SELMA – Mention water polo to football or basketball players and you are likely to get a chuckle or a roll of the eyes. After all, is it not just a bunch of guys in Speedos, lobbing the ball around and taking a shot once in a while?
In reality, water polo is one of most strenuous and surprisingly rough sports – a brutal combination of basketball, swimming and wrestling.
“It’s a lot rougher and more strenuous than it seems,” said Kingsburg High player Joey LeForge on Oct. 5 following his team’s 17-3 victory against rival Selma. “A lot of the stuff that happens is under water – nobody can see it.”
LaForge said in a recent tournament at Arroyo Grande, he was kneed in the head and had his jaw driven into his teeth.
“It was on purpose,” LeForge said. “I may or may not have retaliated. I may have punched him – but just enough to get him to stop kicking me in the face.”
Both players were ejected.
LeForge's Kingsburg teammate, Conor Righetti, agrees water polo is not for the faint of heart.
“It burns the most calories of any other sport, statistically, and it’s definitely more physically strenuous than some of the other sports,” Righetti said. “There’s also a lot of grabbing, kicking – all of that different stuff. It gets very dirty, but it’s manageable.”
Other sports have their forms of gamesmanship and bending of the rules. Basketball players are known to tug on a jersey or shorts to slow an opponent. Former football player Michael Irvin made the subtle, late push-off to gain separation an art form as a Dallas Cowboy.
Water polo is no different, whether it is a sly kick to the shins under water, a tug of the swimsuit or outright punching and grappling.
Figure in that water polo players are staying afloat by treading water - kicking their legs in the motion of an egg-beater - for as many as 28 minutes, and you have one grueling sport. No wonder many of the players have shoulders like linebackers and zero body fat.
The game first reached the big stage more than a century ago, at the 1900 Olympic Games. Fifty-six years later, Hungary and the USSR played the notorious “blood in the water” match – a grim event at the Olympics a month after Soviet troops invaded Hungary.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Hungary’s Ervin Zador questioned the referee and a Russian player took the opportunity to cold-cock the Hungarian, opening a deep gash around his eye and cheek, with blood pouring into the pool.
Before the match ended, a melee had broken out between the teams and then fans became involved. Hungary won 4-0 and a famous photo of Zador with blood gushing from his eye went out on the wire services.
The recent boys and girls doubleheader between Kingsburg and Selma was spirited, but hardly Russia vs. Hungary II. Still, there was some rough stuff and a few ejections.
“A lot of it you can’t see because it happens under water,” said Selma player Claire Machado after her team’s 17-4 loss to Kingsburg. “There’s a lot that goes on, like fighting for position. I got kicked in the throat once.”
When Kingsburg coach Josh Lee played water polo at Reedley High, the polo players invited skeptical football players to don swimsuits and try the sport. They "didn't last 20 minutes" he said.
Oh, water polo is tough all right - demanding superior levels of conditioning, strength and eye-hand coordination.
“You have to keep from getting drowned, you have to swim, you have to wrestle, you have to shoot and it can be very violent,” Lee said. “You’re gonna get hit, kicked, pinched. It’s all part of the game.”