Many people seek out the swimming pool as a place of quiet refuge, a watery oasis to swim early morning laps while contemplating the day to come, or, alternatively, to float away their worries and wind down at the end of a hectic day.
Water polo is not for these people.
The sport, which began as a largely anarchic, rough-and-tumble game in England in the 1870s and went on to become the first team sport in the modern Olympics, is fast, loud and strenuous.
The Arlington-based Capital Area Women's Water Polo team (CAP) is making a splash in the sport, enabling women to participate in what many say is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country. In 2003, there were 58 women's varsity teams in the NCAA, and the U.S. women's national team won the silver medal at the 2000 Summer Olympics.
When CAP member Rachel Graham, 35, played for the University of California at Santa Barbara in the late 1980s, she said there were only "eight to 10 teams" in the NCAA.
Washington area women are joining the craze.
"Women's water polo is huge right now. It's growing so fast," said Arlingtonian Teresa David, one of CAP's organizers. David, 24, plays on three area teams, two of them coed. "The women's thing is so new."
David, who moved to Arlington two years ago and works for the Department of Homeland Security, started playing water polo as an undergraduate at Tulane University in New Orleans. "Really, this is Title IX," said Graham, gesturing at the young women sitting around her during a recent practice, most of whom were in their early to mid-twenties.
An Arlington native, Graham picked up the sport at age 13. Like many water polo players, she had been a competitive swimmer but got bored with it.
She started playing on a coed water polo team when she graduated in 1990, along with friend and CAP teammate Tara Hoffman, 32.
"Title IX has been such a boon to people like us. . . . I never thought I'd live to see the day when we had enough women to have two teams scrimmage each other," Graham said.
CAP is a recent spinoff from the Wetskins, an established coed team in the District. Many of the Wetskins are also members of other area coed teams; CAP is the first organized attempt to field a local women-only team, and it is also the area's only women's master team (open to women ages 19 and older). The team has already competed in tournaments in Richmond and Philadelphia.
About 30 members of the Wetskins and 14 core members of CAP have elected officers for the women's team and are working on a Web site to promote CAP and the sport. Finding practice space is always a challenge. The team currently practices Thursday nights at the Marie H. Reed Community Learning Center in the District.
A recent scrimmage bordered on the chaotic to the uninitiated. Players send giant sprays of water splashing as they move the ball from one end of the pool to the other, swimming with it tucked under their arms or passing it off to a teammate. Errant balls fly like missiles past the lifeguard. Coach Van Hoffman, a veteran water polo player, stalks the edges of the pool, shirt off, feet wet, whistle dangling from his neck. He blows it loud and often. Every whistle -- long, short, double -- means something to the players, who rarely stop playing.
Hoffman likes what he sees, but it's not perfect.
"If you've got great speed, God love ya. But if you're swimming right into defense. . . ," he pauses, cocks his head and shrugs. "God will still love ya, but you're going to lose the ball."
The team laughs and swims back to their positions.
Hoffman, 40, a fourth-grade teacher, swam and played water polo at the University of New Mexico and met his wife, Tara, while playing the sport. He has coached men's and women's teams in New Mexico and locally at George Washington University. He says different group dynamics between the sexes forced him to change his coaching style. "Men have more of a competitive instinct; more ego is involved," he said. "Women have to develop that ego. Men have to check it."
That's not to say the men have an easy time playing with or against women. Quite the contrary, said Wetskins member Jimmy Smith.
"Water is a great equalizer," said Smith, who lives in Arlington and has been playing with the Wetskins for seven years. "Everybody is about this tall," he said, gesturing from his neck to the top of his head, "in the water."
The Wetskins are preparing to compete in a tournament in Toronto later this month as well as in a "battle of the sexes" game during their regular practice.
The yelling in the pool grows louder. Someone has just scored -- or almost scored. It's all happening so fast it's hard to tell. Smith jumps up to return to the pool. "Women are competitive with men in the water," he said before diving in.
For more information about the Capital Area Women's Water Polo team, e-mail CAPwomenspoloDC@hotmail.com.For more information on playing women's water polo, visit www.wetskins.org. The team practices Thursday nights from 8 to 9:30 at the Marie H. Reed Community Learning Center, 2200 Champlain St. NW, in Adams Morgan.