January 25, 2012
For many Yale students, water polo is an intramural sport played on inner tubes. For the members of the Yale Men’s Water Polo team, the game is a daily routine, a ticket around the country, and a source of pride. As “club” athletes, these students were never recruited, pay for their own travel, and are lucky to enjoy the guidance of a volunteer coach. They commit only as much time to the game as they desire. Over the past few years, though, that desire has grown ravenous as the team has stretched the boundaries of club sports. This year, a tenacious bunch of swimmers with modest water polo pedigree fought their way to second place in the country.
Water polo is like soccer was forty years ago—a European game, struggling to catch on in the United States. If Hungary is the headquarters of the water polo universe, southern California is a remote outpost, a relative hotbed surrounded by a nation of landlubbers. UCLA and the University of Southern California trade national championships back and forth, enriching themselves on a constant flow of local talent. But if you want to find future water polo stars, the only better place to look than the Golden State is your local swim club. The object of the game is simple: swim and pass a ball down the pool, then throw it into the opposing goal. Players describe itas a combination of swimming, basketball, and wrestling. Water polo is gleeful defiance of every parent’s warning not to horse around in the pool—the defenders kick, gouge, and grapple with the player carrying the ball. The typical water polo player, then, is a gifted swimmer with a feisty edge. Co-captain David Skophammer ’12 represents the mentality when he says, “No one likes swimming on its own. Water polo is way more fun.”
Yale's Water Polo Team. Photo courtesy of Jeff Gordon.
As the team’s token Californian import, Skophammer has felt that way for a long time. He’s been playing water polo for eleven years, including a stint on a USC club team during high school. He could have played varsity water polo for plenty of schools but instead chose Yale, where he leverages his experience by serving as player-coach. Co-captain Paul Orland ’12, a St. Louis native, also excelled in high school and was recruited to play at the Division 3 level, but came to Yale for the academics. Other than those two senior leaders, few members of the Yale squad ever considered playing varsity water polo before college—or playing at all. Dominic Kwok ’13 had played in high school but came to Yale as a varsity swimmer before making the switch to the team sport. Keith Rubin ’12 founded a team during his senior year in high school, but the experience was casual: “You don’t really get better when you play with people who haven’t touched a ball before.” And then there are players like Jack Montgomery ’12, who swam in high school and arrived at Yale to survey the club sports scene. “Playing a game seemed more fun than going back and forth,” he noted, and chose water polo over club swimming. Just four years of rapid improvement later, Montgomery is a co-captain
Half a century ago, relative amateurs like Rubin and Montgomery couldn’t have made the Yale team. Back then, Yale played at the varsity level against traditional Ivy League opponents like Harvard and Princeton. While a national championship banner still hangs in Payne Whitney Gym and former Olympians dot the historical rosters, the varsity program was scrapped in the 1980s due to Title IX disparities between men’s and women’s sports. Eleven years ago, the Yale Water Polo Association was reborn as a club program. Over the decade, Yale has been successful at the national level, culminating in final rankings of 9th, 7th, and 2nd in the past three years. The players attribute much of that extended success to the devotion of volunteer coach Andy Lewandowski ’92 SOM ’02, who attends half the team’s practices and most of the tournaments. Lewandowski’s steady hand has kept the team afloat even in the years when, as Kwok puts it, no “superstar from California” shows up to carry the team.
Skophammer is a bona fide superstar, but tenacity and practice are the real heroes of this team. It’s clear the players have internalized the gospel of work ethic when they can deliver clichés without a hint of a grin: “We often have more heart as a team,” Rubin frankly explains Yale’s advantage. “We don’t lose close games,” says Orland, and it’s true: Yale hasn’t lost a one-goal game in four years. Never was this preference for living on the edge more apparent than in the national championship tournament this fall. After beating Dartmouth 6-5 to claim the Northeast regional title, the Bulldogs edged Texas Tech and Columbia—each by a single goal in overtime—to advance to the finals against USC. The Californians hadn’t lost a game all year and swaggered into the contest with a roster full of former varsity stars. Yale managed an eminently respectable 8-5 loss, holding the heavy favorites to their lowest goal total of the season. The achievement was “a great culmination of playing with the same people for the last three years,” says Skophammer, and evidence that Yale fields one of the strongest club programs in the nation.
In fact, this team bears more similarity to Yale’s varsity programs than to most other club sports. “We practice harder than any other club team,” says Skophammer, noting the likely exception of Men’s Rugby. While most club teams practice two or three times a week, Yale Water Polo meets all five days of the week and travels to tournaments on most weekends. It’s a full-time commitment. And unlike varsity athletes, Orland points out, he and his teammates aren’t eligible for Dean’s excuses on the schoolwork that piles up when they travel.
But if devoting oneself to water polo is a burden, the crucial saving grace is that it’s self-imposed. The players all explain that the special appeal of a club team is that everyone who shows up truly wants to be there. Innate motivation replaces obligation. And when Rubin, who enjoys a second life as actor and comedian, has missed practice, he returns to happy greetings rather than accusing stares of, “Where were you?” So although Yale can’t compete with Harvard and Princeton, who still boast varsity teams, these proud club athletes wouldn’t have it any other way. Like most Yalies, though, they’re quick learners. If the past few years of rapid improvement are any prologue, those California teams had better hit the books.
This story was reported by Jeff Gordon, '12.
To read other Yale College news stories, see our archive.