Club water polo melds aspects of several sports

March 4, 2014 By Sean Kirkby

Water polo goalie at work

A member of the women’s water polo club leaps to deflect a shot on goal.

During the game, the Wisconsin and Ohio State women’s water polo clubs were neck and neck. Wisconsin had just pulled ahead, when – with five seconds left on the clock – Ohio scored, tying the game again.

“We thought we had it, so we put in our best shooter,” Natalie Dickson, current club treasurer, says. “From half court, she picks up the ball and throws the goal – perfect shot, right in the left-hand corner. The goalie misses it.”

The goal won the women’s water polo club fifth place in the 2011 Big Ten tournament, says Dickson, a first-year graduate student studying accounting who joined the club her freshman year.

It goal also underscored the excitement and athleticism of club water polo.

Today, the club is attending tournaments at other schools in advance of this spring’s national championship.

For those interested in finding out more about campus water polo, the men’s club is hosting its own invitational March 8-9 at the South East Recreational Facility.

“It’s a very exhausting sport,” John Poelking, men’s club co-president, says. “When I was in high school, I played football. I swam. I played a little basketball. I played baseball. I did a whole mess of sports but nothing has been quite as challenging, thrilling or rewarding.”

Water polo play

Players race to grab a loose ball in this physical sport that combines aspects of several better-known sports.

Water polo combines swimming with aspects of basketball, soccer and hockey.

To move the ball forward down the pool, players have to either dribble it, where they propel the ball forward in a wake caused by alternating arm strokes, or pass it to one another, like in basketball. However, they can only touch the ball with one hand.

Poelking, a journalism and political science senior, says the game is similar in strategy to basketball. Players set picks, offensive players block an opposing team’s defender to allow another offensive player to pass the ball, or driving, which involves players moving through the defense.

Like soccer, players score by throwing balls into a net with a goalie and have corner throws, similar to corner kicks in soccer. Like hockey, the game is physical, with fouls and exclusion penalties for playing roughly.

“You have to be physically tough to withstand the beatings that you get but you also have to be mentally tough to make sure you stay focused and are not making any mistakes,” he says.

The average water polo game has four quarters, each one lasting about seven minutes with a two- to three-minute break in between. During those breaks, the 20-member club shuffles its players out for the seven-player team, Dickson says.

“When I was in high school, I played football. I swam. I played a little basketball. I played baseball. I did a whole mess of sports but nothing has been quite as challenging, thrilling or rewarding.”

John Poelking

Water polo requires endurance and as much happens beneath the water, where the referees and other audience members cannot see, as above it. It can be brutal and fast-paced.

“Not all of it is kind of played above the water, so there’s a lot played under the water that you can’t see and the refs can’t see,” Dickson says. “You’re battling the other girls constantly and you can’t just stop because otherwise you’re under the water and can’t breathe.”

Both clubs are looking for new players of all skill levels, even novices. The clubs hold practices two to three times a week during the evening at the SERF and will teach newbies.

“We welcome anybody with of any sort of abilities,” Poelking says. “Swimming (as a baseline skill) is preferred.”

Both the clubs coordinate with one another, helping organize and staff the tables at in-house tournaments. They often cheer one another and end the semester with a joint dinner.

“Outside of the pool, we’re all really good friends and we like to hang out. We’re really close,” Dickson says. “Some of my best friends are on the team.”

Interested in joining? Email or for more info on the women’s club and for the men’s club.

Tags: student life