Water polo grows in popularity


Laura Ries

Junior Sam Neff winds up, ready to fire the ball across the pool.

Carolyn Harty

Water polo, a sport that tends to be rarely acknowledged, can be argued to be one of the hardest high school sports. 

Water polo was first played in the United States in 1888 and has begun to take over students across the country. Although Midtown doesn’t have their own team, students can play on the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) team, which consists of APS schools like Midtown, North Atlanta and Maynard Jackson. 

Junior CJ Fucile describes the game as similar to a more popular and played sport, soccer.  

“I’d say it’s pretty similar to soccer but in a smaller area and half the time,” Fucile said. “It’s just as physical with an offense and defense, but fewer players because you only have six field players, but it’s closely related to soccer compared to a lot of other sports.” 

Water polo consists of seven players in the water on each team; six outfield players and one goalie. The players are constantly moving around the pool, treading water and are not able to touch the bottom of the pool throughout the game. Players move the ball by throwing it to a teammate or pushing it through the water. A more efficient version of treading water that many players use is called “eggbeater,” using your legs to alternate breaststroke-like kicks to provide comfort and support. 

“The more you practice, the better you get,” Fucile said. “There wasn’t really a process to getting better at [treading water], it just clicked one day for me. Figuring out eggbeater is the hard part but once you have that figured out you’ve got it down.” 

Junior Sam Neff, also a member of the APS team, recalls what it takes to continuously improve in the sport. 

“[Improving] takes a lot of practicing passing and shooting, as well as, of course, swimming and treading water,” Neff said. 

Unlike other sports, unless you have easy access to a pool, practicing can be challenging. 

“You can probably pass the ball with someone else outside of the pool or stick to weight training, but without a pool you obviously can’t swim or tread water,” Neff said. “You can’t really go to your backyard and practice water polo.” 

Along with a mix of different schools, the APS team also varies in age. 

“The age range allowed is fifth grade and up so you’ll have like three or four elementary school players and a few middle schoolers on the team,” Fucile said. 

Despite the wide age range and multiple schools, head coach of 10 years, Stewart Sheldon, acknowledges the challenges of spreading the word about water polo. 

“It’s been great to be back after the lockdowns and all of that,” Sheldon said. “We weren’t sure we’d have enough kids to have teams because most of our recruiting is done by word to mouth and kids coming and trying it, but we’ve had more kids come than we expect so that’s been great.” 

Senior Nadia Thurston is going on her fifth year playing water polo, both at school and club. Neff, Fucile and Thurston all compete with Atlanta Dynamo Water Polo. 

“I would say Dynamo is a bit more intense and a bigger commitment,” Thurston said. “We don’t have games on weekends, instead we go to travel tournaments at the end of the season.” 

As a girl, water polo has been a different experience for Thurston than some of the other competitors. 

“I think it’s definitely a different experience for girls,” Thurston said. “I used to play co-ed and it was a completely different experience. I think a lot of people would expect guys to be more physical, but the girls are really not afraid to get aggressive.” 

Because many players compete on both club and school teams, APS players have developed better connections in and outside of the water. 

“Everyone’s really friendly with each other,” Thurston said. “During the spring season, a lot of the people from different schools play Dynamo so we’re all friends when we go back to our school teams in the fall.” 

The APS team started their practice Aug. 1st, and both teams have started strong, with the A team going 8-34 so far, the B team following with a record of 6-2, and the APS girls team at 6-5. Sheldon looks forward to season progression and expresses goals he hopes to see fulfilled. 

“I want our younger players [to be] as experienced as possible as quickly as possible,” Sheldon said. “We’d like to see our boys A team finish in the top four in the state.”