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The benefits of water polo

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Most Brooklyn parents are only aware of water polo during the summer Olympics, but those in the know appreciate this team sport that combines the rigor and fitness of swimming with the strategy and ball-handling skills of basketball — and is impacting the local youth sports scene, especially among girls.

Three Brooklyn-based clubs offer opportunities for water polo. Y Pro Water Polo (www.yprowaterpolo.com) is a boys-only club for ages eight to 18 that swims out of the Kings Bay YM-YWHA pool in Sheepshead Bay. Brooklyn Heights St. Francis (http://bhsfwaterpolo.org) and Imagine Swimming Mako Polo (http://imagineswimming.com) offer coed polo opportunities for ages 8 to 18 in St. Francis Brooklyn’s pool in Brooklyn Heights. All three clubs compete in U12, U14 and U16 age groups in the Tri-State League (https://tristatewpleague.shutterfly.com), a fall and spring league that operates primarily out of the Greenwich YMCA in Connecticut.

Every four years a spotlight on an obscure sport

The upcoming Olympic games in Brazil will shine a spotlight on the United States men’s and women’s national teams. New men’s coach Dejan Udovicic — successful in his native Serbia and imported to revive a program that captured its only Olympic gold in 1904 — is tasked with an upper half finish among the world’s 12 best teams.

The women’s squad faces a different task. Olympic champs in the 2012 London games, the Americans are favored to again win gold. Head coach Adam Krikorian’s biggest challenge may be keeping his experienced players focused.

Keeping the American men and women’s teams healthy is Naresh Rao, medical liaison to the United States Olympic Committee and to USA Water Polo, the sport’s governing body. A doctor of osteopathic medicine, Rao has a sports medicine practice in Manhattan.

He may treat elite athletes, but Rao, who recently published “Step Up Your Game,” (www.stepupyourgame.nyc), a guide to achieving peak athletic performance, is bullish on water polo’s affect on children.

Young athletes ages 8 to 14 receive “tremendous” benefits from the sport, because water polo simultaneously provides two distinct exercises: aerobic, which causes the heart to pump blood to provide muscles with energy and oxygen; and anaerobic, which works those muscles.

“You can combine both of those with water polo and at a high level,” Rao said.

Besides learning swimming, a fundamental skill, water polo is a team sport that teaches children how to interact, take direction, and work together.

USA Water Polo’s top doc said it is particularly beneficial for girls.

“Generally, as they get older, girls tend to be more flexible, which may lead to certain kinds of overuse injuries,” he said about a sport that allows girls to play a contact sport at a high level. “Water polo can provide a great way — in the water and out — for girls to strengthen muscles to maintain structure and a foundation so that overuse injuries can be prevented.”

Rao also mentioned Splashball (www.usawaterpolo.org/programs/splashball.html), a program that teaches the game to children as young as 4 and 5 while standing in the shallow end of a pool.

A great sport for girls

Linda Angles of Manhattan, whose children Lucas (age 15) and Maya (12) play for Imagine Swimming’s Mako Polo team, is pleased that both her children — in particular her daughter — have an alternative to swim team.

“For Maya, water polo is a great outlet for taking her swimming skills to the next level, by adding a demanding team sport with a ball,” Angels said. “She has gained such confidence in the physical interaction with players as they tussle for the ball.”

Encouraged to follow her brother to the sport by the Mako’s coach Zoli Danko, Maya is benefiting not just physically, but emotionally as well.

“She has not only become physically fit, but has high self-esteem, a healthy competitive spirit, and has learned good sportsmanship — skills and values that will greatly help her in life,” Angles explained, then praised the sport’s penchant for physical contact: “Girls are not typically encouraged to wrestle or get physical in a safe environment. If any of these girls had to face a situation of potential physical intimidation, I know they would feel confident to respond.”

A former high school athlete, Angels appreciates the safety, conditioning, and confidence-building that water polo provides her children.

“It’s not only one of the best physical conditioning sports, I believe, it is safer than other sports from injuries,” she said. “I can’t imagine another sport which would give kids the confidence and determination that this sport does.”

International love story ends in Brooklyn

Andi Dolnay began playing polo in Budapest, Hungary, when she was 6 years old.

“My dad used to be a water polo coach when I was little,” said Dolnay, who now lives in Brooklyn. “He took me to his practices, training camps, and games. I just loved it and decided I wanted to play.”

And play she did, earning a scholarship and a spot on St. Francis’s Division-I women’s water polo team. Graduating in 2011, Dolnay stayed in New York where she met and married Danko, another Hungarian who came to Brooklyn for Terrier water polo.

Dolnay says that while opportunities are growing for girls in a sport that involves strength, stamina, and smarts, recognition is water polo’s biggest problem.

“USA [women] won the last Olympics, but many people here still don’t know what water polo is,” she said. “Someone once asked me how we could play polo in the pool with horses — and this person wasn’t joking. They had no idea about water polo.”

Polo’s long-term benefits are clear to the 27-year-old Dolnay.

“I’ve been around the world and made friends because of this sport. I met my husband, too.”

Michael Randazzo is a regular commentator on local Brooklyn sports and arts for Fort Greene Focus, Fort Green Patch, and The Brooklyn Paper. He resides in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

Updated 4:38 pm, December 9, 2016
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