Water polo: not for the faint-hearted

Michael Ostheimer 9 February 2008

Water polo has never involved horses, and is arguably best summarised by the words ‘water wrestling football with hands’. Don’t let the combination of speedos and swimming caps trick you into thinking it’s anything like synchronised swimming, or indeed aquatic pilates. Mark James Maughan (CU Water polo Squad) described Water polo as combining: “The grace of ballet,” with, “the strength of a gymnast.” I fear the ‘ballet’ reference is generous, but add to his requirements “the violent nature of a rutting stag” and you’ve probably got quite a good summary. In order to play water polo you really do need to be incredibly fit, have relatively violent tendencies and have obtained some prior swimming experience beyond the 5m badge mark. If you have indeed obtained your 5m swimming badge, there is happily no rule preventing you from proudly sewing it to your speedos.

The “Blood in the Water” match in 1956 established the game in political history. 1956 saw Hungary prevented from freeing itself from the USSR by constant military bombardment. The perfect backdrop for a friendly game of water polo. After a textbook half hour of punching each other to kingdom come and one lad nearly having his eye ripped out, Hungary came out the victors.

Unfortunately for the independence movement, though, the USSR probably got the last laugh, as they invaded and continued to occupy Hungary for 30 or so more years. Still, lesson learnt: water polo is (as of yet) not effective in preventing military invasions.

Players aren’t allowed to touch the bottom of the pool throughout the game, meaning that a minimum requirement for each player is to be able to maintain 30 minutes of treading water. I would be seriously abusing the phrase ‘bending the truth’ if I were to claim to be able to perform such a feat, but for the Cambridge University Squad it’s barely a challenge. In fact, it is so little of a challenge that every other year Oxford and Cambridge have a little ‘swim-off’ and race each other to France. It’s the obvious thing to do.

Water polo is not as mainstream as some sports, but does have discretionary Full Blue status and is available at intercollegiate level.

I fear I have overemphasised the violent nature of the sport and feel obliged to point out the CUSWPC guidelines stating: “Anybody committing an act designed to inflict pain or injury will be immediately and permanently barred from all events hosted by CUSWPC.” Presumably that doesn’t include when you’re going for the ball, or when you’re playing against Oxford.

Ultimately, if you like minimalist skin-tight clothing and are a strong swimmer there is little preventing you from enjoying the game. If you don’t like speedos, or if your swimming technique resembles a respectably sized boulder, then I’d advise you to steer clear. It’s probably just not for you.

Michael Ostheimer