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Water polo: So hard, but so fun

By Mark Umbach

Have you ever tried treading water for an hour while savage men cling to your slick body, all the while having balls fly at your face? No, it's not a Saturday night on Fire Island, but rather what most water polo players go through day in and day out as they train to master their sport.

Want to know more about this insanely tough—but fun—sport where burly, half-naked men claw at one another in a splash-filled attempt to score goals? Not for the faint of heart, water polo requires a great deal of physical strength combined with the speed, coordination, and endurance it takes to tread water for a long time—all the while trying to hurl balls into an opponent's goal cage.

It's just the kind of sport that a gay swimmer with a yearning for team play and a competitive bent might want to get into.

Combining aspects of soccer and basketball—minus the ground under your feet—water polo starts with two teams of seven (including the goalie) in the pool, which is 30 meters long by 20 meters wide for a men's match, with a minimum depth of two meters. Each of the four quarters (which last five, six or seven minutes depending on the level of play) starts with the two teams lined up on the goal line. On the referee's mark, the teams head toward the center of the pool and the ball is either placed on a pull shoot or dropped in the middle by the ref—with the teams then dashing toward the ball in hopes of gaining the first possession.

Once play begins, players may not touch the bottom or the side of the pool, forcing them to tread water the entire time they're in play. Much like basketball, there is a shot clock that runs for 35 seconds, and if no shot has been fired by the last tick of the shot clock, the opposing team is awarded a free throw. In addition, no player other than the goalie may grab on to the ball with more than one hand at a time. Worn out from all the aquatic foreplay? Substitutions are only permitted after a goal, between periods, or when a player is ejected after three major fouls. Fouls include the offense intentionally roughhousing the defense, holding on to the offensive player, or interfering with a free throw.

While the rules might not seem too complex, getting in shape for a round of polo is more challenging. The best way to do just that, according to Jim Ballard, a former United States Masters Water Polo coach and player, is to throw on the Speedo and get in some lap swimming. "You'll hear a lot of players talk about how hard they work, but after a year of 'dedication,' they still have trouble making a 50 (two lengths of the pool) and lifting their arms out of the water. And we're not talking about beginners."

Over the past 20 years, water polo has built a strong following in the gay community and has become a regular competitive event during the annual International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA) Championship swim meet. Competitive gay water polo, or homo polo as it is referred to by the IGLA web site, began in 1987 when the meet was held in San Diego. That year, the players were mostly competitive swimmers who had both the time and energy left after they raced to play a match or two.

Every year the water polo matches were held after the swimming events. Then, at the 1996 Washington, D.C. meet, the matches were held in a separate venue than the swimming events. Ever since that '96 meet the water polo matches have been held apart from swimming, and now IGLA-sanctioned teams can be found in Atlanta, Montreal, New York, San Diego, Seattle, Utah, Vancouver, Washington, D.C., and West Hollywood.

Want to play? If you feel like getting a little rough in the pool, many water polo web sites offer team-finding help, including and Ballard suggests you be ready to become part of a team, however. "No matter how good you are as an individual, [in water polo] you win or lose as a team."

Mark Umbach is the managing editor of, as well as an active marathoner and swimmer. He works for the National AIDS Marathon Training Program and serves on the board of directors for the LGBT swimming and water polo team West Hollywood Aquatics in Los Angeles.