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Wet and Wild

In Water Polo, the Brutality Is Just Beneath the Surface

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2004; Page C01

ATHENS, Aug. 18

Sure, all these swimming races are exciting and inspiring and all that, but after a few days of watching people paddle back and forth across a pool, your average red-blooded American sports fan begins to wonder: Hey, where's the violence?

Fortunately, the happy answer is just a couple hundred yards away, in the indoor pool, where the preliminary rounds of water polo are in progress. There's enough violence in an average water polo match to fill all your brutality needs, at least until football season starts.

With all the churning white water in the pool, there are plenty of penalties a water polo referee will never see. Wedgies are one of the more benign tactics. (Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

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Water polo is a combination of swimming, soccer and basketball, plus wrestling, boxing and mugging. The players are phenomenal athletes who perform amazing feats of speed, grace, stamina and ball-handling. They also perform amazing feats of kicking, punching, scratching, clawing and choking. And that's just the men. The women are also fond of tearing each other's bathing suits off.

"There's a lot of fighting," says Layne Beaubien, 28, a defender on the U.S. men's team. "Under the water, anything goes . . . even biting. I have a guy on my team -- Jeff Powers -- who has a scar on his shoulder that's a whole mouth, a whole bite. All of us have had chunks taken out of our face. And there are a lot of broken noses."

"It gets pretty feisty," agrees Natalie Golda, 22, a defender on the U.S. women's team. "On top of the water, it looks pretty mellow -- you're passing the ball around -- but under water, they're grabbing, they're punching and people are getting dunked. Sometimes they'll pull you under water for so long, you're thinking, 'If I don't get air, soon, I'll be in trouble.' "

Surprisingly, most water polo injuries are minor, Golda says: "They're mostly superficial -- broken fingers, broken noses, teeth, jaws, eardrums, stuff like that."

Which tells you something about water polo: It's a sport played by folks who feel that broken noses and busted jaws are "superficial."

On Wednesday, Golda and her teammates lost a heartbreaker to Canada, 6-5, after leading 5-1 early in the fourth quarter -- a thrilling match played before several thousand cheering, chanting fans who waved flags from both countries.

The U.S. women are now 1-1 and will probably have to beat the tough 2-0 Russian team Friday to advance to the medal round. The U.S. men's team is 2-0 and will play Hungary, the reigning Olympic champ, on Thursday.

The games begin with each team's starting seven members lined up on opposite ends of the 30-by-20-meter pool while the bright orange ball sits in a yellow plastic ring in the center. A ref blows a whistle and everybody (except the two goalies) sprints for the ball. As they get close, the yellow ring descends steadily to the bottom of the pool on a cord, making you wonder if there isn't some Quasimodo character squatting in a cave under the pool pulling it down. (Actually, the cord is pulled by an official at the poolside scorer's table.)

The team that snags the ball spreads out and moves toward their opponent's goal, a 10-by-3-foot net guarded by a goalie in a red swim cap. On offense, teams pass the ball around like basketball players, looking for an opening. Rules insist that they throw and catch with one hand. The other hand is used to fend off their opponents, who are permitted to tackle the player with the ball.

From above, the passing looks simple -- until you remember that the players aren't just standing there playing catch. They're treading water in a 10-foot-deep pool, constantly whirling their feet around in the eggbeater motion that keeps their arms and shoulders up out of water.

If your eyes follow the ball, you see a fair amount of fighting, but the real action, brutality-wise, occurs as players who don't have the ball fight for position in the prime real estate in front of the goal.

"You're both fighting for the same spot," says Robin Beauregard, 25, a defender on the U.S. women's team. "There's a lot of grabbing and holding and kicking."

Frequently, a player will suddenly disappear under the water, as if yanked down by an invisible hand. That's because he was yanked down by an invisible hand -- the hand of an opponent.

For men, the preferred method of dunking an opponent is to grab the body and yank down, Golda says. For women, it's grabbing the opponent's swimsuit and yanking down.

"They'll grab the suit in the back and twist it, and sometimes it'll tear off," she says. "So you lose quite a few suits."

When that happens, she says, "you play as long as you can and then you get subbed out."

Here in the aquatics arena, two TV cameras sitting on the bottom of the pool capture some of this underwater skirmishing and show it during breaks between the game's seven-minute quarters. Through the murk of the water, you see elbows swung into guts, knees slammed into groins, hands yanking bathing suits into painful wedgies, guys simply swimming on top of an opponent and holding him under water until he fights his way, punching and kicking, to the surface.

Technically, none of this stuff is legal, but the refs working the poolside allow a certain amount of leeway. Blatant -- and that's a relative term -- fouls are punished by 20-second sentences in the penalty box -- which is usually long enough for the other team to score on a power play. However, there's a catch: With the water churned up by all the action, the refs can't really see under the surface.

"There's a lot of white water," says Beaubien, "and if the ref doesn't see it, it doesn't count."

As every schoolchild knows, water polo was actually played on horseback until PETA complained about the effects of chlorine on equine eyeballs.

Just kidding, sports fans. Horses were never involved in water polo. But the truth about the game's history, as recounted by USA Water Polo, is almost as bizarre.

The sport began in the 1860s, when primitive games of "aquatic football" were played in lakes and rivers in England. Within a couple of decades, the game moved indoors.

"A favorite trick of these early games was to place the small India rubber ball (which ranged from five to nine inches in diameter) inside the swimsuit, dive under water and then 'appear' again as near the goal as possible," the organization's media guide recounts. " 'Appear' is the proper word, for in those days, the water in pools had no filtration systems, and was typically cloudy. But this mode of scoring had its disadvantages, as the goalkeeper was permitted to stand on the pool deck and protect his goal as he saw fit. Should the forward come too near the goal, he was promptly jumped on by the goalie."

In the United States in the 1890s, the sport became even more brutal, permitting wrestling-style moves called "the back strangle hold" and the "jujitsu toe hold." It started being billed as "the roughest game in the world."

"Victims often floated to the surface in need of resuscitation," the guide says, deadpan.

Now that's entertainment! Naturally, the sport became wildly popular, drawing thousands to matches in Madison Square Garden.

"While the main attraction for spectators was the violence and mayhem," the guide continues, "it was a spectacular game that featured plays like the 'flying salmon' -- where the player with the ball could leap 15 feet through the air, from the backs of his teammates, to score a goal over the top of the defenders."

Meanwhile, more sedate versions of the game were spreading across Europe. By 1900, it was so popular that it became the first team sport in the Olympics. But only for men; women's water polo did not become an Olympic sport for another century, debuting at Sydney in 2000. There, U.S. women took silver and the men finished sixth.

The most famous water polo game in Olympic history is also the most brutal. It occurred between the Soviet Union and Hungary in 1956, just after the Russians had crushed an anti-communist uprising there. The Hungarians won 4-0 in a slugfest that was called early and is now known as the "Blood in the Water" game. The game was immortalized by a legendary photograph of Hungarian player Ervin Zador bleeding profusely from the eye after the Soviet captain punched him.

"It's not the same game it was back in the old days," says Wolf Wigo, 31, the captain of the U.S. men's team and a three-time Olympian. "But I think it's still the roughest game in the world."

After the U.S. men's team beat Kazakhstan 9-6 on Tuesday, Ratko Rudic, the legendary coach of the American team, lumbered into the "mix zone" where players meet the media, grumbling to reporters about the brutality of the Kazakh team.

"This is not football, it's water polo," he fumed through his thick, bristly mustache. "If some teams can't get the result they want, this is how they play."

At least that's what he seemed to say. It was tough to understand him, not just because of his thick Slavic accent but because the PA system in the pool complex was blaring the Village People's "YMCA."

"This game was so violent," said Rudic, 56. "I can't remember such a violent game."

It was an odd statement coming from Rudic, who has never been mistaken for Mahatma Gandhi. Playing for his native Yugoslavia, the aggressive Rudic won a gold medal in 1968 and a silver in 1980. Coaching the Yugoslav team, he won gold medals in 1984 and 1988. Then he took a job coaching the Italian team, winning gold in 1992 and bronze in 1996.

Coaching Italy in Sydney in 2000, Rudic argued so vociferously with a referee that he had to be restrained by police, and he was later suspended from the sport for a year over the incident. That didn't hurt his career: When the year was up, he was hired by USA Water Polo to whip the mediocre American team into shape.

And now, in Athens, Rudic was shocked -- shocked! -- at the violence in water polo.

"Who will protect us?" he asked.

The players didn't take Rudic's outburst seriously. Wigo, who scored four goals in the game, didn't think Kazakhstan was particularly rough. He figured the coach was just working the refs, hoping they'd call more penalties on opponents in future games.

"I think he just wants to get us a couple of calls," Wigo said, smiling.

Defenseman Dan Klatt, 25, who scored one goal, didn't think the Kazakhs were particularly brutal, either.

"A couple guys got punched in the face and a couple got kicked in the face," he said with a shrug. "But that's just part of the game."

A few yards away, another game had started, this one between Russia and Serbia and Montenegro. Up on the big TV screen was a candid shot from the pool: A Russian player appeared to be giving a Serb player a big bear hug. The Serb hugged him back.

For a split second, it looked like one of those heartwarming moments of Olympic brotherhood. Then the two men started trying to drown each other, and you realized it was just another heartwarming moment of Olympic water polo.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company