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© Gertjan Kooij / Beeldboot

An endless foreigner

I wanted to write today about what it is like to be an American (or any player that comes from outside of Europe) playing abroad. The goal of any athlete is to play at the highest level within their sport. Basketball players want to play in the NBA, soccer players aim for the European league, baseball has the MBA. For water polo players, the end goal is to play in Europe, where water polo is represented at its best. This is where the top players live and train and where the average person understands the sport. This might seem like the dream, but foreign players also have to deal with the harsh reality that they are still outsiders, on loan and at the mercy of the league.

I started my career in Cremona, Italy, which would become one of the most formative periods of my life. I got to play with water polo legends like Dubravko Simenc and Zsolt Varga, I learned how to eat and cook real food, tasted wines not served in boxes, but most of all I learned what it meant to be a professional. I remember my first time arriving in Cremona. I entered the season midway because I had been finishing my degree at Stanford University. My two hour drive from the Milan airport consisted of me desperately trying to understand bits and pieces of what our club’s secretary was saying to me in rapid Italian.

After finally setting into my new apartment with two roommates, I was told training started in an hour and was given the keys to my new car. This sounds glamorous, but my ride was actually a desperately old Fiat Punto, not to mention stick shift. My roommates insisted that I drive right off the bat in order to learn, so I stalled and screeched sweating profusely as we traversed the city and they laughed hysterically. It had all happened so suddenly: trying to learn a new language, living in a new country, learning to drive stick shift, learning to cook for myself and playing high level international water polo.

Playing was the only thing that came naturally. I had a great team and a stellar coach in Gu Baldinetti. My first game was against Posillipo, ranked second in the standings. Cremona had previously lost to them but upon my arrival we tied them at home. I felt great; I had played my first professional match in Europe and had just tied one of the most historic clubs in the world. The following day I was practicing my Italian with my roommate when he showed me the newspaper and a huge section about our game featuring my picture. He explained to me how Italian papers assign ratings to each player after every game. To my surprise, mine was low, with an added comment that “I couldn’t score”.

I remembered not having shot much in the game but I had also clearly led in assists and played great defense. The season went on and ended with an epic battle against Brescia to reach the semis although unfortunately we ended up losing that battle. After that game I was brought into a meeting with our president who told me that I was only going to receive half of my contract sala-ry. He said that I hadn’t played up to expectations, end of story. What was a 22-year old American in Italy going to do? Thanks to Gu they didn't terminate my contract completely and I re-turned the next year with a greater understanding of the expected role of the foreigner.


Photo: Gertjan Kooij / Beeldboot.

I knew that every time we lost and I didn’t score there was going to be talk about why they should have hired another Serbian or Hungarian instead of some American. I knew that when things went wrong it was going to fall on me and when they went well I would be able to bask in my few fleeting moments of glory. But most of all I knew that scoring meant getting paid. My second season I was the leading scorer in the league along with Vanja Udovicic and continued to play in Italy for the next four years.

After Italy, I signed with Jug Dubrovnik. Compared to the quick style of play in Italy, Croatia felt like a different game. Italy was a driver-based movement game while in Croatia the play was more physical and center-based. I loved it! I felt like my different experiences were making me into the best player I could be. After Croatia I played in Kotor, Montenegro, where the entire city revolved around our games and the age-old club Primorac.

The greatest negative about my time abroad was my vulnerability when it came to protecting and defending myself in regards to my contracts. When troubles hit a club and money started to disappear, as a foreigner I was usually the first to take a cut. This is not to say that most water polo players don’t suffer monetary problems, even locals. But being a foreigner makes it more difficult to understand local legal procedures or to be able to stick around long enough to put up a real legal battle.

I would never choose another path nor do I regret any of my decisions or club choices. My overall experience abroad has made me the person and player that I am today and I will forever be grateful. My big concern is the future foreigner. Between 2005 and 2012 the average salary in Europe was high enough where putting my life on hold was worth it. Even when my salary was cut (or not paid at all) I was still able to save reasonably and live well.

Now, it’s not the same. There are very few of us outside of Europe that can make a living playing abroad. Most athletes end up having to ask their parents for money or find ways to make cash besides playing polo just to make ends meet. Even I, as one of the veterans of the sport, haven't lived at home since 1999, don’t own a house or a car and have my few belongings scattered around the world. This is the reality if you want to play at the highest level.

Now that I am nearing the end of my professional career, my goal has become to aggressively help water polo become a stronger sport that can support a wide variety and diversity of players. We can accomplish this goal by joining together to create unions such as the Water Polo Players’ Organization (WPO) and by growing the sport in countries outside of Europe such as the USA, so that we can create more competitive leagues that provide serious players with the chance to make a real career out of water polo.

Visit www.waterpoloplayers.org for more info on the WPO.

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