National Sports Day: Why I Really Played Water Polo & Other Truths
On National Sports Day, let’s talk about a lesser known sport.
On National Sports Day, let’s talk about a lesser known sport.(Photo: iStock)

National Sports Day: Why I Really Played Water Polo & Other Truths

Dipa Karmakar’s gymnastic stint at the Rio Olympics brought to light the fact that India does not have any infrastructure for the sport. How many more Produnovas will it take for us to inspect the state of other sports in the country besides cricket?

I played Water Polo for precisely two years of my life, till class 12. Is it played on a sea-horse? You’d be surprised at the number of people who have actually asked me this, for real.

No, sadly, it’s not played on sea horses. For those of you who are not familiar with the sport, there are two teams, one ball, two goalposts and a pool that is 25 ft deep – so that your feet don’t touch the floor. It’s an interesting sport that requires immense upper body strength and great hand-eye co-ordination.

A water polo match.
A water polo match.
(Photo: iStock) 
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Now I started playing the sport at a very odd time in my life — when I started class 11. I say odd because my chosen stream was PCM+Eco. It didn’t make sense to me then why I was being made to pick up a sport (and go on to play in the nationals), in the same two years that I was supposed to be studying my ass off.

But the answer was so obvious.

Of course, for sports quota! And, my parents thought it would good physical exercise for me as I prepared for my boards.

Sadly, I wasn’t the only one.

My First Ever Match – The Nationals

When I started playing, the first competition I ever attended was the CBSE Nationals in 2011 in Bhopal. The team was formed after a qualifier round that selected the ‘best’ players from Delhi.

We began training for the nationals only a month before the games. I was a little surprised that for a competition at that level we were going to practice a mere 30 days; when on the other hand, my sister — a national level swimmer (and medallist, if a proud sister may add) — would train 7 hours a day, 6 days a week and for all 12 months. Well anyway, since the sport was new to me, I thought maybe I didn’t know how things worked.

So, with our preps all done, we landed in Bhopal and I went out to play my first ever water polo match against Kerala. Delhi vs Kerala. The referee blew the whistle and the ball went into play.

I swam towards the girl I was supposed to man, and bam! she punched me hard in my stomach. So hard that if I were on land, I’d be balled on the ground in pain, but here I was merely floating on water in an odd position. After getting punched a few more times, we lost the game.

Of course we’d been warned that there would be a lot of underwater hanky-panky, but this?

For my next match I was more determined to not get beaten up, if not to hit back. I’m not violent and I would feel bad if I hit another player, even by mistake. But this game demanded a bit of ruthlessness. All eyes on the ball. A few bruises here and there were all part of the game.

We lost that match too and just as badly as we’d lost to Kerala (a whopping 25-0).

The Delhi team lost all national matches next year as well, in 2012 in Chennai. We had again practiced for only a month. What were we supposed to do? How could we win?

(Photo: iStock) 

What The Nationals Gave Me

Our losses to other teams were so shameful, I did not feel any pride even in thinking, “Hey, I’m a national level water polo player!” Because, in theory, that’s what I am.

But you know what these fruitless matches gave us?

Team Spirit? No. Help become better losers? No. Wanting to practice harder to beat those Kerala girls? No.

It gave me ‘A CBSE National Certificate That Could Be Used For Sports Quota’ In Colleges. Sad as that may be, it was true.

Only, I’d gotten attached to the game. I’d grown to love it, love the power, the excitement, the pure adrenaline, the feel of water, the feeling of being invincible every time I kicked myself upward (from no floor beneath me, mind you) and caught the slippery ball or scored a goal. I wanted to excel.

But my time was up. I had to go to college. Luckily for me, I got through to the college I wanted, on merit. No Sports Quota for me, thank you very much.

The Harsh Reality

The sad reality about Water Polo in Delhi (up until 2012) was that the team members didn’t play for the love of the game.

Most people who got into water polo were aspiring swimmers who couldn’t make the cut. The competition in swimming was much greater. Thus, not many even qualified beyond State level. These were the people who’d get into water polo.

These were the same people who were into swimming to get quotas. When they couldn’t do that, they switched to a lesser known sport, in which they reached the national-level somehow and then had certificates to show.

The Delhi coach knew this. During one of our training sessions he said, “I know none of you love the sport and are all here for certificates. But if that’s the only reason you’re playing – remember, you’re here because you couldn’t be where you wanted to be. The only person here with a non-swimming background is her.” (Her being me. I was the only idiot who didn’t know what was happening then.)

Now when I look back, it kind of makes sense to me why even the coaches never put in any effort into building a good, national team. One month of practice was enough to make us at least play along as a team.

Water polo is such a beautiful sport. It got me, an absolutely non-sporty person, to be more sporty than most other people I know now. It’s sad that a sport this grand has to be reduced to the game of certificates.

Believe it or not, that’s the harsh truth about sports in India. Parents don’t see a future for their children. There are no good career options, no incentive to make sports your ‘career’. And in the politics of society, the purity of the game is lost.

This article has been republished from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of National Sports Day. It was originally published on 29 August 2016.

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