History of water polo

In 1869, the members of the Bournemouth Rowing Club in England, set out to create a game similar to soccer, but in the water. What they came up with – “football in water” – would later be known as water polo. In 1870, members of the London Swimming Club agreed on a basic set of rules for the sport, and the first official match is said to have taken place in 1874 at Crystal Palace London. The game derives its name from the fact that in the early days, players rode on floating barrels made to resemble horses. The players had sticks and swung at the ball – hence the name, water polo. The first international water polo game was played in 1890 between England and Scotland. In the next several years, the sport was introduced in a number of countries in mainland Europe and became particularly popular in Eastern Europe. In 1897, the first set of American rules was developed by the Knickerbocker Athletic Club. Three years later, in 1900, water polo appeared on the Olympic program for the first time, in Paris. Along with soccer, water polo was the first team sport to be included in the Olympics. Men’s water polo has been contested at every Olympics since. Women’s water polo was added to the Olympic program in 2000.

Leaders in the pool

Hungary owns the most water polo medals in Olympic history, closely followed by the United States. The Hungarian men have won an impressive nine medals, including three straight between 2000 and 2008. While the U.S. men have only earned one medal in the past 24 years (silver in Beijing), the U.S. women have collected four straight medals. The Americans are the all-time medal leader on the women’s side, closely followed by their rivals from Australia, who own three medals. At the 2012 London Olympics, the Americans edged Australia in the semifinals and then defeated Spain in the gold medal final to capture their first Olympic title in the women’s tournament. California native Maggie Steffens led the tournament in scoring with 21 goals and was later named the international federation’s Athlete of the Year in women’s water polo for 2012.

Let’s get physical

Physical contact is the rule rather than the exception in water polo. More than most team sports, water polo is played under the constant control of the referees. Whistles blow incessantly during a match and the foul rules are one of the most important aspects of the modern game. Water polo is unique in the fact that other than for a five-meter penalty throw, the whistle does not stop play. The whistle actually initiates play by indicating a foul that awards a free throw to the team fouled. All players except the player awarded the free throw continue to work for an advantageous position so the player with the free throw may get the ball to them without impediment. Even with an ejection foul, play continues. The team with the free throw will look first for a fast break advantage, but if it is not there, they will set up their extra man offense to take advantage of the ejection foul.