse.
“[Title IX] brought other girls [to Miami], and we were an awesome team—better than the football team,” she said from her home in Florida. “It put women’s sports on the map.”
For Kachmarik, Title IX opened the door to a long, successful athletic career, first in high school in Neshaminy, PA, then as a swimmer and water polo player at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania under the renowned Dr. Richard “Doc” Hunkler. In addition to stints as a player and assistant coach with the U.S. Women’s National team, Kachmarik was head coach for a variety of sports at Bucknell University for 19 years, including men’s and women’s swimming, diving, and water polo.
“Title IX did open doors, as it should have,” she said by phone from her home in Mishawaka, IN. “Given the opportunity, girls want to play, and there’s so much research out there about girls and young women, and the success of leaders [that] can be attributed back to their experiences in sports.”
Kachmarik was emphatic that Title IX provides a necessary leveling between U.S. women’s athletics programs and that of their male counterparts.
“In the end, the right thing to do is to provide equal opportunities [to compete] and equal pay for coaches,” said Kachmarik, who in 1986 became the first woman to coach a men’s varsity water polo team, when she succeeded Dick Russell at Bucknell. “Women deserve the same locker room space, the same expertise in coaching, the same travel. All of these things need to be equal.”
Doc Hunkler, who in 1972 launched women’s water polo at Slippery Rock, said Title IX was just one factor in growing the sport.
“When we started the women’s water polo Team at Slippery Rock, there was no Title IX, and we had to fight for everything we got,” Hunkler wrote in an email. “When Title IX was passed, it helped, but [players] still had to pay for their own suits [and] meals, and we slept on friends’ floors.”
The Man Behind Women’s Water Polo
While Tracy Grilli is acknowledged as the Flamingos’ physical and spiritual leader, Hunkler is surely the father of the squad. A legendary coach of water polo as well as swimming at Slippery Rock, Hunkler coached women’s water polo for 27 seasons. In 1975 he launched a men’s program, which he coached for 24 seasons.
Three Flamingo mainstays played for Hunkler at Slippery Rock: Grilli, class of 1979; Kachmarik, class of 1980; and Cindra Mirales, a 1981 graduate. All credit their success to their former water polo and swimming coach.
Kachmarik was emphatic about Hunkler’s role in her success—first in college, where she was named an All-American in water polo all four seasons, and then as one of the founding members of the U.S. National Women’s Water Polo team.
“I had an amazing college coach who just kept me inspired the entire time,” she said. “I ended up at Slippery Rock [where] Doctor Hunkler was the coach—he’s an institution in his own right—[and] Slippery Rock was the first full women’s collegiate team in the country.”
Grilli said of her former coach, “Hunkler was one of those guys who was always positive. I knew he believed in me at a point in time I just couldn’t quite get it together. I’ve gotten it together now, and he is part of the reason.”
Debbie Cavanaugh never played for him but is nonetheless impressed by Hunkler’s accomplishments.
“I knew Cindra, Lynn, and some younger women, and I was impressed by how passionate they were for Doc and how he had helped them not only as players—he had that mentoring factor [as a] father figure in those girls’ lives,” Cavanaugh said.
Hunkler returned the praise. “I was passionate about water polo,” he wrote in an email, “but the women I coached were dedicated and willing to make sacrifices in order to play and help create women’s water polo.”
The Team That Never Practices—but Wins Anyway
“Even though we aren’t together as a team, we are practicing together at different places,” said Cavanaugh, the team’s coach. “Some more than others, some not at all. It’s like riding a bike. You may lose your strength a little bit, but you don’t lose those basic skills.”
Cavanaugh at least has the luxury of playing with teammates Chris Bloese and Patty Shillington, who live in relatively close proximity to her Fort Lauderdale home.
“Some of us never practice at all,” Grilli freely admits. “Where am I going to play in New Hampshire?”
“It isn’t easy being a virtual team, I never know from year to year who will be able to play,” she continued. “The older we get, the more difficult it is when the majority of our team is now pushing 60 or older.”
Nationally ranked in U.S. Masters Swimming, Grilli is able to keep in shape at her local pool. And, her role as connector is perhaps the most important “secret weapon” in the Flamingos’ arsenal.
“One of the reasons our team has been as successful as it has is we’ve got people spread out all over the country,” she explained. “It’s all about us individually going out and networking to keep our team going.”
Luckily, the reservoir of talent has been consistently replenished, as Kachmarik is joined by former National Team players Dion Gray of California, Marsha Godoy of Arizona, Vaune Kadulbek of Nevada, and others have allowed the team to prosper despite limitations imposed by members’ far-flung locations.
Kachmarik pointed out how vital her former Slippery Rock teammate Grilli is to the Flamingos’ existence.
“[The Flamingos are] a combination of Slippery Rock alumni—that’s who started this—U.S. Masters Swimming members and some ex-National Team women,” she said. “But Tracy’s the hero….She’s the one who started this team.”
On the Shoulders of Giants
Given the now almost routine success of the U.S. National Women’s Team, it’s easy to forget that Olympic competition for women is only 16 years old—and that players like Gray, Godoy, Kachmarik, and Kadulbek laid the foundation for the tremendous success of the present-day Olympic champions.
“We were the bridge,” Kachmarik says matter-of-factly. “We were the pioneers of the sport. When I started on the national team, the first world championship I went to in 1978 was [an] exhibition in Berlin.”
By the time of the 2000 Sydney Games, where women’s water polo was first contested as an Olympic sport, Kachmarik was past her prime, and it was time to “move on”—to raise a family, have a life outside of polo.
“But that opened up the door,” she said of her and her national teammates’ efforts to develop the sport. “We’re the ones that opened the door for the women of today.”
“‘ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS’ we have today’s National Team,” Doc Hunkler replied to a request to put the efforts of early U.S. women’s players in context. “The women who played in the early days were the ‘Giants’ of women’s water polo. It’s hard to measure how important they all were to the development of the National Team.”
“They will not let you know how important they were, but I will,” Hunkler added. “Without the women in the early days there would be no national team.”
And They’re Still Playing…40 Years Later
At this year’s Masters, Kachmarik played on two teams and paid the price. Her 59-year-old body failed her—she completely tore the joint in her right shoulder and spent time in an Irvine hospital.
But all she thought about was how long it would take to recuperate so she could play again.
“I said to the surgeon: ‘I’m not rehabbing this to make Christmas cookies. I want to come back and play water polo,’” Kachmarik recalled.
Cavanaugh—who never got to experience the competitive level of national team play—came back to water polo at age 48.
“I love sports, and I love water polo,” she said. “I never had that chance to play it in college like those girls who went to Slippery Rock; never had the exposure to try out for Junior Nationals because Florida was a stepchild to what was going on in California.
“I just love it,” Cavanaugh added. “I found out that because I’m an athlete and pretty coordinated and pretty good at water polo. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Befitting her status as keeping the “fight” in the Fighting Flamingos, Grilli worries about continuity.
“Unlike swimming—which is solitary—you need to have at least eight players to compete,” she explained. “You have to have at least two other teams in your division to have a competitive bracket. If we can’t get enough 55+ teams, then it’s gone.”
For Kachmarik, who has played water polo since she was 13 years old, it’s about the joy—and the thrill—of competition.
“It’s such a privilege to have this opportunity, and for Tracy and Debbie and Cindra to continue to do this how many years later strictly for the joy!” she said. “But the competitiveness does not leave. We want to win that Gold medal.”
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