Why not water polo?

Despite repeated efforts, water polo is rare in these parts, which is discouraging to 17-year-old Animas High School student Sam Kuenzel. The teenager took a water polo class as an elective and immediately fell in love with the sport. “If people tried (water polo), I think they would really get into it,” Kuenzel said. Enlarge photo

Shaun Stanley/Durango Herald

Despite repeated efforts, water polo is rare in these parts, which is discouraging to 17-year-old Animas High School student Sam Kuenzel. The teenager took a water polo class as an elective and immediately fell in love with the sport. “If people tried (water polo), I think they would really get into it,” Kuenzel said.

The Four Corners might be a popular destination for biking, rock climbing and skiing, but water polo?

Not so much.

Recreation centers in Durango and Farmington have closets full of the required balls, nets and protective head gear, but no regularly scheduled times to play the Olympic sport.

“It’s sad because the rec center has all the stuff, but there’s no water polo,” said Sam Kuenzel, 17, who took a water polo class last fall as an elective at Animas High School.

Kuenzel said he was “devastated” when the class ended because it meant he no longer could play the game in Durango.

“We were begging our teacher (to continue the class),” Kuenzel said. “It’s an awesome sport.”

As an active swimmer, Kuenzel loves water polo because it combines swimming with a team sport, which contrasts the loneliness and tedium of swimming laps solo.

As he looks beyond Durango, he has made water polo part of his criteria for selecting a college.

It’s not for lack of trying that water polo has not caught on here.

The Durango Community Recreation Center has tried several times over the last 10 years to get people interested without success, said Kimberly Ebner, the aquatics director.

“I know it’s super fun. I played it in high school (in Chicago). I don’t know why it won’t pick up here,” Ebner said.

Farmington has had a similar experience, said Shana Reeves, the city’s recreation superintendent and a former water polo player.

“In ’94, ’95 and ’96, there was a great effort to start a water polo league,” Reeves said. “We had some people who moved in from Albuquerque. They put on water polo (games), but it just didn’t stick, though.”

In Durango’s most recent attempt a year ago, the recreation center hired a water polo instructor, Heather Hofmann, who played the sport in high school in San Diego and while she was in the Coast Guard in Alaska and San Francisco.

Every Wednesday night for two hours, Hofmann taught the basic skills, such as passing and treading water. There were some scrimmages, but drop-in games often were an unattainable goal.

Usually, “there was me and a girl named Sarah there every Wednesday night. I could count on her to pass the ball to me,” Hofmann said.

Hofmann said she “never understood why I couldn’t get people to show up.”

When Hofmann took her daughter to a swim meet in Cortez, she was surprised to learn that its rec center had organized water polo.

Hofmann then thought, “My gosh. Do I have to drive from Durango to Cortez to play water polo?”

But Jenn Fast Wolf, a life guard and water polo instructor in Cortez, said it’s “been a struggle to get it off the ground.”

“We haven’t (gotten) experienced players (to play),” Fast Wolf said.

Cortez is a long way off from an organized league, although it has regularly scheduled times to play drop-in games from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Fridays and 4:30 to 6 p.m. Sundays, Fast Wolf said.

Unlike Durango, “we do have a lot of people who show up but just have a beginners group. We’re teaching a lot of people who don’t know a lot about water polo, ones from age 14 on up. We’re just trying to build an interest in the sport.”

Reeves thinks people might be intimidated because water polo is a ”tough sport, like rugby in water.”

“You have to be in tip-top shape,” she said. “It’s short sprints. It’s often played in the deep end. It’s an aggressive sport, especially under water. Officials often don’t see what happens under water.”

Opposing players often will grab onto each other’s swimsuits to slow them down.

Steve Smith, who played the game in high school in St. Louis, thinks the sport has fizzled here for lack of institutional support.

Water polo is not a sanctioned high school sport in Colorado. While the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs has a men’s varsity team and Colorado State has a women’s varsity team, none of their current players graduated from a high school in Colorado, according to their teams’ rosters.

In the last eight years, the CSU water polo team has recruited two to three players from within Colorado who had played at the club level in Denver, said Mike Moody, the head coach.

Moody believes the sport would catch on if Coloradans had more opportunity to play.

“I think there’s a lot of talent out there,” Moody said. “We just need more coaches as well as pool time.”

Smith, a teacher at Animas High School, taught water polo last fall at the high school. He got eight students, including seven boys and one girl.

“None had played before,” Smith said. “They all had a pretty good time.”

While they could scrimmage, they did not have the 14 players to play the regulation seven-on-seven games.

“It was more of a fun way to exercise,” he said. “We wouldn’t stand around or let them drown each other.”

Smith thinks Durango is more athletically inclined to individual sports, such as biking and skiing rather than team sports.

While he enjoys water polo, Smith said he is much “more passionate about rock climbing.”

With Smith teaching rock climbing as a physical education elective, class participation has more than doubled when compared to water polo this year, getting 20 students.

Kuenzel believes that water sports never enters the mind for most people because “we’re such a mountain town.”

“If people tried (water polo), I think they would really get into it.”

jhaug@durangoherald.com

Sam Kuenzel, a 17-year-old student at Animas High School, believes water sports never enters the mind for most locals because “we’re such a mountain town. If people tried (water polo), I think they would really get into it,” Kuenzel said. Enlarge photo

Shaun Stanley/Durango Herald

Sam Kuenzel, a 17-year-old student at Animas High School, believes water sports never enters the mind for most locals because “we’re such a mountain town. If people tried (water polo), I think they would really get into it,” Kuenzel said.