Thursday, October 3, 2013

Kayak Polo - U.S. National Championships

I used to play kayak polo rather seriously. In fact, it pretty much became the only paddling I did. That was back in 2006 when I was on the U.S. National Team and preparing for the World Championships. It was at those championships that I hurt my shoulder and after which I decided to retire. I also moved to a location that didn't have any kayak polo so giving up the game was a de facto necessity as much as a choice. But every once in a while I find a good reason to come out of retirement and play a little polo.

This year San Francisco hosted the National Championships for the first time. It's close enough to make it a long weekend trip without a lot of expense. I knew I was going to go but wasn't sure who I would end up playing with. I starting training (a little) and doing some boat repair (a lot). I wasn't sure what to expect.

The weekend started on Friday with a one day 'Open' tournament. The Championship is for U.S. clubs and there are rules that govern who can play (have to be living in the U.S.) and how teams can be formed (you can't form an all-star team from different cities). That's as it should be, but it's a shame to waste a chance to play high level polo when the best players in the country are all going to be in the same place. Not to mention some of the best players from Canada who come down looking for some good competition. So the Open division is designed to allow any teams to enter. This year there were four teams: the U.S. National team; a Canadian all-star team; a New York squad who all just flew out a day early for some extra California sun; and a mixed team of former and current U.S. Squad members (that would include me).

My Open team had some experience going for it and we also had some youth on our side. But we didn't have any subs and we had never played together. I hadn't even met one of the guys before we suited up. And we started against the Canadians who we all expected to be the top team. But it turned out that we won the game. Rather handily. Won the next one, too. We ended up winning the whole division by playing some great team polo. It was great to find a group that worked so well together without a lot of time or practice. No drama or fighting, no one hogging the spotlight or trying to be the big man. Just good, honest teamwork. It was one of the funnest days of polo I've had and the result was just the icing on the cake.

The next day was the start of the club championships and it was a completely different team and different competition. I would once again be representing the UCLA club that I had been a member of when it was first formed back in 2001. Even though I no longer lived anywhere close, without a local team I was allowed to play with my old club under the tournament rules. Many of my previous teammates were still around so we tried to put the band back together. We couldn't get all of the old guard but instead recruited some new blood. Always a good thing in the long run but it creates some doubts for the present. Can we gel in time? Are the newbies over their heads? Are the old timers just plain old? I really wasn't sure how it would go.

This time we started against New York who had some strong players but wasn't expected to be challenging for the title. We planned on keeping things simple and played conservatively as the new guys who hadn't played in the Open division got their legs under them (so to speak). We came out with a win and were feeling pretty good. It didn't last long. Our second game was against Austin, the two-time defending champs, and they thrashed us pretty good. Our lack of experience together and some fitness issues were evident. But the most important thing was that we stayed tight as a team. Everyone took responsibilities for their mistakes (we all made them) and everyone was supportive of each other as we got ready for our next game.

UCLA Men (l to r): Me, Ge, Danny, Patrick, Rob
The Canadians were next. The same team that had finished second in the Open division, but with the addition of another strong player. We just wanted to play a good game but didn't have any high expectations. But that teamwork vibe that brought us together after our loss now held us together during the game. Facing younger, stronger, more skilled players we worked together to hold them off and fought them to a tie. It would turn out to be the only game they didn't win in the tournament.

We had one more loss, then one more win and one more tie. At the end of the round robin play we were tied with Carolina for third - only the top three advanced and Carolina had the advantage over us in goal differential so they moved on while we were done. Once again, UCLA finished off the podium. But I have to say that I was very happy with the tournament. While the result in the Club division didn't match that of the Open, the fun was in the attempt. We played as a team, we played good polo, we did as well as could be expected against strong competition. It was the tightest Nationals I've been at and we were right in the mix. That's all you can ask for and it's enough for me.

Now that it's all over, I'm back to being a retired kayak polo player. My shoulder survived the weekend but it didn't enjoy it at all. My recent move has also put me even further from any club to play with. So I'll go back to the ocean and the rivers. But I'll keep the polo gear clean and ready for the next occasion that pulls me back in.

And congratulations to all the winners at the U.S. Kayak Polo National Championships:
Open: USA 1 (my team)
Club A: Austin Aquabats
Women: Unstoppable Unicorns (mostly California girls)
Club B: Bat Shot Crazy (I think from Texas)

If you have no idea what kayak polo is like, this is a little introductory video:

And here's some action from the 2009 U.S. National Championships:


  1. Hey. You have no clue how surprised I was to see a post about kayak polo nationals in my blog feed! I played with the US Women against Canada Friday and opted to play with the Pitch Ninjas during the club comp. Even though I exited the event with a lot of losses on my record it was still a great time. San Fran was a great city to explore and it made me look forward to getting back to CA for some other outdoor adventures in the future. Perhaps next time we can actually meet.


    1. It was a great event and good to see so many new people in the sport. I used to think I knew everyone who played but over time the old guard gets replaced and much needed new blood comes in. It's good to see the U.S. teams thriving, especially the women.

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