X-treme; A tide of emotion

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If you thought waterpolo bore no resemblance to the version favoured by princes on horseback, you'd only be partially correct. It dates back four centuries to the time when horses were used to play polo on beaches until high tide signalled the end of the match.

This version was phased out early in the 18th century, as a tendency to play on until the last possible moment meant that it was not uncommon for horses to die during a game. This provoked intense criticism from animal lovers.

A set of pioneers who had played the original beach polo game resurrected the sport. This time, they abandoned the horses but retained the H2O element, and thus laid the foundations for modern waterpolo. For the sake of convenience, most of the riding gear was done away with, though the riding helmet remained as protection.

With a synthetic ball, intricate tactics and standardised rules, modern waterpolo has fewer reminders (though horse-riding-styled helmets remain) to the sport's origins. At the top level, waterpolo is a dynamic game: fast moving and keenly contested, even without horses.

Kevin Williams used to compete as a swimmer before switching to waterpolo. Perhaps the pressure of living so close to Manchester United's Old Trafford ground encouraged him to try the sport that most closely resembles football.

"As a former swimmer, moving to waterpolo was quite an easy step," he says. "You find that a lot of waterpolo players used to compete in swimming sprints. If you're a good swimmer, learning to play comes quite naturally, so you'll have an advantage over people joining from other sports."

After captaining England's Junior team, Williams graduated to the senior squad, where he is now working towards earning a spot in the starting seven.

"It's a team game; very physical, with a lot of pushing and shoving, so the faster you are, the more of an advantage you have over your opponents. Some guys are better at defending, handling or passing, while others are better shooters, but you have to be able to understand team tactics and read the game as a whole."

Waterpolo has similarities to sports like basketball, ice hockey and football. Each team fields seven players, out of an available squad of 13, who can be rotated at will with their substitute teammates.

There are plenty of creative ways to foul an opponent in waterpolo, but they all fall into one of two categories: a "minor foul" gives the opposition a free throw; while a "major foul" earns the offending player a period in the penalty "sin-bin". Whoever scores the most goals wins the game. It sounds simple enough until you consider that players cannot hold the ball with two hands and have to keep swimming (touching the bottom of the pool is forbidden) throughout matches that last around 60 minutes.

Sounds a little too taxing? Thankfully, waterpolo is played at many different standards in the UK (none of them with horses, to my knowledge), but if making the full England team is marginally beyond your aspirations and capabilities, there are scores of clubs across the country fielding teams for nothing more than relaxation and recreation.

"Playing at a recreational level is just about having fun," says Williams. "When I compete in my local league, I play with all kinds of people, including a few fat lads who play as a hobby and stand in the shallow end of the pool.

"It's completely different at international level, but I'd recommend waterpolo to anyone, as a hobby or at a higher level. It's a really sociable game, and fun to play, but if you want to get fitter, then you soon will."

As a 22-year-old England international in a Olympic sport, Williams could be forgiven for expecting a modicum of notoriety in his home town. Yet the profile of his chosen sport means that he is unlikely to become as well known as contemporaries playing football for Manchester United.

England's Senior Women's Team are currently ranked 10th in Europe, while the Senior Men's have vastly improved their results over the past two seasons. Many of the best activities around have low profiles, but with television's insatiable appetite for more sport it can only be a matter of time before waterpolo hits our screens. Be warned - it could mean a little less time for adrenalin sports like bowls and snooker.

For more information, contact Mike Glover on the Waterpolo Committee (0161-866 8588) or the Amateur Swimming Association (01509 618700)

Alister Morgan


Avondale Waterpolo Club

This amateur waterpolo team based in Putney, southwest London, plays in the Surrey, London, Thameside & Southern Counties Leagues, with scheduled fixtures all year round. Two training sessions take place each week. Contact Putney Leisure Centre (0181-785 0388) for additional information and membership details.

Cheltenham Swimming & Waterpolo Club

Established in 1875, the club fields Senior, Junior (under-18) and Youth (under-16) sides, with three training sessions a week at Cheltenham Leisure Centre. Call the club's waterpolo secretary, Jack Jones, for additional information (01242 517703).

Hammersmith Penguins Swimming Club

This London club runs a number of waterpolo teams, with several training sessions a week. Membership details and club contacts are available from the Janet Adegoke Leisure Centre (0181-743 3401) and the Gurnwell Leisure Centre (0181-998 3241).