Jacksonville Water Polo brings the Olympic sport to the First Coast.
The water glitters neon blue. Numbered spheres move back and forth, treading water, chasing the ball unnumbered and moving toward the goal posts on either end of the pool.
All of the spheres but one are heads attached to bodies. The one without the number is the ball. Moving underwater, they’re camouflaged under the illusion of refraction. Referees can only make calls on what’s visible in the air between splashes. A game of grabbing, kicking, dunking and pulling lives freely beneath the surface, where fouls are made even with more fouls.
Their feet don’t touch the bottom of the pool, so players can use liquid leverage to propel themselves, or use the other players around them as grounds to launch from. The sport is fully involved, requiring legwork, upper body strength and coordination.
On a master’s team, there are seven players, including the goalie. Players pass and shoot a ball flying fast a foot over water as they aim to get it across the goal line and into the goal.
When a goal is scored, play restarts at mid-pool, where the cycle of gentle treading and chaotic sloshing over the water begins again.
Water polo is best known as an Olympic sport: The men’s game has been played at every Olympic Games since 1900—with the women’s team joining the lineup a century later. It is widely played internationally and is most concentrated in eastern Europe and in the American Northeast and West Coast.
Jacksonville Water Polo, a co-ed, adult club serving the First Coast, brings out the best of the sport’s diversity. The practices are held by the river at the Bolles School, where the sunset reflects on the water as friends gather and get in their gear on the bleachers by the pool.
“Our practices are pretty casual because a lot of guys do it to have fun, for the comradery with the group,” said Manny Torres, who helps organize the practices. “It’s a wide range of players and a wide range of skill levels.”
At a recent practice, one young man was back in the pool for the first time since returning from deployment. Another was visiting from the West Coast and hadn’t played since high school. Men of all ages, from high school all the way up to their 60s, dipped in with technical dives, swam laps, and passed balls back and forth as they caught up on the week’s events. Hungarian, Colombian and Caribbean accents can be heard among more than a few California accents.
Mark Boensel has played water polo for 55 years and, on this night, served as referee. He carefully analyzed the players during drills and decided the teams. With the players wearing their team swim caps in position, Boensel blew a whistle, and the scrimmage ensued.
Jacksonville Water Polo players compete against other master’s teams, mostly in Florida, some in Atlanta, and occasionally a team will compete in nationals.
Torres started playing when he was a swimmer at North Carolina State University and friends encouraged him to join the school’s club team. He was hooked from the first time: “I was like, this is a lot more fun. It’s like swimming, but there’s a team aspect, a lot more contact. I was hooked from that point on, and I’ve been playing ever since.”
Boensel shares a similar story of the thread between swimming and water polo. “I grew up in Southern California, and swimmers in their offseason would play water polo. It kept them in the water, but it wasn’t just going back and forth looking at the black line on the bottom of the pool,” he said. “It’s a much more interactive sport, it’s more social and it kept you in shape and gave you something fun to do when you weren’t just swimming.”