It’s 7:30 p.m., nearly dark, and it’ll be at least another 15 minutes before the lights go on around the outdoor pool at Landon School in Bethesda. Twenty-two players from Walt Whitman High School’s club water polo team are getting ready for a scrimmage. “It’s freezing!” one girl yells. She’ll have to get used to it: This is only mid-September, and outdoor practice continues for another six weeks.
“They warm up when they’re in the water,” says Petar Solomun, Whitman’s first-year head coach. And the players do, for the most part swimming without complaints up and down the 25 yards of the pool, passing the ball around before someone lunges a hard shot toward the goal. One shot thwacks off the keeper’s chest. “It doesn’t hurt him,”
Solomun, 30, describes water polo as a combination of basketball, rugby and football. Whitman is the only public high school in Montgomery County that fields a community team—the team is not affiliated with Montgomery County Public Schools—but Miras Jelic, the assistant coach of Landon’s water polo team, says the sport is growing in popularity. (Landon is one of a handful of local private schools that have water polo teams; Whitman rents time at Landon’s heated pool for practice.) Players and parents like it because it’s a physically demanding team sport with a much lower risk of injury than contact sports. But Jelic cautions that water polo and swimming are not the same.
“Water polo is twice as hard,” he says. Players have to tread water throughout the 32-minute games. In practice, Solomun estimates that students swim between 1,500 and 3,000 yards, the latter of which is nearly 2 miles.
Whitman’s team was started by two sets of parents who were looking for an alternative to football. “In the two years Nick was on the [football] team, he played a total of 3 minutes,” says Audrey King, whose son graduated from the Bethesda high school five years ago. The team had 120 players; competition for playing time was intense. “He wasn’t having any fun.”
When Nick said he wanted to play water polo instead, a sport he’d picked up during summer swim practice, King approached Walt Bartman, the head of Landon’s water polo team, who arranged for pool time and began asking around for a coach.
Whitman had its first club team in the fall of 2011. King and Ellen Rogers, another player’s mother, had rounded up 11 players. The team spent weekends traveling to regional tournaments, often in Maryland or Pennsylvania. “We lost every game for the next two years straight,” King says. “We were so inexperienced.”
Some students started playing in the offseason, taking advantage of the opportunity to train with competitive teams like the Capital Water Polo Club in Arlington, Virginia, where both Solomun and Jelic coach. Eventually they started winning games.
This season, Solomun has 30 players. “We have one of the rare coed high school teams,” he says. For Maia Kotelanski, a junior at Whitman and one of two girls playing varsity water polo—there are six girls on the JV team—being on a coed team is part of the appeal. “I think the environment would be really different if it was just boys or just girls,” she says. She gets up for school at 6 a.m., eats lunch during class, and leaves at 12:50 p.m. each day for an internship at the National Institutes of Health. Water polo is a way she can socialize with other kids while staying in shape.
Sophomore Lukas Einberg wasn’t much of a swimmer when he first participated in a water polo clinic in eighth grade, something Whitman offers to students at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School (which feeds into Whitman) to generate interest in the sport. After that, Einberg was hooked, though it took him two weeks after joining the Whitman team to master the “eggbeater” position, when players swim vertically—treading water while moving forward, both hands in the air. “The seniors helped me,” he says. “They showed me the right way to move my feet.”
Solomun, who has coached water polo in his home country of Serbia as well as in Paris, sees Whitman as a model for how a public high school without a pool can field a competitive team. Some Whitman students have gone on to play water polo at Division I schools, including Villanova University and the University of Virginia.
“Every year it’s just more kids,” Solomun says, gesturing toward the pool. Even in the dim light of practice, he calls out a player’s name. “I can tell who they are just by their strokes.”