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The underwater underground

Dal’s co-ed water polo team hopes for more recognition among student body

Dal's water polo team practice before their first tournament at the end of the month. • • • Photos by Jennifer Gosnell
Dal’s water polo team practice before their first tournament at the end of the month. • • • Photos by Jennifer Gosnell

I’ve always considered myself a decent swimmer. Then I practiced with the Dalhousie water polo team. What started as an amicable discussion with the coaching staff and captain quickly digressed into a humbling exercise of attempting to keep my head above water.

Dal’s water polo team caters to the community. It’s a co-ed affair that draws people from all walks of life. Head coach Alex Martineau is a business student at Saint Mary’s who’s played for 13 years. Captain Annie Chinneck balances her time in the water with completing her PhD in clinical psychology. There’s also assistant coach Michael Chudnovsky, who claims to have been playing the game for 100 years.

“When you see the water, you just want to play,” said Chudnovsky.

The team consists mainly of Dal students. They practice three days a week and are gearing up for their first tournament at the end of November.

When practice starts; it’s business time. Martineau leads the warm up from poolside. Players swim lengths while passing balls back and fourth. This was my first indication of being in over my head. Trying to keep pace with the warm up was hard enough. Swim, catch, tread water, throw, don’t drown, repeat.

Chudnovsky said there are several misconceptions on how water polo works.

“A lot of people think its throwing balls at flutter boards in the shallow end,” said Chudnovsky. “Which is fun, but that’s not water polo.”

Chudnovsky, along with Martineau and Chinneck debate on which sport water polo is closest to, but have difficulty coming to a conclusion.

“It’s like a bastard child of all sports,” Chinneck said.

It’s got a little bit of everything, but boils down to teamwork. It’s six-on-six including a goalie, played in a deep 30 by 35-foot pool. There are plenty of rules to keep in mind – only one hand on the ball at a time, don’t submerge the ball, don’t drown your opponent.

There’s plenty of physicality, too, as players constantly muscle for optimal position, whether on offense or defense. The game operates at a fast clip, rewarding strength, stamina and situational awareness. It’s difficult to nail down the optimal build for the game, as it becomes more about the cohesion of the unit rather than the individual.

After the warm up, Martineau subjects the entire team to a wind-sprint style exercise to reinforce the importance of arriving to practice on time. Five minutes of full-speed swimming with minimal rest left me sucking for air while clinging to the side of the pool deck. It also left me with a nagging feeling of having made a terrible mistake.

Martineau runs the practice with a firm grip. It keeps the team moving and motivated. Their first tournament starts Nov. 22 and Martineau wants everyone to be in game shape when the time comes.

Martineau’s wealth of experience comes from his time as a player and referee at the provincial level. Humbly, Matineau says he’s taken all he can from the game and is now looking to give back. He’s aware of his inability to make the national team, so instead he focuses his efforts on the game’s future.

Students may be apprehensive to get involved in water polo, as it is not a mainstream sport.

Dal’s team works with Water Polo Nova Scotia and Sport Nova Scotia to promote the sport by insuring younger players have access to water polo leagues to allow it to grow.

Water polo generally is not a co-ed sport, but in order to maintain a team, they allow players of both genders. Chinneck said this was the hardest adjustment in playing for Dal. She also references this as having the potential to be intimidating among women interested the sport.

Despite the grueling amount of swimming, the practice is filled with smiles and good-natured people – many of whom helped me along as I fumbled balls, missed passes and generally struggled to stay afloat.

The first drill of the night revolves around playing with a man advantage. Martineau drills the players about working on communication, forcing them to always talk to one another as they adjust to the changing game. There’s a lot going on and a lot to keep in mind. Everyone is having fun, but no one is taking it lightly.

The practice goes on for nearly two hours. To me, it’s a crushing workout. To them, it’s just another day.

Everyone brings something different to the table. They all have different skill sets and reasons for playing. Some have done it all their lives. Others are trying it for the first time.

As I stumbled home after practice with ears full of water and a fear of my legs not working in the morning, I think about the team and the amount of effort they put into doing what they love to do. It’s tough, it’s physical, it’s wet, and it’s fun. It’s Dalhousie water polo.

 

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