Take some basketball, mix in dashes of soccer and football, then flood the playing field with water until it’s too deep to touch the bottom.
Welcome to the sport of water polo and the world of the Washington Wetskins, the first water polo team to actively recruit and promote gay and lesbian athletes.
“Water polo is a thinking man’s game,” says team captain Len Bechtel, explaining one of the reasons players are drawn to the deep end.
But besides stretching one’s strategic muscles, water polo is a sport of exceptional physical endurance. This game could give Suzanne Sommers’ thighs a run for their infomercial infamy. Water polo players never touch the bottom of the pool. Their legs are in constant motion, keeping their heads and arms above the water while a soccer-like ball is volleyed up and down the playing field toward goal nets at either end.
Actually, there’s a beauty in water polo that’s akin to water ballet. Not necessarily from an aesthetic point of view (although watching athletes in competitive swimwear may be considered an aesthetic event). The beauty comes instead from watching an athlete navigate a completely aquatic terrain as though it were his or her native habitat. Humans are land animals, not sea creatures. The Wetskins are a little of both.
In 1985, Curtis Yee founded the Washington Wetskins after a friend kept bugging him to get involved with the D.C. Sports Association (DCSA), a group that at the time coordinated many of the gay sports teams in the area. Yee had a passion for swimming, but also wanted to be part of a team sport, so he chose water polo. And with that choice, Yee also became a founder — if he was going to play water polo, he was going to have to start a team. After running an ad for water polo players, Yee saw that he had discovered an untapped niche in gay sports and the opportunity to introduce water polo to the D.C. masses.
“Everybody gets to play, no matter what their experience is,” he says.
For 10 years, from 1985 to 1995, the Wetskins were the official water polo team of Washington, D.C., until funding issues forced the city to withdraw sponsorship. The Wetskins were also integral to the formation in 1988 of the D.C. Aquatics Club (DCAC), the city’s predominately gay and lesbian swim team, after a number of people expressed interest in swimming, but not water polo. Originally a group for both swimming and water polo, after just one year the DCAC and the Wetskins went their separate ways due to the difficulty of managing two popular teams. Currently, the Wetskins are members of U.S. Water Polo’s Masters Division and International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA).Â
This November, the Wetskins will travel across the world to Sydney, Australia, for Gay Games VI. The team has attended the games since 1990, bringing home a bronze during their inaugural year and again in 1998. The team will also travel to Atlanta at the end of August for the Power Bar Cup water polo competition. The team practices year-round, but doesn’t have an official match season, centering most of their playing year around IGLA tournaments.
Besides jet setting around the globe — from San Diego to Paris — the team is also a very social group with its own traditions and events.
“A lot of very close friendships have developed on the team,” says Bechtel, who has been with the Wetskins for 14 years.
Every December, the Wetskins throw a holiday party with the “city’s most innovative” scavenger hunt, of which some of the requirements have been sumo wrestling, karaoke singing and public embarrassment in front of large crowds. On one occasion, a female Wetskins member got naked at Mr. P’s. Talk about a team player.
But once the Wetskins break the water’s surface, it’s all about the game. The rules of water polo, another of England’s brutal pastimes, aren’t too difficult to understand, especially after watching a Wetskins practice.
No player’s feet can touch the ground or sides of the pool. A player can only handle the ball with one hand and has a 30-second time limit to shoot for the goal. With seven people on a team, the goalie becomes the director, screaming out directions to his fellow players every few seconds. As in many other team sports, a group of players, the offense, forms a semi-circle around “the hole” (similar to a quarterback), who is usually the best and biggest swimmer on the team.
When a player gets possession of the ball, the whole arm “becomes the ball,” allowing an opposing team member to do what it takes to get possession. A goal is worth one point and is made once the ball is thrown more than halfway into a floating net, which is similar to the shape of a soccer goal.
It seems simple enough just watching, but the simplicity masks a strategic game that requires the physical strength and perseverance of the most demanding of land-based sports, only without the sweat. For the Wetskins, it’s just another day at the pool. And it’s a pool the team believes will only get bigger.
Says Bechtel: “We feel good about the future of water polo in D.C.”
The Wetskins practice every Tuesday and Thursday from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Marie Reed Recreation Center Pool, 2200 Champlain St. NW. The team, which has two paid coaches, works on fitness on Tuesdays and skills drills on Thursdays. For more information, visit www.wetskins.org.