In at the deep end

Water polo is like playing chess in a tempest

Six metres from the goal, I kick out of the water, looking desperately for somebody to pass to. My team mates are all heavily defended, but eventually I lob it to Skermy – Paul Skerm – in the far corner, and it lands with a splash beyond his opponent’s reach. But suddenly the defenders are all over him and Skermy loses possession. To me, from poolside, the coach yells: “Oy! When you get a chance like that, don’t waste it – shoot!”

If things had turned out differently, water polo – not soccer – could have been our national sport. After all, we invented them both. The rules for “football in the water” were drawn up by the London Swimming Association, in 1870, and the first international match, between England and Scotland, took place at Kensington Baths. In the early 1900s, we were Olympic champions four times .

But Britain has turned its back on polo. The nations which played, at the Olympics in Syndey, were Australia, Croatia, Greece, Holland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, the USA, Yugoslavia and Hungary, the eventual winners. The BBC promised ten minutes’ coverage, but even that was cancelled, in favour of an interview with some Australian athlete. Another country important to polo is Malta, where the game is a national obsession: the national side isn’t much use, but players come from all over the world to play in the professional league.

Despite an utter lack of financial support, a core of British enthusiasts somehow manages to sustain a league, in England and Wales – with three divisions – and another in Scotland. Some learned the game at private schools with good pools; like Prince William, a keen player at Eton. Others are club swimmers, who turned to polo for something more interesting to do than swim endless lengths of the pool.

One of the best British clubs is Hammersmith Penguin, usually called Penguin because they no longer play in Hammersmith. (Hiring any pool they can find, they train in Southwark on Tuesdays, and in Kensington on Thursdays.) Its players have represented Australia, England, Iran, Scotland and Wales; and the coach, Steve Baker, also coaches England.

To prove that polo does not deserve to be neglected, Baker lends me a couple of videos. The first, from 1999, features Malta v . England, with exciteable commentary in Maltese. With the camera mounted high in the stands, the players seem to move terribly slowly around the pool – as footballers would move if they wore suits of armour. That, presumably, is why Baker describes polo as a cross between soccer and chess. Certainly, I find it more thrilling with my thumb pressed firmly on fast-forward.

The other video is 10 years old. In Challenge To Sport , Channel 4 offered minority sports a rare chance to pitch themselves to the public. In this episode, an athlete called Brian Hooper – then International Superstars champion – joined a polo team in training for a game. He ran, pushed weights, and cycled; and in the pool, he learned to pass, and to dribble with the ball bobbing before his nose. When, eventually, he got into the pool for the match, Hooper had to be substituted – exhausted – but he got back in again, and at the game’s end, clinging desperately to the poolside, he announced that polo was “really exciting… but awfully hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever done”.

In combination, Baker’s videos teach me two things: (1) polo is not the world’s greatest spectator sport, but also (2) it’s a terrific physical challenge. So to understand the game properly, I’ll have to play it. I want to see if it’s actually fun, and also whether it might actually be easy to break into what is, after all, a bunch of amateurs. (Between them, Penguin’s first team includes the following: carpenter, computer wiz, electrician, management consultant, marketing manager, personal trainer, student, and teacher.) I put this to Baker, and he gamely accepts; also promising – or threatening – that I must join the first team in a real match.

Over the following weeks, I learn a great deal about physical punishment: Penguin, it turns out, are renowned for their fitness. Sessions commence with an hour’s swimming, with as many as 18 large men crowded into a single lane. Session after session, I trail home far behind the rest, squeezing water from my ears as Baker finishes issuing instructions for the next exercise.

On days off, I take myself to swim at my local pool, in sessions unremarkable except for the occasion, one Saturday morning, when the prime minister’s press spokesman steps into the shower beside mine, stark naked. (He’s not in bad shape, but could work on his bum.) After a couple of weeks, my fitness has dramatically improved.

But I’m still the slowest in the pool. One evening, I’m paired up with a new guy. This is his first session, but Christian turns out to be a faster swimmer than me. In one exercise, chasing each other down the pool, he does an excellent job impeding my stroke; and when we swap roles, he slithers easily out of reach. In a quiet moment, I tell Baker this is terribly demoralising. “Well, swim harder then.”

Another exercise involves leap-frogging each other from one end of the pool to the next. Sometimes I can guess when Christian is about to push down on my shoulders, and take a breath before I sink – but sometimes I can’t.

Then there’s “egg-beater”, a specialised kick used by polo players to rise high in the water, freeing the arms for passing and shooting. After just a couple of yards, this induces pain; Baker wants us to do two lengths . Stalking the poolside, he delivers a form of encouragement that must surely be unique to polo: “Higher!” he barks. “I want to see some nipples!”

After an hour of swimming, there’s another hour for practicing polo skills. Baker summons me from the water – ” Don’t use the ladder! Climb out here !” – for a masterclass on catching and throwing, or how to keep the ball from defenders. Then comes an exercise called “Drown your partner”. For bursts of 30 seconds, we take turns to push our partners below the water, while they stoutly resist. My own partner, today, is maybe 20 years older than me, so we’re evenly matched. Looking round as I hold him under, I see an extraordinary sight: a crowd of bobbing heads, wearing agonised expressions – a bit like the final scenes in Titanic . Finally we break into groups, to practice “driving” (attacking) and defending. My first shot is easily saved. Jerome Read, one of the England players, advises me to move closer to the goal before shooting. So that’s what I do, but with little success.

In the last week before my match – which immediately precedes a major national tournament – the intensity of the training increases. From now on, I must keep up: “No more slacking,” says Baker. Just once, on the Wednesday, we get the whole pool to ourselves, and divide into four lanes. The fastest swimmers go first, with each successive wave following at five-second intervals. Still slower than the rest, my vigorous training regime has helped to reduce the rate at which I fall behind. But there’s still work to do on my stroke. Baker lowers himself onto a diving board, face down, and paddles through the air: “Watch my arms,” he says, dipping a shoulder with every pull.

Later, he decides to inject a measure of competition into the session: the slowest swimmer in each successive wave must swim the following set not in crawl, like the rest, but butterfly. For me, the slowest swimmer in the pool, the outcome is horribly predictable: first crawl, then fly; crawl, then fly; and so on. After ten minutes, my face is crimson, my heart knocking at my ribs like somebody trapped in a burning house. I hang from the poolside and suck deep breaths. Baker says: “What’s the matter? If you haven’t been sick, you’re not doing it right.” If I didn’t know it already, water polo at Penguin, though non-professional, certainly can’t be called amateur.

So the day arrives, and I make my way to yet another pool, Putney, for my big match. Strictly speaking, it’s a friendly, but hugely important to both sides. Our opponents, Invicta, finished second in the second division – and this game represents their last chance to prepare for the promotional play-off. And for Penguin, it comes less than a week before the British Deep Water Championships, with a place in European competition at stake.

On the balcony, overlooking the pool, Baker teaches me some last-minute tactics, using a board showing of the pool, and numbered circles in red and yellow. Pairing these up as attackers and defenders, he pushes them into the types of move that could lead to a goal; typically, involving a pass from the right-hand corner. Then he grabs hold of my jacket and rehearses strategies for impeding opponents. “Try and stop me,” he says, charging past my elbow.

In the changing room, I start to feel nervous. Will Invicta, desperate for a giant-killing, play dirty? What if, easily identifying me as Penguin’s weak link, they put their biggest player on me? With these thoughts foremost in my mind I walk to the poolside, where Baker delivers shocking news: Invicta has failed to show up. But the match must go on, he says. We’ll split into two teams, and play six-a-side, with one sub.

This, I admit, is a relief. Penguin players are unlikely to use excessive violence on me – but then, as I have seen in training, black eyes can occur even among friends. And there are positive disadvantages to this arrangement. With just one sub, for instance, each player will be in the water for longer than usual. How long can I cope?

Initially, I sprint up and down the pool without the slightest effect on the play. Down here in the frothy water, polo doesn’t even remotely resemble chess: it’s more like The Perfect Storm, but with extra fists, and elbows. Thankfully Jerome shouts occasional instructions, such as: “J-P, get Woolly!” So I swim towards Paul Wollaston and attempt to impede him. But I worry too much about catching him if he passes me; and by turning sideways make it all the more likely he’ll do that.

Elsewhere, the play is extremely robust. It’s common to see one player twist and turn, bubbling angrily beneath the water, while the other keeps him from the ball. But for incidents like that, the ref rarely gives a foul. (He does, though, when Paul Whatley commits a “head tackle”, and for another incident – which I miss – Danny Davis is temporarily excluded.)

Shortly before the end of the second quarter I signal to Baker that I want to come off. But I’m soon back, receiving instructions from Jerome before the start of the third, which begins 8-6 to us.

After a couple of minutes, having failed to keep pace with an attacker, I find myself unmarked when play turns in our favour. Following Baker’s tactical instruction, I drift towards the goal post, and when the ball comes to Andy Holt, in the far corner, I raise my hand as high as possible – but I don’t shout, because that would alert the defenders. Alas, Andy doesn’t see me – or thinks I’m not worth passing to – and pulls his arm back to pass to someone else, back at the half-way line. Then suddenly, he throws the ball towards me, exactly two feet above my head. My arm reaches out to meet it, and springs back with the force of the shot. From this distance, in training, I’ve rarely beaten the goalie, but Roger is badly positioned, so I kick out of the water and hurl the ball towards the left post. It’s a poor shot – it hits the water before reaching the goal – but to my huge surprise it bounces in.

I’ve scored.

As the team’s weakest player, I must by now have cost the team several goals but now, thankfully, I’ve started to make up for that. Swimming back to the half-way line, I hide my grin beneath the water; but turning to the side for breath I see my team mates are grinning too. With disbelief, presumably.

The following weekend, at the British Championships, Penguin finished top of their group and won a place in the finals on February 24. Invicta, the team which failed to show up, played Birkenhead for promotion, and lost.

2098 words. First published 10 February 01. © FT Magazine