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Taking a Dip into the Water Polo Pool

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Every four years, the best of the best in sporting events like swimming, gymnastics and track & field, to name a few, are brought together to determine who is the top athlete/team in their respective fields.

These sports, along with basketball, soccer, and volleyball--both of the beach and indoor variety--are among the more popular viewing spectacles when it comes to the Olympics.

To the surprise of many, there are other events out there. Events that many people only remember exist when the Olympic games roll around. Events like diving, rowing, and, most important of all: water polo.

The U.S. Men's water polo team opened play today, faltering late and losing 7-5 to defending gold-medal champion Croatia.

The U.S. Women's team, ranked number one in the world and the defending Olympic champions, open up play on Tuesday in group play again Spain.

Water soccer-wrestling, as I like to call it, is one of those sports many might not think about except when the Summer Olympics roll around. Much like the Winter Olympic game of curling, water polo is talked about for two weeks and then generally forgotten about by the casual fan.

Unlike curling, water polo, to the naked eye, requires a lot more stamina, strength, and physical prowess. The games are generally quick, lasting around 45 to 60 minutes, but when the participants are continuously swimming the back and forth the length of a pool every 30 seconds, quite the physical toll effects the players.

I will admit I am a casual fan. Every four years, I tune in for the "popular" events, but I also try to watch as many of the matches as possible, men's and women's. I don't even care what countries are participating (though admittedly have more passion for matches the United States teams are playing in.)

Surprisingly, I knew the name of one of the players on the United States. Tony Azevedo is considered one of the greatest water polo players in the recent history for the United States. Of course, when a player scores five goals in the the opening match of the 2008 games, that name is going to stick with you. (Azevedo led the Americans that summer to a silver-medal finish).

Contrary to what you may believe, players from the water polo world do not just idly practice in dark, seedy rec centers in the four years between Olympic events. They do not sit around in the interim, losing their peak form and turning into Ben Stiller's character from the end of the movie Dodgeball.  They do not just look at their calendar and say, "Hey. Don't we have the Olympics in Rio in a couple of months? We should probably get to training."

Turns out, there is a professional league, the Fina Water Polo League, that many of these players have played in since the league formed in 2002.

Wait. You're telling me these world class athletes do more to hone their craft in the four-year interval between the Summer Olympics? And here I thought I could easily go join up because I like to swim and like to watch soccer.

The loss by the men's team should't be all that shocking. The Americans have a young team, with players on the team that haven't even started college yet. And Croatia is notoriously strong in water polo.

The Americans took the lead early and were tied through the first three quarters before a fourth period in which the inexperience of the Americans caught up with them.

Despite the loss, the Americans will hopefully advance to the quarterfinals. There are two groups of six, with each group sending through the top four teams into the quarterfinals.

Expectations run high for the women's side, as they are expected to once again win the gold. Maggie Steffens is a player to keep an eye on for the women's team.

That is but a brief journey into the world of water polo. I could go into rules and such, helping you the reader understand more about this beautiful game. Truth be told, the rules are pretty simple. Try to score more goals than the other team. Sure, sometimes there are penalties, but I don't understand what constitutes them. Let's just say if you are shoving someone too much, you might get a foul called.
The fact remains, though: Score more goals than your opponent.

This has been your Olympic update for today. Check back in with me periodically over the next few weeks, either on my blog or via Twitter: @jasonrh_78 as I bring you delayed reporting live from not Rio, but my living room.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go track down highlights of today's games in handball. Or as I like to call it, water polo on land.


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