The underwater world of water polo

For four grueling 12-hour days in the spring, the U.S. men's water polo team trained in and out of the pool. The end goal? A podium finish at the Rio Olympics (Aug. 5-21).


nder the bright Southern California sun, in the pool at Segerstrom High School in Santa Ana, 15 of the best water polo players in the U.S. are divided into three groups -- each group with one goalie and four field players. Three nets are set around the pool. The players take turns catching the ball with one hand, moving side to side into position and shooting for a goal .

From the far goal, shouting erupts and a player leaves the group to swim laps on his own. "If you hear them yell -- 'Club!' -- that means they missed [the shot] and have to swim Russians," says Carling McMichael, the sports medicine trainer. "They can get pretty into it. Any chance they have to get competitive, they really go for it."

On this April day, the U.S. men's national water polo team is in the midst of a four-day training session that starts daily at 6:30 a.m. and ends at 7 p.m. This time together is important for their Olympic hopes -- both as a team and individually. In less than three months, on July 7, the 13-man roster for the Rio Games (Aug. 5-21) will be named.

And after an eighth-place finish at the 2012 London Olympics -- a big departure from the silver won in 2008 --the U.S. is aiming for a podium finish in Rio. "It's a two-week tournament, not one game," says 38-year-old goalkeeper Merrill Moses, who competed at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. "You have to be at your best for the whole two weeks. You have to give everything to prepare and put yourself in the best possible situation. It's the biggest stage in sports and you train for four years for those two weeks."

For now, though, it's about avoiding the collective shout of "Club!"

Yes, that's a yawn from defender Nic Carniglia. It's an early start for the 20-year-old and his teammates, who start the day in the gym. After the morning meditation, each player gets to choose a 20-second exercise or stretch for everyone before moving onto more strenuous exercises.

With only 100 days out until the Rio Olympics, the team's focus is evident. Attacker Alex Bowen, 22, finds space outside to complete his morning dryland exercises. After about an hour-and-a-half in the gym, the team makes its way over to the pool for the rest of the day.

Despite the seriousness of the team's training, there is also a lightheartedness to their interactions -- and the camaraderie is visible. A joke between goalkeepers McQuin Baron and Merrill Moses shows that. (Left to right: Moses, with back facing camera; John Mann; Baron; and Drew Holland)

During circuits, the team is broken into three groups and three different stations. One group throws a medicine ball against the wall, one does side-sit-up toe touches and one performs sit-ups with overhead weights.

Attacker Bret Bonanni works with a Thera-Band on resistance exercises. These exercises are an important part of building a well-rounded player by targeting muscles groups that are needed for both strong play and injury protection.

Everyone jumps, dives or steps into the pool at the same time to start the pool workout. This first session lasts three hours. It begins with a swimming warm-up and moves into a passing warm-up.

Once warm-up is done, various drills are performed to improve strength and agility. This group treads water while moving weighted balls quickly from side to side, tied to the edge of the pool with resistance bands. When finished, they move onto the next station.

The mid-morning break divides the two back-to-back morning sessions, and the smoothies the team trainers prepare are one of the highlights.

These players have each other's back. And the sunscreen of choice? Coppertone Water Babies. Some use an even thicker skin-toned sunblock for their face, creating a mask to protect from the sun's reflection off the water.

The team is divided into offense and defense, and they go about running the set plays. When the coach wants to make an adjustment for the offense, the defensive players are asked to go underwater so they can't hear.

Toward the end of the week, players, including defender Alex Roelse here, take turns describing the set plays to each other. With so little time together as a group between now and the Olympics, the coach and the captain stress the importance of this activity. These plays are then put into action in the second pool session.

Moses, 38 (in forefront), is the oldest member of the team. He balances the national team, assistant coaching for the water polo team at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, and family life as he heads to his third Olympics. "I say I'm like a fine wine: I just keep getting better with age," the California native says. "I can say that when I turn 39 at the Olympics games, I'll be in the best shape of my life."

Baron explains that this afternoon's torture for the three goalkeepers involves a water jug. He fills it with water and raises it upside down above his head, treading water as the jug empties. "Our position is all legs, so we have to train differently," says Baron, Class of 2018 at USC. "Some bottles you can swirl and it empties a little faster -- there's nothing you can do with this one. It's just horrible."

Mann stands ready for the final challenge of the day against his teammates: 100-meter freestyle for time. "There's a particular challenge with team sports," Mann says. "Learning to work with all of these different personalities, learning to control your ego and emotion and to sometimes lessen some of your own personal success for the betterment of the team to achieve your goals. I'm not just playing for myself."

In the lunch room, Carling McMichael, responsible for the team's sports medicine, helps the guys to sort out aches and the pains. Here, attacker Bonanni receives a massage while the others guys eat their lunch.

Next stop for defender Jackson Kimbell? The dentist. He cracked his tooth during one of the scrimmages. While these players are training together for the Olympics, they often play against one another for their college or club teams and scrimmages can get just as physical as a game.

At first glance, water polo might appear to be a low-contact sport, but there's plenty of contact above and below the surface. "My face has scars everywhere," Mann says. "I've had probably 40 or 50 stitches in my face, teeth going through my lips -- been stitched on the side of the pool deck in Croatia with no anesthetic. It was like fishing line and moonshine on my face. It's a brutal sport."

As the sun sets on a long day in the pool, Bowen sits out with a suspected dislocated rib. He remains attentive to the play and uses it as an opportunity to study from outside the water. The coaching staff, which includes head coach Dejan Udovicic -- former head coach of the Serbian national team -- is constantly giving the players feedback.

The first pool session of the day is done. "As soon as I get out of the pool, it's all about recovery," Kimbell says. He will get a 30-minute break before returning to the pool for the second morning session.

The second pool session of the day is done at 1:30 p.m., with the third session beginning at 5 p.m. and ending at 7 p.m. Before they depart to run errands, take a nap or relax between sessions, the guys head to the breakroom. The small portable at the edge of the pool serves as a meeting room for the coaches, a physical therapy space and a spot to eat lunch.

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