How Debbie Cavanaugh became one of the best masters water polo players in the country

Debbie Cavanaugh and her team, the Fighting Flamingos, have won four straight national masters titles. Courtesy of Debbie Cavanaugh

For most of her life, Debbie Cavanaugh has been a competitive swimmer. At 59, she and her husband still get up early most mornings for 90-minute pool sessions covering 2,500 to 3,000 yards. She's churned across pools for decades, through high school and the University of Miami, where she was part of national championship teams. These days she swims in masters meets.

But about 11 years ago, she went rogue. Cavanaugh donned a different kind of cap, took off her goggles and started chasing a yellow ball. For the first time since high school, she played water polo.

It's become her No. 1 sports passion.

"What I really like is the camaraderie of your teammates, and that it's a team sport where you're relying on each other to do the tasks," she says. "Where in swimming it's you against the clock, and I was a black-line swimmer, up and down the pool. But I just love the way we chill and mesh together in the pool. It's a fantastic sport. It builds your legs, your arms. You have to be in really good shape."

Cavanaugh, a retired teacher and coach, lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She's traveled across the country as the player-coach for the Fighting Flamingos, a group of mostly former college swimmers and water polo players. Says Cavanaugh: "Even though I'm a swimmer at heart, water polo has won me over."

Cavanaugh credits friend and teammate Tracy Grilli for her second shot as a water polo player. They were sitting side by side one day in 2005 at a masters swim meet in California when they started talking about how fun it would be to play the sport. Cavanaugh had played one season as a high school senior and enjoyed it. Soon, Grilli had taken the steps to put together a team. They call it a "virtual team," because it's composed of players from across the country. All have strong swimming or water polo backgrounds (or both), and they get together for tournaments.

Cavanaugh -- who was a high school swimming and water polo coach in Florida for many years -- is the player-coach. Grilli, who played a year of water polo at Slippery Rock, recruited some of her ex-teammates. They won this year's national championship in the 55-59 age division, their fourth straight, and have won often since the team first competed in 2006. In 2013 the Flamingos went to Montreal and captured the world title, defeating Canada in the final game of round-robin play to lock it up.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would do as well as we did," says Cavanaugh. "It was thrilling."

Grilli says Cavanaugh is as good a masters player as any of the former national-team athletes she plays with or against. The fact that she's a terrific swimmer helps, says Grilli, as does her knowledge of the game and instincts for being in the right place at the right time. She recalls one game for the national championship a few years ago against a team from San Antonio. There were just seconds left in a tight game. A former national team player for San Antonio had the ball and was on the attack.

"Debbie slips in behind her and takes her foot and is able, from underneath, to kick the ball out of her hand to the point where it flipped over Debbie's head," says Grilli. "Debbie turned and swam and scored a goal. It was amazing."

Last year, Cavanaugh was honored by USA Water Polo as its Female Masters Athlete of the Year for her longtime contributions and excellence as a player, having been selected a Masters National Championship first-team All-American eight years. She was proud to receive it, but didn't expect it.

"I was shocked," she says.

Cavanaugh plays mostly driver for the Flamingos, but she will play any position. Water polo is a physically demanding game, and it takes a toll. Shoulders hurt from all the passing and shooting. Knees ache from the "egg beatering" the legs do under the surface. Yet overall, she says water polo is a wonderful sport for keeping her fit and healthy.

"It's a great workout and there's no impact, like with the runners," she says.

Cavanaugh practices and plays games for much of the year with the South Florida Water Polo Club. She was 48 when she started playing again, and practiced with the boys (of about 14 years). Now she works out and plays with the girls' group of 14- to 18-year-olds.

"I think I'm smarter [game-wise] than a lot of the girls and boys, but they've got those quicker reactions," she says. "But it's a fun time. They respect me. ... I think they're impressed somebody my age can still play the sport."