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Women Pool Their Strengths in Water Polo

Interest grows in a challenging sport that has now gained Olympic status

Left out of Atlanta, shoe-horned into Sydney, women's water polo is the hot new sport for teenage girls, and the wave of the future for women's Olympic competition.

It's taken more than 20 years of lobbying by an array of international supporters, intense negotiating, and even threats of litigation against Olympic officials by the Australian women's team, but finally it's happened. Women's water polo is official for the Sydney 2000 games.

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The International Olympic Committee has approved a competition of six teams of 11 members each, without cutting into the men's teams or breaking the10,200 cap on athlete numbers. So women will be making a splash of their own.

"It means the world to us," says Bret Bernard, president of US Water Polo, "and especially to female athletes worldwide. But it's not the culmination. It's just the beginning."

Until now the men's teams have gotten the lion's share of the attention, recognition, and press. Not to mention the funding.

"When I first started," says Megan Hernandez, US Women's National Team player from 1985 to 1991, "we basically paid to play." Putting up some $3,000 each to travel to international tournaments, team members once had to hop on a barge just to make it back home.

Groundswell of interest

On a personal level, says Hernandez, water polo's new Olympic status means that her eight-year-old niece, Jenny, who loves to play the sport, "has been given that brass ring to go for." Or in this case, a gold one.

Jenny is not alone. Outside the Olympic spotlight, there's a groundswell of interest in this challenging sport among American girls. Demand is especially heating up for high school and collegiate teams.

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"From 1994 to 1996, female registration has tripled in US Water Polo," says Kyle Utsumi, coach of Menlo School, a private co-ed high school on the San Francisco peninsula.

"It's the fastest growing sport in the country right now," says Susan Ortwein, assistant coach for the women's team at Stanford University here. "Ten years ago there were less than 20 high school girls teams in California. Now there are over 200."

Menlo School is catching the wave. Into its third year of girls water polo competition, it has twice claimed the championship of the California Interscholastic Federation's Central Coast Section.

The sport is tough, time-consuming, and demands top athletic condition. "It's one of the most grueling sports available to high school athletes, and in the Olympic Games it is one of the most strenuous," says coach Utsumi. "They have to swim, tread water, and fight off opponents. Then, whether they're tired or not, we ask them to shoot a ball or make a goal."

In the water from 6 to 7 o'clock in the morning twice a week, and every evening from 5 to 7:30, Menlo School's practice and tournament schedule is rigorous.

So what's the attraction? Watching the Menlo School team practice, the answer is obvious. Above the sound of splashing water, what you hear is laughter. Spirits are high, and these girls are having a ball.

"It takes a lot of dedication and hard work to be good in any varsity sport. Water polo's just more fun," says team captain Erin Welsh.

"I like exercise," says top-scorer Julie Gardner. "I don't like to sit around. I get really cranky if I don't exercise. I like the water, I like to be in the sun."

Many of the girls have come to water polo with a background in year-round competitive swimming. They're used to starting class with wet hair, smelling of chlorine. Welsh has been doing that since she was 7, and still loves it.

But endless competitive swimming practice laps can be boring, the meets tense, allowing little interaction among teammates, who are competing against each other as well as the opposing teams.

Water polo changes all that. Lively and aggressive, "basketball in the water," water polo requires constant interaction with the other players, developing strong camaraderie and team spirit.

Now it gives girls a shot at a scholarship too. The grass-roots rise of girls water polo in high schools, along with federal gender-equity requirements, is opening up scholarship opportunities for girls at the college level.

San Jose State University has four scholarships to offer the women's team this year, and SJSU women's water polo coach Lou Tully is aiming to make that eight as soon as possible. "The explosion at the college level [as well as high school] has just been phenomenal" says Tully.

Stanford University is into its second year of providing scholarships to its women's water polo team. Coach John Tanner won't say how many scholarships they have, but Suze Gardner, Julie's sister and Menlo School grad, has a partial one. She plays for Stanford now, and made first-team All-American her freshman year.

Learning how to get along

The scholarship helps, but what Artyn Gardner - the mother of Suze and Julie - loves most about the sport is the teamwork, and what it teaches the girls about being part of a group. With four daughters playing water polo, she ought to know. "They learn how to deal with people, how to give and take. They learn they can get mad at somebody and get over it. And then be happy a few minutes later when [that same person] makes a shot."

That's something her generation of women didn't have growing up, she says - a valuable asset her daughters can take into the world beyond athletics. "It's a maturing kind of sport," says Mrs. Gardner.

Welsh's sister Lindsay plays for Stanford now, and credits water polo with giving her the efficiency skills to handle Stanford's tough academic load. Even though she spends 20 hours a week on her game, "I get more things done [during the seasons] I'm playing water polo than when I'm not, because I don't waste any time."

What Mrs. Gardner doesn't like is the risk. "It's a contact sport, very physical," says coach Utsumi. But he claims "the injuries caused by an opponent occur at the same rate, or less, than any contact sport."

Experts say water polo is the best all-around conditioning sport.

Since players must tread water without using their hands, they need strong legs. They also need the upper body of a swimmer, but with more strength because it's a ball sport.

The hard work required could pay off in gold for some swimmers now that women's water polo has been given an Olympic slot.

To get a berth, Stanford coach Tanner says, the US women's team will have to be among the top six to eight teams in the world in 1999. Having placed seventh at the FINA World Cup last June, it's no shoe-in.

He's hopeful some of his players, six of whom came from Menlo School, will make the team, but knows they have their work cut out for them.

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