By Matt Szabo
Trey Slagle is an 8-year-old who doesn't shy away from competition.
He has played baseball, basketball, and soccer, and he also has participated on a swim team at his local YMCA in Montgomery, AL.
"He loves sports," his mom, Sherry, says. "Trey's the kind of kid you have keep active. If not, he will go crazy."
This fall, Trey became crazy about a new sport. The YMCA started offering a Splashball water polo program, and he dived right in. So did about 30 other kids with ages ranging from 7 to 13.
Splashball is an entry-level, non-contact version of water polo.
The response has been both overwhelmingly positive and also more than Daniel Blazer could have imagined. Blazer is the aquatics director for the Bell Road YMCA in Montgomery. Blazer's branch has an indoor pool, so it can offer swimming year-round--but Blazer said he was looking for another niche.
He had heard of water polo from the Olympics, but other than that he didn't know much about the sport. It isn't exactly a popular one in Alabama--though Auburn University and the University of Alabama both have club programs.
"I started digging deep and doing the research, and it became very hard for me to choose whether or not I wanted to pursue that," Blazer said. "There's no one around here that offers any type of a water polo program, but at the same time, that means I'd get any interested participant because there's no competition. It's kind of like the gift was also the curse. We really just decided that we wanted to give it a shot."
Blazer purchased some inflatable goals and started reaching out and advertising. A six-week Splashball program was formed, and it started in the beginning of October and conclude in mid-November. Every Friday night, kids would come to the YMCA to learn a little bit more about the basics of water polo, and each practice would end with a scrimmage.
Mark Carney, USA Water Polo director of sport growth, said the organization has been working with the YMCA to get children playing water polo in even more communities around America.
"They've actually asked us to help them write a formalized curriculum for Splashball," Carney said. "That's not to say that every location has to adopt it or is going to, but it gives us that platform now to be able to expose tens of thousands of children to the sport of water polo through Splashball. It's a phenomenal opportunity, and it's really exciting."
Carney said he's hopeful that the curriculum will be in place by quarter three of 2018.
Angela Anderson is certainly a big fan. She's seen three of her four daughters participate in the program in Montgomery. Skyleena is 13, Carmen is 8, and Ella is 7. Angela said Skyleena in particular took a liking to playing water polo. Skyleena has early stage scoliosis, so participating in a water sport is invaluable.
"They exercise their little hearts out, I will tell you that," Anderson said. "My girls were on swim team for the summer, and we transferred into this for something a little bit different. My oldest daughter got tired of swim, and with her being 13, she's done fabulously. She guards well, and the balls are a little bit smaller, so with her long fingers it's easier for her to throw. They work their legs quite well, they sleep well at night, and they're just really enjoying it overall."
A particularly enjoyable part of the six-week session happened when eight members of the Auburn club team came to one of the practices to help teach the kids. They ran a mini-clinic, Blazer said, working on fundamentals like performing an eggbeater, passing the ball and shooting.
The smiles on the kids' faces said plenty.
"We needed to see if we could generate enough children to make it a sustainable program," Blazer said. "It was really a big question mark. But once we got going, we realized it has a lot of potential to be something great and give children another sport or opportunity to grow into. Splashball has that ability that soccer has--to build endurance, strengthen coordination and enhance children's abilities for other sports in the future. It has the potential to develop children in the core fundamentals, and that can really help them excel in many other sports as well."
The majority of the kids who picked up the sport were ages 10 to 13, Blazer said. The hope in the future is that if the branch again offers water polo, these kids could divide into teams and compete in a league. The younger ones may continue to participate in a program that's more developmental.
But either way, the first offering has been a wild success, especially considering that water polo is a sport many of the kids growing up in the deep south don't know too much about.
What Blazer learned, though, was that kids like Trey just want to be competitive and play a game. His older brother Morgan is a lifeguard who volunteered to coach water polo, Sherri Slagle said.
"It's just the way kids are wired," Blazer said. "They want to play, they want a game. Kids love swimming, they love the pool, and it just quickly translated into another fun thing for them to do while they were swimming. A lot of the kids who signed up were already on the swim team, and they've been challenged more than they've been in a while. ... It's really created a fun Friday night program for those kids to be a part of."
Trey can't wait for more water polo in the future, and many of the other kids at the Montgomery YMCA feel the same way.
"It was very physically demanding," Sherry Slagle said. "Trey gives his all in everything he does, and he was very exhausted by the end of the evening each time. It was different than a traditional swim team practice, [but] he's always up for a challenge ... I'm extremely happy with the program, and I can't wait for them to do it again."
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of SkipShot magazine