Three weeks ago a boon of great fortune was bestowed upon competition-starved California water polo clubs. The Salty Splash Classic in Salt Lake City—a mere 90 minutes away by plane—offered high-level competition for multiple age groups. And the California clubs, currently banned from competition due to COVID-19 restrictions throughout the state, came in droves.
6-8 Elite, Aetos, La Jolla, Los Alamitos, North Irvine, Praetorian, Pride and Vanguard—just to name a few—made the trek to the Bee Hive state for a three-day polo extravaganza [November 5 – 7], a veritable oasis of competition in the competitive desert created by the coronavirus.
The brainchild of Shawn Stringham, head coach for Olympus Water Polo Club, and an army of ingenious parents and dedicated officials, the Salty Splash presented fantastic competition in five indoor venues. A key feature was an almost fanatical dedication to safety. Thanks to a partnership with Orriant, a local wellness provider, and cooperation among all participating clubs, Stringham was able to enforce a double negative standard on all 600-participants, including a rapid COVID-19 test the day of the tournament, to ensure a bubble-like environment for 115 games.
Stringham spoke with Total Waterpolo about the logistical challenges of a tournament with almost 50 teams, the focus on safety and how the Salty Splash represents a model for polo competition in the midst of a pandemic.
– The Salty Splash Classic that you held a few weeks ago in Salt Lake City was a huge success. How many clubs participated?
We had 23 clubs and 44 teams coming from those 23 clubs. We offered 12U mixed. 14U girls, 14U boys, 18U girls, 18U boys.
– But no 16U?
No 16U. Ran out of pool space [even though] we were in five facilities.
– Should we look to Utah when seeking alternatives to Junior Olympics!
You should always look to Utah for alternatives to JOs. [Laughs] It is the largest tournament that we have done. The original concept was eight teams for each of the different divisions—but the entries just kept coming.
We ended up with eleven 18U boys’ teams and sixteen 18U girls’ teams. 14U boys ended up with seven teams and then five teams in both the 14U girls and 12U mixed. And it ranged; in the two weeks leading up to [the tournament] I was up to eight teams in all of them [but] some teams had to drop out with COVID concerns.
The whole field wasn’t set until the night before the tournament.
– You mention COVID-19 concerns and—based upon what I see on your website—you were meticulous in requiring absolute certainty that all participants were virus-free.
I insisted on two COVID tests for all participants.
– You required a double negative for participation in the Salty Splash? How did you get all participants to comply?
A week before the tournament, they had to have a negative RT-PCR COVID test which is the gold standard of COVID testing. When they came to check in, they needed to bring proof of that test—a paper or digital copy with their name and the word “negative” next to it. Once they got to the tournament hotel for check-in the coaches presented rosters of everyone. We went through, double-checked everyone’s negative test, and on-site we had a rapid-response antibody finger-stick test that we administered to all of the teams.
Once we received a negative on that they got their credential to play and they were able to participate in the tournament.
We did 592 tests—athletes, coaches, officials—and they were all able to participate and enter the tournament bubble.
We had one coach, one referee and four athletes who tested positive on that rapid-response test. In partnership with our lab we had them complete a RT-PCR test on Thursday night. They were holding a batch for us so they could turn around results in six to eight hours. All those tests ultimately came back negative.
– That’s astounding. Do you have a staff of a thousand volunteers to manage all aspects of this?
I worked nonstop for six weeks to make sure all logistics were done leading up to that moment. I have a fantastic crew of parent volunteers for our club that I could not do without. We followed an event plan down to the minute and it worked out.
In the week leading up to the tournament there were lots or reminders to the coaches that you bring your negative test [results]. This is when you’re going to come to check in, so they had an assigned time between Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon that they would be there, in 30-minute time blocks.
The organization that I worked with to do rapid-response tests had four different stations in the hotel conference room. It was process flow, doing the math, making sure everyone stayed on time.
On top of that you have to get to your game, get ready to play and all the stress that goes along with that.
– How did you handle spectators?
We did allow spectators. All of the facilities that we were playing at were indoors and have spectator areas. We followed the Utah High School Athletic Association guidelines which was 25% of capacity in the building. Each athlete that was playing was allotted two spectators.
We allowed 30 spectators per team—a total of 60 spectators—and used a ticketing system. We had 115 games over the three days and within that parents were able to go online and reserve tickets. As spectators came into all of the facilities, they would show their tickets to get into [a particular] game. They would get a temperature check and lots of signage to be sure they were symptom-free, and then could go into the spectator area.[2020 Salty Splash Classic Tournament Master Schedule]
After each game, we created one-way traffic patterns that allowed spectators to leave immediately after the game. We didn’t allow the next game’s spectators in until the other spectators had departed.
– The players are accustomed to following directions but how well did the parents and spectators complying with the protocols put in place to keep everyone safe?
In Utah, we started playing the last week of August, so we had the opportunity to do our fall league. All the parents who were coming in, if we had said: You have to do a handstand the entire game in order to watch your kid play water polo—they would do that!
I don’t think I saw any friction… we occasionally had to do a mask reminder, but the parents were so grateful and excited to have their kids play. It was a unique experience just from the gratitude that they were able to [watch their kids], that it happened and we were able to pull it off.
I intended to set a national example that we can play this game, be safe and get kids playing the game—while maintaining everyone’s safety.
You can never eliminate all the risk but you can mitigate it to a point where it’s manageable.
– You talk about the need for kids to play. With California teams unable to compete in their state due to COVID restrictions. Is it imperative that Florida, Texas and Utah fill the gap for polo competition?
For ten years, I’ve been wanting to get clubs to pay attention and come to Utah. I knew that if I put together the best polo tournament they’ve ever participated in—and I know [California teams] can participate in all of the best tournaments down there and not leave the comfort of their home—for them to jump on a 90-minute flight to Salt Lake City and have a spectacular experience… to have clubs like Vanguard and Pride and North Irvine and Aetos ask: When are you going to have another tournament; we’ll be there.
To me, that is the gift: they can leave California and have a great experience! That’s awesome.
As a Utah club, I have to go to California [for] high-level play. For my kids—the Olympus kids, the Kearns kids, the Park City kids, any athlete in Utah—to be able to see and play against Los Alamitos and Pride and to compete with them in their own pool?That is what charges up those kids to go and get their buddies to come and play water polo. And help us grow the sport in Utah and outside of California.
The California clubs were very gracious about the opportunity to play. Hopefully they’ll recognize Interstate-15 goes in two directions.[The Games Must Go On! Water Polo Tournaments in Florida, Texas and Utah Fill Age Group Competition Gap]
That to me is a great point and something hopefully we can change. I love going to California to play water polo, and I hope they love to come to Utah to play water polo—and take advantage of the things we have here.
– The JOs experience is amazing—you cannot believe that so many people in America play—and love—water polo. But, it’s important to divide up the map of the country and get teams from the West to travel outside of their comfort zone.
We’ve worked as a coaches committee with the Utah High School Water Polo Association on two things. First, if you’re recruiting a kid to play water polo as a sophomore in high school, it’s too late to be competitive. We as a group of coaches have said, let’s grow youth programs.
Right now, we have more 14 and under playing water polo than we do in high school. That’s a beautiful bubble—they’re good and they’re getting much better. We’ve invested in USA Water Polo training and gone to holiday camps. Olympus, my club, has created relationships with 6-8 Sports—Maggie Steffens, Tony and Ricardo Azevedo. They’ve come in and done trainings for us.[When Tony Comes to Town: Azevedo in Connecticut, Talks Polo with TWp]
I think it’s fair to say across all 23 clubs playing water polo in Utah, we want our kids to train the same way kids in California are training. I’m a firm believer that a 14-year-old is a 14-year-old. You see some of the California kids, and there are some big boys and girls, but if we train the right way and give them the right technical and tactical base, they’re going to be able to compete—and we saw that this weekend.
My 14U girls had a great opportunity and played into the gold medal game against North Irvine—beating a couple of California teams to get there. California [teams] can say: I can go to Utah and there’s going to be a challenge. And there might be some tears because they expect to roll over some Utah teams.
The Olympus 18U boys team beat a California team to advance in the top tier; there’s some great competition there. And, that’s exactly what we need: for California [clubs] to think they can come here because it’s a great place but because they can get great games and experience the hospitality that Utah has to offer.
One of the other really successful things about the tournament is we went out and live-streamed as many of the 115 games that we could staff. They’re still there; you can go find them. The parents or grandparents who had to stay at home—especially in a COVID situation, can still be involved and see the game.
Following the footsteps and advice of Greg Mescall and John Abdou, we have to make it more accessible to the world. For a kid to know that if he plays water polo, his games are going to be live-streamed on YouTube, they are all in for that.
I had 20 – 25 college coaches reach out to me to thank me for live-streaming these games—it gave them the opportunity to see kids play and look at them. I listen to a lot of water polo podcasts and what Steve Carrera’s doing, whats happening in Texas, Tony’s podcast and the Near Side Low—I’ve been trying to pull the best things and ideas from across the country that’s happening into this event.
– You mention Mescall and Abdou. How much was USA Water Polo involved in the planning of your event?
They were super supportive. As soon as they canceled JOs, [they agreed] to support opportunities for people to play where local governance allowed competition. That week I submitted a sanction [plan].
They weren’t involved in the day-to-day organization of the brackets. Ryan [Cunnane] the national events director sent me a couple of texts [about] things to think about and I felt very supported. I had a great relationship where I could shoot them questions.
I don’t want to say they were hands off; they were observational so as to what they could learn from [our tournament] so they could roll this out to other clubs.
I got text messages about “Great job!” “Way to get it rolling!”
They supported the COVID protocol; they’ve always been supportive of Utah water polo.
– Because of the chlorine factor, it’s possible that polo may be the best competitive sports for kids during the pandemic.
We’ve been playing water polo in Utah since August 27th. In that time, we had 300+ games over that 10-week timeframe. We had kids who tested positive—and they always tested positive because they went to a family event and picked up from a family member or friends—but we had protocols in place so that they sat out the quarantine period of two weeks.[Coronavirus and Environmental Considerations for Aquatic Sports]
In all of that time and all of those games and all of those athletes we had zero athlete to athlete transmission. I wouldn’t put myself out there [with this tournament] if we hadn’t experienced that. Both from a swimming and a water polo standpoint. We’ve had zero athlete-to-athlete transmission because we’ve followed good policies and protocols.
I can think of three or four kids that I’m aware that had COVID and in that case, they went into quarantine and didn’t come back to practice.
The nice thing about our sport is, you’re dipping yourself in chlorine the entire time. For the tournament, we set it up that you’re wearing a mask literally until you get in the water. I had a fantastic parent who built these mask racks that held the counter balls and timeout horns, so all the athletes could hang their masks, jump in the water and—as soon as they got out—put their mask on when sitting on the bench.
We were trying to control for that as much as we can. I’m a parent with five kids, I want them to swim in this scenario and I want them to swim during any kind of shutdown because they’re in chlorine. In my opinion, it’s not going to spread.
I’m not a doctor but one of my very good friends is a PhD in virology and [has said] there is very little chance that it will spread in the water.
I definitely deal with doubters. There are doubters in our own club. Through tenacity and planning they said this is the right thing to do, this was a fantastic model.
– So, when might a tournament like this happen again?
I’m shooting for the first weekend in March. I’m waiting to see what will happen in California for CIF—if they’re doing high school water polo. If that’s the case then I could definitely see it happening earlier than that. I would love to put out an invitation for anyone to join us.
Salt Lake City has a brand new beautiful airport that opened two months ago, and we’re a hub for both Southwest and Delta airlines. You can get a direct flight from Salt Lake to anywhere in the country.
– Given the current COVID-19 situation in your state was there any point where your planning could have been wrecked by a spike in cases?
That is an interesting part of the story. Over the last two to three weeks, Utah has been a hot spot. The cases have risen; they were at a 20% positive rate in their testing. So, this was a concern.
The high school where I’m at and one of the venues for the tournament, they hit the 15 positive cases and moved to online learning. I went to the district and school administration; they were gracious enough to let us play because of the strength of the tournament COVID policies.
Interestingly, we wrapped up the tournament on Saturday night; the Utah Governor [Gary Herbert] called a press conference at 9:30 p.m. on a Sunday night and said: We are going to put a two-week hold on all sporting events in the state.
We were within 24 hours of [being shut down]; if they had done that a week or even the day before we would not have been able to play.
Utah’s a hot spot and what’s amazing is I’ve been following up with all the teams and clubs…even with that kind of scenario, given the controls that were in place, I’ve had zero athlete to athlete cases reported at the tournament.
We feel extremely lucky, and at the same time feel that our preparation meant a fantastic opportunity.