Once considered the roughhousing brats of the GLBT aquatics community, lesbian and gay water polo teams have grown up, and their sport's series of tournaments make for serious competition.
Friendly rivalries help keep team competition spirited, despite the occasional lapses in decorum. Water polo's roughest play is often underwater, unseen by fans and, sometimes, referees. Players tell a variety of tales of surreptitiously grabbed Speedos and yanked limbs.
All competing teams are members of the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA), the governing body of GLBT swimming, whose annual event has drawn formidably large teams like San Francisco's Tsunami, Washington, D.C.'s Wetskins, and a fledgling new squad in Salt Lake City.
Water polo's first inclusion at an IGLA Championship in 1987 in San Diego was merely an exhibition. Over the next years, polo games were played after the day's other aquatic events. IGLA '96, in Washington, D.C., marked a turning point for IGLA polo. Games were held at a separate venue from the swimming competition, allowing organizers to hold matches all day long.
Despite its egalitarian membership recruitment, the sport does lend itself to a sexy image, particularly among the ranks of West Hollywood's WH20 squad. Possibly one of their most photographed moments was their victory at Gay Games VI in Sydney, when the squad sported fabulous floral print Speedos.
But they're not just pretty boys and girls. One of IGLA's oldest water polo teams, WH20 holds the most IGLA Championship titles of any team, making for a winning mix of fun, fashion, and fierce competitiveness.
Julie Wolff captains West Hollywood's women's team. 'We've been playing high schools and other masters teams, in open leagues, and a women's league with [University of California] Irvine Masters,' says Wolff. 'We also scrimmage with men's teams.' Two women have to be in the water at all times for a team to be truly coed.
Wolff notes that smaller, lighter balls are used for women-only matches. 'For passing and shooting, you can really feel the difference,' she says.
Like many California natives, Wolff attended a high school that offered water polo as one of its sports. In collegiate divisions, she says most teams are still from the West Coast.
'Even in my senior year, there were only 12 non-West-Coast teams,' she says. 'But there's been a big surge. Title IX helped women get into water polo.' Wolff cites UCLA, Stanford, and Loyola among the universities now offering full scholarships to women.
Among gay teams, the Seattle Otters was originally formed in 1990 as a women's team to compete in the Gay Games III, held in Vancouver, B.C. The Otters became a coed team in 1992, when they hosted that year's IGLA tournament.
Between renting pool time and hiring coaches, tournaments and practices don't come cheap. Most teams borrow goal cages, which can cost up to $2,000.
And since water polo's skills require both brawn and brains, it's no surprise that most players have college degrees.
'It's very analytical,' says WH2O's Wolff. 'It's like a game of chess: to see where you're going, and what your opponent's next move will be.'
Clubs have also spread their fan base through a diverse array of amusing social fundraisers, like the San Francisco team's Tsunami de Mayo two-day tournament, held the first weekend in May.
Tyler Schnoebelen, Tsunami Polo president, has enjoyed three years with his team. As a teen in Iowa, he played 'jungle ball,' an informal version of water polo. A fencer at Yale who only swam recreationally, he says he finds the team environment an enjoyable challenge. Tsunami now has three teams, ranked according to skill level. 'Our intention was to break it down, and make an A Team that's really an elite squad,' says Schnoebelen.
Doug Fadel, who played competitively in junior high and high school, says that about 40 people have expressed interest in his new Salt Lake City team, Queer Utah Aquatics Club (QUAC). With about five percent women and a few straight players and coaches, QUAC takes all comers and hopes to attend this fall's IGLA championships in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Oct. 7-10.
'We will probably go to Chicago for Gay Games VII,' says Fadel. 'However, two years is beyond our planning at this time.'
Polo players also participate in IGLA's notoriously hilarious Pink Flamingo water ballet competition. IGLA 2003, held at Stanford University's facilities last August, not only broke even financially, but also made a profit, which Tsunami Polo shared through donations to local charities.
'You begin with a drive for competition and fitness,' Tsunami's Schnoebelen says. 'But what you happen into is this great group of people who wouldn't necessarily connect for different reasons. We have artists, CEOs of companies; the social environment is really compelling.'
Jim Provenzano is the author of the novels PINS and Monkey Suits. Read more sports articles at www.sportscomplex.org . E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .
Gay Water Polo Links: www.igla.org, www.tnya.org, www.otterpolo.com, www.tsunamipolo.org, www.wh2o.org/polo.htm