Water polo: WU’s greatest (club) sports dynasty
Back in October, the Washington University men’s water polo team defeated Tufts University in decisive fashion to clinch a national championship. For most teams, this would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that players would describe as a peak of their careers. For the water polo team, this was business as usual.
The game marked the team’s seventh consecutive trip to the national final and their fourth consecutive national championship. Their success extends beyond just championships: For years, the Bears have been beating Division I, Division II and Division III teams indiscriminately. Despite this success, the team still remains under the radar of most Wash. U. sports fans. The reason: they’re a club.
Senior co-captain Flynn Walker joined the team as a freshman. They won a championship that year and every year since.
“The first one, we tied for the national championship because the power went out. We were at Bowdoin. The power went out, so we couldn’t play the game because it was in the dark,” Walker said. “We actually ended up playing the game, but it didn’t count because you couldn’t see anything.”
Even then, that level of success was par for the course of the team.
“That was a lot of fun.” Walker said. “It wasn’t that crazy for us because we’d won the national championship like two years before that, the team had.”
The championship and the pageantry around it have provided some memorable moments for the team beyond the water. “It’s always fun to travel as a team together and get to know each other better,” senior and exec board president Alex Goay said. “It’s always at really fun and different places. This past year, it was in the Vermont area at Middlebury College. It was fun, at the end of fall, with the leaves changing. It’s a different environment from Wash. U.”
Outside playing for championships, the Bears face tough competition.
“In our division we’re really competitive.” Senior co-captain Christian Olaya said. “We either place second or third. We face [Division I] teams, like [Saint Louis University] and Mizzou. Our biggest competition is, surprisingly, Lindenwood [University]. They bring in a bunch of guys that they actually recruit.”
The team fairs well against teams like Mizzou and Saint Louis University in their division and has held their own against teams like Ohio State and Penn State. But Lindenwood, located right nearby in St. Charles, Mo., is to Division I club water polo what Wash. U. is to Division III. They are an entirely different animal.
“It’s funny because we always win [Division III] nationals and they win [Division I] nationals every year,” Olaya said. “As far as competition goes, Lindenwood is probably the peak. Unfortunately, we don’t stand much of a chance. They’re almost professional. There are guys who have been there for eight years. It’s always fun to play them. Even though we get our butts handed to us, it’s nice to go out there and play a good team.”
Being a club allows the team to be inclusive for people of all skill levels. Goay started water polo for the first time as a freshman at Wash. U. and has now become a valuable contributor to the team.
“That’s one of the great things about water polo,” Goay said. “We have everyone from players like me, who have never played before, to players who have more than a decade in the water. We make sure players like me have time in the water to compete at our tournaments.”
The focus on player development has led to a shift in the team’s makeup in the last few years.
“What’s changed now was that freshman year, there were a couple guys that were really strong, but the team as a whole wasn’t as strong as we are now.” Goay said. “We have definitely a lot more diversity in player skill.”
The change has created a more well-rounded team that is likely to be competitive in years to come. The rise in average skill level combined with the successes already leaves some competitive players desiring more of a test.
“Winning a championship four times is not that much different than winning it once,” Walker said. “You always want to keep on climbing for that next thing. We want to be the team that goes and plays in [Division I] club nationals as opposed to one that wins [Division III] club nationals, or whatever it is.”
While they lack the benefits in coaching and facilities that might come with being a varsity program, water polo has also been able to take advantage of their status as a club to build their success in a distinct way. The distinction is both tangible—they can dictate who they play and what conference they’re in—as well as intangible.
“A lot of it’s cultural,” Walker said. “It’s about how much time you put into it. You have to be a lot more self-motivated because you don’t have specific obligations for where you need to be. It’s student led, so we have to get everyone to practice and get everyone working without a coach constantly telling us what we need to be doing and how we need to be doing it.”
As for the club’s lack of publicity, Olaya believes it’s a reflection of the focused nature of Wash. U.’s constantly busy students.
“Sometimes, we have a little bit of a negative taste in our mouths.” Olaya said. “We do really well, but nobody really knows. I think it’s more of a testament to Wash. U. students. Everyone is really passionate about what they’re involved in and when we tell people, they’re like, ‘Wow, that’s awesome!’ But, they’re really focused on what they’re doing and really passionate about their own programs. That’s our identity.”