Chelsea Piers Cuts Youth Water Polo due to Covid


Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of articles and interviews about Chelsea Piers age group water polo club. For eight years the club has operated under the Chelsea Piers Connecticut (CPCT) umbrella until the program was cut two weeks ago.

The news is still fresh, so it’s impact continues to shock. After eight years, the age group water polo program at Chelsea Piers Connecticut (CPCT)—the successor to Terry Lowe’s wildly successful Greenwich Water Polo Club—is no longer under the CPCT banner. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which saw the organization furlough 90% of its staff and suffer tremendous financial losses, water polo was cut.

[Read More. Curses: Polo Cutback in Connecticut]

This is not the end of the line for a club whose history stretches back four decades; a core of dedicated parents and supporters are determined to rebuild the program’s fortunes. There is even some sentiment that this shocking turn of events will reinvigorate a club whose fortunes—and membership—had noticeably declined.

Several individuals connected to the story are quoted here and include Greta Wagner of CPCT; Terry Lowe, founder of the Greenwich Water Polo Club; Bill Smith, founder of Greenwich Aquatics and a USA Water Polo board member; Ken Vincent of Buxmont Water Polo Club, and a couple of current Chelsea Piers parents. In addition, Swimming World has published interviews with Scott Schulte, new director for a reconstituted Chelsea Piers club, and Paul Ramaley, the club’s head coach. USA Water Polo has posted an interview with Andrew Lewandowski, head coach for a rival club to CPCT.

Greta Wagner, Executive Director, Chelsea Piers Connecticut

Statement regarding the elimination of age group water polo

Due to the COVID-19 crisis and the economic challenges most businesses are facing, we have had to take a very close look at all of our lines of business and make some hard decisions. One of these decisions is that Chelsea Piers Connecticut will be discontinuing the Water Polo program. We have many robust teams competing under the Chelsea Piers banner and our resources and attention need to be focused on a smaller number of teams at this time.

MR – I have heard that this season there were approximately 33 athletes registered.

There were less than 30 players registered.

MR – How many CP programs in total were dropped due to Covid-19?

We are still not opened for the majority of our programs. We have thousands of athletes competing under the CP umbrella with some teams having in the hundreds from beginner level through the highest level of athletes. Evaluating programming is an ongoing process.

MR – Besides Paul and Jimmy Ramaley, what happened to Sam Bass, Win Bates, Edward Moss and Claire Baxter, who also worked in this program?

We have had to furlough or let go of hundreds of employees due to COVID-19.  We do not discuss human resource issues on specific employees. The water polo team is a group of extremely talented and dedicated athletes, we wish them the best of luck moving forward.

Terry Lowe, Greenwich High School Swimming

MR – The Greenwich age group program had existed with your leadership for quite some time. What happened around 2010 – 2012 in regard to a new Chelsea Piers CT complex hosting the program?

For the time that Chelsea Piers was rebuilding the factory that they eventually ended up in—creating the incredible athletic facility at Stamford—we were in negotiations with the leadership there to move our program there. To have a true “home pool” instead of always being on the move; in the past we had used up to five pools to run our program in whatever hours we could sneak out in those pools.

We were delighted to have a new facility open up where the program could have a home base in which to operate. It’s been eight or nine years that it’s been there. It moved over to Chelsea Piers and we initially put it under the leadership of Nathaniel Miller, who came down from Canada to coach for only one year or two before he had to go back to Canada. Paul Ramaley then took over the program and has been head coach ever since.

MR – For a successful polo program, you need athletes, coaches and pool time—and it appeared that the Chelsea Piers program had all three and more, given the fantastic facility they had in Stamford.

My guess is—and I’ve been divorced from the program, so anything I say should be taken lightly—my impression is that they were not able to build the numbers up to the level they hoped for. They wanted to expand membership, which is [mostly] Greenwich located, into the rest of Fairfield County. And I guess the numbers were always borderline.

What happened in this Covid-19 period is Chelsea Piers ended up really studying all the programs they’ve been running at their facility and found that [they were] losing money on the program.

It’s a Chelsea Piers program—though I’m not on the inside—it’s my impression that they will have a program operating out of Chelsea Piers but will be an outside program renting hours at [the facility] to continue the program.

It may end up being about the same as it was, but as an outside group using Chelsea Piers as their home facility. I believe they’re starting practices this week with their regular coaches—and they have a solid coaching staff. And a good share of their kids are planning a return to play polo.

MR – You’ve obviously had a big impact on polo in the state…

I think you could basically say I’m the father of water polo in Connecticut. I initially started it at the high school and then I started it in our summer league. After it had grown in our summer league—our summer swim league consists of 32 different private clubs—I started it there, and when it grew to be over half of the league playing polo at three different age group levels [of] coed polo then we started the Greenwich program on the basis of the youth programs that were playing in the summer.

I started from high school to the local summer league competition and to Greenwich Water Polo as their regular USA Water Polo team. it branched off; the YMCA built [a pool] then Chelsea Piers built—two really solid programs.

MR – Does it sound reasonable to you that there are more than enough polo athletes available in Connecticut that both Chelsea Piers and Greenwich Aquatics should thrive?

I think that’s true, but I think that both programs are going to say we want a strong, independent program and we’re not going to be leeching off each other to do that.

The vibrancy of polo in this area is really dependent on those two programs existing and maintaining some sort of competitive balance around here. Other than that, it’s travel all the time. Just having local competition has always been a big boost to the sport. It’s grown here not only to cover the high school program, it’s gone into Brunswick and other schools as well.

We need that growth—we need to have a good, solid base, and having two really good programs is vital to the continuation of polo at this same level of success. Without the Chelsea Piers program, even the [Greenwich] Aquatics program is going to find itself struggling for good local competition and struggling to maintain numbers.

MR – When the deal was made with Chelsea Piers, did you have a sense that this would provide the program you spent years building with a home in perpetuity?

Yes, we did. And, we also liked the location of the program, because having everything so Greenwich-focused left the other communities of Fairfield County out of it. Having the program located in Stamford, which is a bit more central to the other clubs that have summertime polo—we thought that Chelsea Piers would be a natural place to [have] it grow.

Bill Smith, founder, Greenwich Aquatics

MR – The Yankees need the Red Sox; Duke needs UNC; doesn’t Greenwich Aquatics need a strong Chelsea Piers program to continue its development as the Northeast’s strongest program?

I’ll start, more from a top-down [perspective], and part of this is wearing my USA Water Polo hat. There is nothing good about not having the Chelsea Piers program. I can’t think of anything that’s good [about this]. Clearly there are some players who will be moving over to Greenwich Aquatics, and it’s abandoned athletes who are looking for a home.

This isn’t anything that Greenwich Aquatics wants, looks forward to or relishes that we get some wonderful athletes who were at Chelsea Piers. That’s not even on the table.

Will they accept players? Yes, because they’re there and to say that they’re out of the sport, your program’s done is… People say [that] the most obvious thing is they’re losing the pool. It’s more than that. We’re losing a wonderful program. I agree with your analogy with the Yankees and the Red Sox; the only way that we can grow on the East Coast or other spots is to have great competition.

If you look at the spots where there’s thriving competition—in California they can have high-level games, three or four a week. If you’re a top-flight team, unless you’re playing your best you’re going to lose the game. Winning games by 20 [goals] against lesser opponents doesn’t do anything. You want to have top-flight competition.

The two things that drive me the most: growing the sport and increasing the level of competition outside of California. I want to increase it there also but clearly there’s a skills-gap between California and the rest of the country.

I want to increase the number of kids and the level of kids who are playing. The only way you can increase the level of play is to have consistent competition.

MR – Is it that there is not continuous, upwards growth of the sport, especially in the Northeast.

I don’t believe that for one minute. As far as the penetration of water polo within the Northeast Zone—we have 11 states, and I don’t know where we rant among the other zones, but clearly in size of number of people playing [polo], our zone compared to other zones is at the bottom.

If you look at the population of our zone—as defined by USA Water Polo—24% of the population of the United States of America exists in the Northeast Zone.

For me or anyone to say that we’ve peaked… there’s tremendous opportunities [here]. Two things you need to grow are: coaches and pool time. Local clubs encompass both of those.

Losing a club like Chelsea Piers is bad on both fronts. We want to have more clubs and more kids at a higher level.

MR – Chelsea Piers had all the right ingredients for success—great facility, location, access to competition—and their polo program is now floundering.

Paul Ramaley and others would have better insight on [this]. I know there has been a lot of discussion within USA Water Polo and with others to say: What can we do to turn this around? I’m not sure that there’s a clear path for this, but I believe it relates to the owners of the pool. That’s Chelsea Piers corporate.

I truly believe there’s the potential for that program to be a thriving and profitable club. It’s trying to convince the powers that be who made the decision that there may be some way for [the club] to step back in. I don’t know the ultimate answer but at least personally I’m not giving up the hope for us as a sport to be part of that facility.

MR – Given your position with USA Water Polo, do you feel like you personally have leverage in this situation?

Having run my own company, I know that if someone came to me and said: You have to do this—I would look at them and say: No, I don’t!

It’s about demonstrating that it would be in [Chelsea Pier’s] interest to continue with [polo]. I believe this is a business decision—I’m not privy to all of what went on but I don’t sense that anyone is against the sport. I don’t know the answer right now but if there’s a business solution where Chelsea Piers could be enticed to make another shot at this, I think they might do it. But, I don’t know for a fact, and there’s a lot of conjecture in that statement.

MR – How do you see the virus playing out for the sport in our region over the next few months?

I’ve been humbled so many times making predictions about what’s going to happen with Covid-19 and what the impact is. Most everyone did the same thing; we thought we’ll be out by Easter, it’s only a little cold… all that kind of stuff.

It’s been so much more than anyone’s ever expected. I could say what I think right now but next week could change. I’ve been humbled so many times because I’ve been so wrong. I know how we’d want stuff to be going; certainly, as far as youth athletic dollars, you might say: What does this mean for youth sports in general?

We’ve lived through depressions, recessions… besides basic food and that sort of thing, the last dollars spent by families are on the future of their kids and making sure that they develop. And I believe that youth sports is a key part that will not go away—and there’s a strong desire to keep that in place.

I can’t think of a better vehicle for this, primarily because it’s a team sport where people have to work together. The lesson learned from water polo, our sport that I love so much, there reason to be optimistic that the sport will continue.

I don’t know what or when, but it the cure comes next Thursday—we’re back to the races!

Again, I have no idea, and I say that with a lot of [humility] because I’ve been wrong so many times.

Susan Miller, Chelsea Piers Parent

The bigger story is the spirit and resilience of the parent board and coaches and how quickly they picked up and turned the whole thing around! This Sunday, July 12, they start a summer camp, buying pool time from Chelsea Piers (reluctantly) that brings 33 players together 4 times a week. It will increase to 5 times per week if 10 more players sign up!! They are looking for pools in CT to move to in the fall, and will rebrand, etc.

Ken Vincent, Head Coach Buxmont Water Polo

MR – [On the] importance of the venue at Chelsea Piers; what happens when it’s not as available as it has been in years past?

Certainly, Chelsea Piers is a critical venue for the Northeast Zone of water polo and the development of additional water polo in the Northeast. We have always looked at Chelsea Piers and a couple of other—what I would call the stakeholder facility and programs throughout the Northeast—to be a focal point for development of new teams and programs. Chelsea Piers has been that over the course of many years.

Losing the facility at Chelsea Piers is going to hurt the progress of [water polo], which is one of the fastest growing sports currently in the Northeast prior to our Covid national emergency.

MR – But the Chelsea Piers program was not as well subscribed as in previous years—and it appears that the coronavirus situation only exacerbated what was a declining program.

In all the programs that we see over the years, there appears to be an ebb and flow in the interest from the local area in subscribing athletes to the program. We see that natural ebb and flow. It’s true that in the last couple of years they were not at the height of their history, but at the same time they still provided a significant program to a significant group of young players in the Connecticut area and beyond.

I think that perseverance is very important, and it’s difficult sometimes to have our sponsoring facilities and organizations to have the perseverance.

They often times look at numbers and numbers alone… and not at potential.

I still believe that Chelsea Piers has potential. They have the facility, they have good people and I see no reason why that they would not be rebounding and moving up quickly.

A Chelsea Piers parent board member who requested anonymity

MR – What is the reconstituted structure for water polo club now that Chelsea Piers corporate is no longer in charge?

We are now an independent program that is currently renting pool space.

MR – Your club goes from being an in-house program to rental tenant. How does that work?

It’s basically a transactional relationship, as opposed to a substantive relationship. We have a six-week conditioning program to use the pool at Chelsea Piers five days a week across our age groups. We’re still evaluating what we’re going to do as a program starting in the fall.

MR – From the standpoint of a competitive balance in the region, how important is a strong Chelsea Piers program?

It’s critical, and the Northeast Zone in the past 25 years, has taken the approach that a rising tide lifts all boats. The more programs we have, the better for the sport, the better for the zone—and better for the zone in comparison with the rest of the country, because the dynamics of California versus the rest of country are alive and well, just as they were 30 years ago.

MR – When you look at how USA Water Polo has been involved in this zone, do you see that their presence is making a critical difference?

It’s hard for me to answer the question about looking retrospectively, but I think this is going to be an interesting inflection point to say how [USAWP] steps up here. Scott [Schulte] has had a number of conversations with USA Water Polo at various levels, and they have expressed a commitment in being supportive at a variety of different ways. We’ll just wait and see how that works.

MR – Your club is now in a window of six weeks; there may be a silver lining in this crisis but not a happy one. It’s possible that there’s no high school competition this fall; does that help you as the program restructures?

For our program, and I believe Scott has said this, the old adage [is]: when a door closes a window opens. We’re very much in that situation. While it was shocking what occurred to the program a few weeks ago, it may be beneficial to us because it allows more time to get our program in order. And, to create the vision that Scott has for the program. The absence of a high school season could give us a respite to get that in order.

MR – What is the value of bringing in Scott Schulte to run this program?

It’s a program-changing event. He has the expertise, the credibility—both as a player in a career that was second to none and running the New York Athletic Club program for a long time. His relationships both in U.S. and international water polo are top-notch. He’ll not only bring in a new vision for this program, but also open up opportunities for kids that they otherwise wouldn’t have had previously.