Water polo is a brutal blend of rugby and swimming, an arduous athletic challenge that has been played on an Olympic level since 1900.
Inner tubing is typically done on a slowly flowing river, an amusement park water slide or in a large swimming pool, allowing one to lazily catch some sun with a cool beverage in hand.
DC Inner Tube Water Polo is the marriage of these two divergent activities. Arlington resident Alex Bagden founded the league, which had its debut season last winter and is gearing up for its summer season.
A team is comprised of six players, including a goalie, and there is a minimum of five players required for a team. The league plays hour-long games on Tuesday or Thursday nights at 9:30 p.m. at Audrey Moore Rec. Center (8100 Braddock Road) in Annandale, with a season-ending championship tournament. More information can be found on www.innertubewaterpolo.com.
Bagden, a physics teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, said the league brings together a group of young professionals, typically between the ages of 25-30. Last season saw teams from Jefferson and from George Mason University’s law school.
As the opening games for this season draw closer, Bagden spoke about the history and the singular pleasures of the ITWP:
<cl>What is Inner Tube Water Polo?
It’s almost exactly as it sounds like: It’s water polo, only in inner tubes. You have all the water polo aspects of the shots and the carrying the balls, but you don’t have the endurance aspects where you have to swim for 45 minutes straight. You get a very eclectic crowd of people there. You get the very competitive people who are into sports, and you get the not-so-athlete people who are there just to have a good time. It’s a very social event — we usually go out afterwards. In fact, this season, we’re planning a trip to go tubing on the Shenandoah River.
<cl>It seems like in the D.C. area, there are a lot of these social sports leagues available. Are you joining a larger picture, or is there an effort to differentiate yourselves from the rest of the sports?
I’ll be honest: I saw a big difference between our first season and now. We played in March, when there weren’t many other sports being played and registration filled very quickly. Now that it’s summertime, it’s a struggle to get our goal number of people. I’ve definitely felt the pressure from other leagues, but at the same time we’re using a site called Sportsvite.com, which is like the MySpace of sports. They’ve been instrumental in getting a lot of people going and helping us find players.
<cl>So how did this thing start?
I went to the University of Virginia a few years ago…
<cl>Well that explains it.
… (Laughs) yeah, exactly. When I was there, they had an intramural league for inner tube water polo. I was in a fraternity, and we were so addicted to the sport. We would get so gung-ho about it, and I missed that. So I said "what the hell," and I started a league in February. We had four teams last season; the goal is to get eight teams this season. We’re about halfway there.
<cl>What are the differences between water polo and inner tube water polo?
Besides obviously the inner tube, there is no physical contact allowed between players. In water polo, there’s lot of contact underneath the water where the refs can’t see. You’ll hear people say water polo is a dirty sport — it’s not like that in inner tube water polo. You’ll see a lot of tube-to-tube contact; there’s lots of setting up picks with the inner tubes.
<cl>So there’s a lot strategy involved here?
Oh, there’s surprisingly a large amount. I’ll put it this way: In my first year at UVa., we got destroyed by a bunch of teams, like, 17-0. By your fourth year, we were beating people 20-0. It’s all about moving the ball, and setting up picks and figuring out the space in front of the goal. I was actually amazed by the advanced strategies.
<cl>Does anything stand out as perhaps your greatest inner tube water polo moment?
My fourth year at UVa. — this is heartbreaking — we lost to the No. 1 seed in the semifinal playoffs. Four teams left out of 25 or 30. We were pretty close to a Cinderella story. We played in a very unconventional way. There are gender ratios that were very strictly enforced: Four boys, two girls on a team. We put a girl in the goal, which was very unheard of, so we could have more offensive boys. But the girl carried us throughout the season. We tied the No. 1 seed, but we lost in an overtime shootout. To this day, I still bear the scars of that game.
<cl>Are there gender ratios for your league as well?
At this point, I haven’t enforced the gender ratio because I’m trying to encourage as many people to sign up as possible. I’m trying to ease into the gender ratio, so this season the team captains will decide before the game is played what the appropriate ratio for the game will be.
<cl>As for you, don’t you think being a physics teacher gives you an unfair advantage in inner tube water polo?
You would think that, but it doesn’t work out that way. Somehow, the skills don’t translate.