Kayak polo makes a big splash

The weekend warriors of this century-old European sport, now catching on in the US, merge skills from soccer, hockey, and water polo.

J. Ambrosetti was strolling by a lake in his native Rome when he noticed something curious: Men smashing into one another in kayaks while fighting over a yellow ball.

He just had to try it.

"[In Italy] everyone plays soccer," says Mr. Ambrosetti, now a student at the University of Texas in Austin. "I wanted to do something different.

"This," he says, "is definitely different."

The game he's referring to is canoe polo, often called kayak polo in the United States, a sport that combines elements of soccer, hockey, and water polo. Kayak polo paddlers must have John Elway's arm, Wayne Gretzky's finesse, and the demeanor of a linebacker in a bad mood.

From July 18-23, the men's US national team competed in the world championships in So Paulo, Brazil. They placed 15th out of 17 teams, two places higher than their 1998 finish. Britain placed first in the men's tournament. Germany took top honors for the women.

While a new kid on the block in America, kayak polo has been played in parts of Europe for more than a century, with the first paddlers lolling about on wooden barrels, often rolling off their unstable mounts. This made goals rare; it didn't help that the games were often played in soccer-field-size pools.

But now five-player teams slice the water in 6-to-10-foot carbon-fiber kayaks in Olympic-size swimming pools. The 10-minute halves allow substitutes to come in on the fly. Players must "dribble" the ball in the water with their hands at least every five feet. Certain infractions are penalized with a corner throw, as in soccer. The goal nets are 3-by-5-feet in size, suspended six feet in the air. The goalie - any defender who happens to be in front of the net at the time - blocks shots with his paddle.

Goals are scored by either launching howitzers from far out or plowing through the defense to get close to the net - all the while getting rammed, hacked, and prodded by defenders.

So what makes a good player?

"A bit of insanity would definitely help," says David Wright in a Scottish burr as he repairs his paddle for battle in Spy Pond, a practice locale in Arlington, Mass.

Kayak polo isn't a game for the timid; paddlers are routinely dunked and hit in the roiling waters. The water splashes so violently at times it looks like feeding time in a piranha tank.

The sport started in America three or four years ago and has been growing steadily. Last year at the national championships in Gainsville, Ga., eight teams showed up. This year in Fort Collins, Colo., 26 teams competed.

While the number of US players is small, the game is huge in Europe, with 100 to 200 teams in Britain alone. Many high schoolers compete on club teams.

Brad Carr, a geophysicist in Raleigh, N.C, and a member of the US men's national team, estimates that about 500 people in the US are playing. Interest in team activity is sprouting, he says, especially in Ft. Collins, Colo.; San Diego; Washington; Boston; and Austin, Texas.

The members of the men's national team are truly devoted paddlers, a group that brings new meaning to the term "weekend warrior." Many defected from whitewater or slalom paddling; kayak polo is now their passion.

The team, which includes five expatriates who started playing the sport in their home countries, zigzags across America to different practice sites. Players leave work, pack their kayaks, jump on airplanes, and fly to "camps" almost every weekend, where they drill and scrimmage with themselves and local club members.

The equipment's not cheap. Plastic kayaks cost about $400; carbon-fiber models about $800. Add specially padded life jackets and other sporting goods, and the costs quickly rise. Men's national team members each spend upward of $2,500 to $3,000 a year, most of it on travel.

Hopes are high that someday kayak polo will be an Olympic sport. Men in 75 countries on four continents, and women in 40 countries on three continents must play a sport before it can be considered for the Games. With only 17 countries fielding men's teams, and 10 women's teams at this year's world championships, the sport is still in its formative stages.

But that doesn't deter the enthusiasts.

"It's a minority sport," says Scott Simpson, originally from England and now a member of the men's national team in the US. "It's got a lot of potential in the US. People in the US are into team sports more than anyone else."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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