A layman's guide to the greatest sport of all time


In a shameless bid for educational self-promotion, humor Columnist Caroline Caruso explains the obscure inner-workings of water polo.

Courtesy Tom Pajewski

In a shameless bid for educational self-promotion, humor columnist Caroline Caruso explains the obscure inner-workings of water polo just in time for Virginia women’s club water polo to appear at nationals.

If you’ve ever enjoyed a recreational swim at the University’s beautiful AFC, I bet you found yourself thinking something along the lines of, “This is too easy and calming. I would like to constantly feel as if I’m about to drown.” If so, then you might want to look into the sport of water polo. 

Water polo (WAH-tur PŌ-lō) was invented by Scotsman William Wilson before the turn of the 20th century. Wilson was an active member of the British rugby scene. For you Americans, rugby is similar to football, but players forgo the use of helmets or padding. Legend has it, Wilson stumbled upon the idea for a new sport after coming off the field of a particularly easy and dissatisfying rugby game. “I know we got rid of the pads already,” Wilson remarked to a teammate, “but what if we also got rid of solid ground?” And just like that, water polo was born. The Swimming Association of Great Britain officially recognized it as a sport in 1885. 

A key feature of water polo is the water — there is, in fact, a lot of it. Water polo requires a pool at least 25 meters in length and width and deep enough for players to tread. That’s right — no one is allowed to touch the bottom of the pool for the duration of the game. Players are required to “eggbeat” — a particularly sexy sounding and looking type of treading water — to stay afloat. 

You may also be wondering about the “polo” aspect of water polo. Unfortunately, horses were almost completely barred in 1890 after the Swimming Association of Great Britain reported over 59 horse deaths in association with the sport. Standard horses — excluding miniature horses and ponies — could still serve as goalies until as late as 1910. Today, national rules stipulate that horses are ineligible as field players or goalies. 

A water polo game takes place between two teams with six field players and one goalie each. The goal is to get the ball — 5 inches or 4 inches in diameter for men and women, respectively — past the goalie and into the goal. However, players must only touch the ball with one hand for some reason. There are also an insurmountable number of rules and fouls. Referees are responsible for calling ordinary fouls and exclusion fouls. Like hockey, an exclusion results a 30-second ejection of one player and 5-on-6 play. Games are 28 minutes total, comprised of four 7-minute quarters. 

Water polo is notorious for its rough and brutal play. Because it is difficult for referees to see underwater, players come to learn the hard way that anything is legal if it can be done discreetly. Before each game, nail checks are performed to reduce scratching — yet it is rare for players to come away from a game unscathed. As a spectator, you are liable to witness underwater holding, drowning, kicking, splashing and ruthless suit pulling. As a female player especially, you are lucky to come away still clothed. “I’ve accidentally flashed refs before, for sure,” says Nikki Gibson, a first-year club water polo player and starter. “It just be like that sometimes. You hate to see it.”

Step aside, beach volleyball and basketball players. In addition to objectively being the greatest sport of all time, water polo is also recognized in many circles as the sexiest. Surprisingly, swim goggles — one of top five sexiest accessories of all time — are not permitted. Men’s water polo players wear speedo-style swimsuits, while women opt for specialized neck-high suits with zippers. One similarity though, is that these suits are sausage-casing tight and always highly flattering. Even better, both men and women don water polo caps to protect their ears. Tying at the bottom in neat little bows, these bonnet-like caps transform players into buff, bald versions of a little pioneer girl. 

If you’re interested in watching this fiasco, the Virginia women’s team will be playing at club water polo nationals at Notre Dame on May 3, 4, and 5. If you’re interested in playing, proceed with extreme caution and plenty of eye drops — for the chlorine, of course. 

Caroline Caruso is a Humor Columnist at The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at humor@cavalierdaily.com.

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