So you want to build an inclusive water polo team in a semi-arid climate, circa COVID

A friend asked me to write about my journey playing water polo with the local queer team. I reflect on the Denver Squid water polo team (since I got involved), and framed it as a how-to article….

So you want to make a local water polo team, but you don’t know where to start? Denver’s Squid formed a water polo team in 2018-2019. Here’s a rough guide to our approach.

Tap on expertise from other cities; Squid’s polo team was started by folks with experience playing polo on both coasts (where water polo is more common). If possible, join forces with the local queer club. Squid (Swimming Queers United in Denver) is Denver’s premier LGBTQ+ aquatics club. Squid was founded in 1990and has been a pillar of the Denver sports scene ever since. Reach out to existing teams in your city and others; the Squid polo team learned a lot from the San Francisco Tsunami, the Seattle Otters, and the Denver Water Polo Club (Denver’s Masters Water Polo Team). Remember to keep it truly inclusive; Squid benefits hugely from its straight/ally members, coaches, and supporters.

Everyone starts small; in the early days (2018-2019), Squid’s polo team got by with a loaner goal. A typical practice might only see three or four folks, and consist of some passing or shooting drills. But you’ll grow! Look for growth everywhere; local swimmers, newcomers to town, college water polo clubs. Embrace the power and positivity of the LGBTQ+ athletic scene, maybe your town already has some queer clubs playing other sports; connect with their leaders to promote your club. Colorado has an active LGBTQ+ sports scene, so Squid’s water polo learned a lot from DGLFFL (Flag Football), CGVA (Volleyball), and networking through Team Colorado and Colorado Gay Sports Social – just to name a few. Make sure to connect with the international LGBTQ+ aquatics scene; IGLA (International Gay/Lesbian Aquatics) is a great network and hosts international tournaments (like the upcoming IGLA 2023 games in London)

You’ll need equipment. You can keep it simple with just a couple water polo balls and donations from your founding members. Then you can fundraise with specific goals – Squid bought their first goal in the winter of 2021. Partner with local queer and inclusive organizations; maybe a local bar will sponsor a set of caps!

Five members of Denver Squid plus their teammates from Toronto, San Francisco and London/Montreal at Toronto's Polopalooza tournament, July 2022
Five members of Denver Squid plus their teammates from Toronto, San Francisco and London/Montreal at Toronto's Polopalooza tournament, July 2022

Nobody expects they’ll weather a global pandemic while building their club! Squid aquatics team kept its members safe by following local rules + regulations. You may have to shut down for a while, but there are alternatives; Squid added alternative workouts at parks, or virtual gym sessions. Don’t worry, you’ll emerge stronger than before. Finding a venue can be tricky, especially in the middle of a pandemic (not to mention the middle of the country!). Your ideal pool is deep enough that players can’t rest on the bottom, and will allow you to store your equipment. Squid appreciates the support of Denver’s public pools, Pier Point Pool & MACS, and Carmody Rec Center. By supporting the local aquatics scene, you make the case to build even better facilities.

Review the rules regularly, especially the recent rule changes (~2019). Look online for resources and videos from USAWP, FINA, even Olympic level athletes.YouTube has some great videos from recent gold-medal winning athletes like Maggie Steffens of the gold-winning US Women’s Olympic Team, as well as Olympic match replays and resources from USAWP.

Attend tournaments together. Playing in a tournament with real referees is the best way to learn the rhythm and rules of the sport and build team camaraderie. Squid attended the Atlanta Trout’s Scramble in 2021 and IGLA in Palm Springs in early 2022. By the time we attended Toronto Triggerfish’s Polopalooza in summer 2022, Squid won its first gold medal (with the help of players from San Francisco’s Tsunami, London/Montreal, and Toronto’s own Triggerfish!)

Host your own tournament; Squid hosted our first-ever Rocky Mountain Oyster Fest in 2021. (And we’ll be hosting again in 2022; September 17-18; check it out here) It’ll take a lot of volunteer-power and coordination, so keep it manageable and consider “scramble-style” tournaments to keep teams balanced. Many LGBTQ+ tournaments arrange social activities to welcome players from other cities & countries & host awards ceremonies. Squid appreciates the support of local Denver spots like the Triangle, Tight End, XBar, and Charlie’s (among others). Your tournament will benefit from experienced referees; Squid is for USAWP’s Mountain Region referees for their help during our tournament.

More than anything, keep it safe and have fun. Water Polo can be a physical sport, and injuries happen. Don’t throw elbows, cut those fingernails, & wear those mouthguards if you have ‘em! As you learn to referee your own scrimmages, be consistent and don’t tolerate high levels of physicality. Create a space for new/beginner players, and make sure everyone feels welcome. Squid supports all swimsuit styles & pronoun preferences :) And remember, there’s no shame in floating on the ball, as long as it’s not gametime!

With love, Denver Squid