Landon students discover water polo with a teacher's help

Landon's water polo team treads water with five-gallon jugs held aloft to help the students build strength in their legs.
Landon's water polo team treads water with five-gallon jugs held aloft to help the students build strength in their legs. (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
By Toni L. Sandys
Washington Post Staff Photographer
Monday, September 20, 2010; 12:31 AM

When Walt Bartman began teaching at the Landon School four years ago, he read an article about water polo reviving a school's swimming program. A former collegiate swimmer and water polo player himself, Bartman thought that was just what the Landon swim team needed. While Bartman may have succeeded in drawing attention to swimming, water polo at the school has achieved its own status. After three years as a club team, water polo was officially made a varsity sport this fall.

Water polo at the school has grown steadily since the first year, when the team had 16 players. This fall, Landon has two teams and more than 35 swimmers. "This year we had 12 freshman come out, and none of them have ever played a lick of water polo," Bartman, the head coach, said.

"I had watched it once on the Olympics," said senior Julian Heller, 17, who joined the team as a freshman in its first year. "I didn't have a good idea of what I was getting into."

Because no one had played water polo before, there was a bit of a learning curve that first season. "The first year we played Gonzaga and we lost, 21-3," said Bartman. "I told the guys, let's just not expect anything this year. Let's learn the game and have fun." The following year, Landon only lost by six. Closer still, last year the Bears lost by two. "None of us really knew what we were doing, but we were all ready to play anyway," said Heller. "There were no expectations, so you had nothing to lose."

The team is dedicated to improving, so no one complains when Bartman orders the swimmers out of the pool and "go get the jugs." The jugs are empty, five-gallon water bottles that have been collected from the school. For a few minutes, the boys joke around with each other as they bob on the jugs. They soon split into two groups. The first group raises the jugs out of the water - after having filled them one quarter full - and take off across the pool. With their legs moving in an egg-beater motion, the boys swim 25 meters to the far edge. Back and forth, forwards and backwards. By the end of the drill, Bartman has had his players fill the jugs completely. The boys do their best to hoist the 40 pounds out of the water and keep moving across the pool at the same time.

Treading water is easy, but this is no ordinary doggie paddle. The players work to build up their leg strength, enabling them to keep their bodies out of the water while treading. If they speed up the motion, a player can propel himself upwards to block a shot or pass the ball. "It's tough," Heller said, "but it's a difficult game and you have to put the work in if you want to see results."

This week, the luxury of after-school practices comes to an end. The school's small pool is not heated, so the team will train at its sister school, Holton-Arms. Unfortunately for the boys, the only pool time available is two hours before school starts. It is the last year they will have to worry about that: Water polo's newfound status has brought a change to the campus pool, and a heater will be installed this spring.

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