Munatones on Water Polo in California: Lockdown is Absolutely Crushing

munatones-family-DEC20

Editors Note: Since being published yesterday, the following interview has undergone further edits—the most important of which is that reputable professionals Steven Munatones knows have assured him that a properly chlorinated pool environment is safe for aquatic activity.

As California endures yet another spike in COVID-19 cases, causing Governor Gavin Newsom to enforce another round of restrictions upon the Golden State’s 40 million inhabitants, water polo-loving parents like Steven Munatones have stepped up efforts to salvage the sport that they and their children love.

It’s continues to be an uphill battle.

The latest shutdown threatens club and high school play for months to come, but Munatones, whose twin daughters Sofia and Sydney play for Los Alamitos High School, has searched far and wide to continue his kids development in a sport he played as an undergrad at Harvard.

Part of a family of polo players—in 2019 son Skyler  completed his polo career at UC San Diego, where he was a four-year starter and helped the Tritons to the 2018 NCAA Final Four—the elder Munatones recently traveled with his daughters and their Los Alamitos club team to Salt Lake City for the 2020 Salty Splash Classic, where Los Al captured first place in the 18U girls bracket with a 9-8 win over SoCal rival North Irvine.

In a recent conversation with Total Waterpolo, Munatones spoke about various pressures on California students and age group athletes due to coronavirus concerns, the challenge of polo play in a state in perpetual lockdown and how grass roots efforts are leading the way as parents and coaches throughout the country sustain the sport despite a deadly pandemic.

– What is the emotional impact of no polo play for top California high school players?

It’s crushing, it’s absolutely crushing. Coaches, teammates and parents are doing all they can to help kids in high school and college get through this.

It’s doubly crushing because many of them are not going to physical school. They are taking virtual classes—as we know, the student-athlete experience has dramatically changed. We are in a new world and we do not know if school and sports will return to the traditional model or [if] the academic and athletic experience has forever changed.

In the case of some schools, they have hybrid education—a combination of both online classes and shortened on-campus classes, which out here in California means you’re going two or three or four days a week. They are going into schools in ways that are very different than when you and I went to school. Masks are a given, and your school desk is actually wrapped with plastic shields. Your teacher is either in the classroom or—in a really strange situation—the kids are in school and the teachers are Zooming in.

Given the scenario, competitive athletes like water polo players are facing an issue where their whole structure of practices, camaraderie, hard work with teammates, hell week, you name it—is gone. Out here in California, almost every weekend, there were tournaments for a period of time during the off-season. These no longer exist. The usual Friday, we drive out or Saturday we get up early and you’re going to play two or three games with your teammates, you’re going to eat in between games; all that fun and challenge and camaraderie is gone with no start to the season confirmed.

Early on in March this year, it was, okay, who knows how long it’s going to be, maybe a few months. Then that stretched out to the summer, then JOs were moved to possibly be held in December. That went by. NCAAs were going to be held in a certain period; that goes by. The California State University school system which includes schools like Long Beach State and San Jose State, and then the UC system with [schools like] UC Irvine, UC San Diego, UC Davis, UCLA, Cal-Berkeley, they have been in various stages of practicing and not practicing.

Hoping and then not hoping.

Skyler Munatones compete for UC San Diego. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

It has to be impacting many kids’ motivation—and their dreams. Outside of those clearly outstanding players, how can colleges recruit [athletes]? Learning about players is on film and talking with coaches and perhaps alumni who have seen the players; a lot of sophomores, juniors and seniors—specifically junior boys and girls—this is their year to shine and be noticed.

Whether you’re a coach from Brown, Harvard, Bucknell, George Washington, or any of the schools in California— and, everybody else—the opportunities to see California kids in person is gone.

In a great move by other states outside of California—Florida, Arizona, Texas, Utah, in particular—they’ve stepped up and expanded their tournaments and filled a huge gap. Tournaments open up in Utah and they’re immediately filled up. They even have college coaches calling to ask if they enter their teams as masters’ teams.

[The Games Must Go On! Water Polo Tournaments in Florida, Texas and Utah Fill Age Group Competition Gap]

Imagine a college football player; if he played every single game from freshman to senior year, they have 44 – 48 games total. Same in water polo, those juniors and seniors are literally counting the weeks and years and missed games. [They go]: Oops, I’ve only got one year left, or do I even have a year left—if you’re a fifth-year senior.

The NCAA gave [them] an extra year. That’s a lot of money and sacrifice for a kid to stay an extra year if they go to a private school. That’s an extra $50 – $70,000 dollars that they will have to come up with. That’s a huge commitment.

– At the high school level how do you gauge the desire for competition—especially in California—and looking outside of their states for tournament play? And, does this create a hierarchy of haves and have nots within the sport?

Going out-of-state is the only alternative for California teams right now – though some people may think travel is being irresponsible and reckless. Parents and players are caught in a world of differences and mixed messages. There’s two options right now. No play in California or travel. That’s true for wrestling, baseball, basketball, and every other non-collegiate, non-professional, youth sport.

Water polo is just one example. On every level, the exodus of athletes, parents and hopes from California to neighboring states has been large and is growing – even with the Governor’s recommendation for a 2-week quarantine if athletes travel out-of-state to compete.

What you said about the haves and have nots is absolutely true. Driving within California—even from Northern to Southern California—is not that costly. It does take time to drive here and there, whether it’s an hour or three hours, from San Diego to Santa Barbara or Los Angeles to Orange County or even occasionally from Southern to Northern California. But it’s within reason.

If you go to JOs, you have to include the price of a hotel for a [few] nights. Now, California kids have to go to Arizona, Texas or Utah. That’s a little more money; in fact, it can be a lot more money if an air flight is involved. Some teams can arrange a bus, and everyone goes together, which is good. Coaches, parents and teams appreciate maintaining a bubble if you can, keeping players together—minimizing the time they are in other environments.

The kids also enjoy that travel. How much fun is it to travel on the weekend with your friends to a neighboring state—especially during lockdown when they haven’t seen many of their friends outside of sports. Psychologically it’s a great opportunity, and the haves can do it frequently.

For the have-nots, it becomes difficult. Unfortunately, depending upon what the parents’ household income is, if you owned a restaurant or some sort of retail establishment that has been shut down or restricted, all the sudden that family income can’t support their previous lifestyle.

Exceptional play and safety marked the 2020 Salty Splash Classic in Utah

But, parents will do what they can for their kids and to support their love of the sport. But, there’s a big difference with driving if you’re in Southern California to San Diego for a game versus flying to Utah. You have the additional cost—and tournament directors in Texas and Utah are doing a very good job, they’re [requiring] rapid testing before [tournament play]. That’s $49; you’ve got to do two tests, which is the responsible thing to do. They take the [RT-PCR COVID test] which is the gold standard. They all get the swab up the nose and you get the result in a few days.

Then you get the rapid test before the first game where they prick your finger [antibody finger-stick test]. The kids and the coaches understand that we’re playing under these new standards which means there’s now no captains meetings, teams bring their own balls. They don’t have much a warm-up time—two teams are playing, they exit the pool, and then the next teams come in.

The teams know to maintain their own bubbles throughout the tournament. The Utah tournament directors have done an excellent job demonstrating what we should be doing. There’s no changing of benches; if you’re on the south side of the pool, you stay there all four quarters. There is no shaking hands after the game—that’s eliminated.

But the kids are playing just as hard or harder—they’re so happy to be playing after nine months off.

– So, where are we now when it comes to California polo?

There’s so many unknowns. Will there be a season? If the kids knew a proposed 2021 schedule, it would be much easier. But no one knows and the start date has shifted further and further in the future which makes planning, recruiting, training and motivation more difficult.

– In 2019 FINA had a trial test for beach water polo at the World Championships. Is beach polo a possibility in California to keep competition alive and keep spirits up?

Absolutely. Now, I don’t think many people will do it while the water is cold in the winter, but as a fun alternative to out-of-state competitions, and if everything remainss shutdown, beach polo is a possibility. The ocean’s a little too rough; it isn’t flat like in Croatia or the Mediterranean. We do have surf here. But we do have Newport Harbor or Long Beach Harbor; there are enough pockets where the kids can get in a flat-water bay area.

Also, it also goes all the way down to San Diego in the Mission Bay, just north of the gigantic naval station down there. There are pockets where you can play—over 50% of the teams of teams along the coast during the height of the lockdown played.

Our team has two inflatable goals. We float them in the bay; it very much reminds me of a California aquatic version of pick-up basketball games in New York City. Kids from Long Beach, California were shooting around—no coaches—a dad had an inflatable goal. The word got out and all of a sudden two or three Olympic guys would show up. It was terrific because you’d have these kids who would never in a million years imagine shooting around with an Olympic player—and that’s what it was.

CIF has 10 sections within the California Interscholastic Federation. The biggest one is Southern California, and there’s 565 high schools that belong to that Southern Section. Then there’s San Diego section, the Northern California sections, Central California sections and a variety of smaller ones.

The Southern California Section and the schools around the Bay Area are the hot beds of water polo. The Southern Section has announced that water polo will run from January to March—that was announced 2 – 3 months ago.

Last week they announced that they still don’t know what will happen but CIF will not delay its high school water polo season beyond March. Depending on what the Governor and local public health agencies decide before March, there may not be water polo until September 2021 on the high school level [because of the current lockdown].

The US and Spain met in the first beach water polo competition in the 2019 FINA World Championships

– And there’s no exceptions for this? Hasn’t every indicator shown that if you play water polo outdoors in chlorinated pools there almost zero chance of transmission?

We have not heard of any instances of transmission of the COVID virus in a chlorinated environment played outdoors. Could it be caught in a locker room? Certainly. In a bathroom? Certainly. In other indoor locations going to the game? Absolutely.

Outdoor games in a chlorinated environment may be the safest thing you can do. You can’t go to the supermarket, you can’t visit a gas stand, you can’t even go to a doctor’s office where this kind of scenario occurs.

Do state officials understand that a chlorinated environment is a safe place to play? Is the state being lobbied to understand this scientific fact?Do they realize that the environment where the game takes place is safer than anywhere on land?

I doubt it.

From what I know and have been told by professionals in this field, a chlorinated environment is safe because:

  1. The chlorinated water itself kills pathogens
  2. The humidity over a pool makes it hard for airborne pathogens to be disseminated in the same manner as
    in non-aquatic environments
  3. The chlorine gas traces above the pool water has a disinfectant action.
  4. If a virus were in the air above the water and it did land on your face, as soon as you put your face back in the water, the chlorine – essentially bleach – would render it harmless.

– In the vacuum, there are two possibilities. People lay back and wait for someone to do something, or people like Shawn Stringham in Utah creates an epic tournament and gets almost 600 participants to produce double negative tests. Where will things end up in California now? Will Chris Ramsey, CEO of USA Water Polo lobby on behalf of the organization’s membership so kids can safely get back in the water?

The emergence of a visionary with creativity and leadership will be from the grass roots like Shawn. It will not be Chris Ramsey. The reason why is: grass roots always tends to be more creative. Shawn, who is a father of water polo players, got into this because of his kids—he and others see opportunities for their kids and their teammates – so they develop opportunities.

[Stringham on Utah’s Salty Splash Tourney: Did it So Kids Could Play Water Polo]

These leaders take full responsibility for their actions; I’m sure Shawn discusses risk with his wife and his fellow parents. I know in our case [that] we have parent discussions. Most parents understand their children are playing in an outdoor chlorinated environment in California, under strict protocols, and judge it is safe. No one is going to do anything dumb. The kids aren’t going to a concert or a political rally. They’re playing water polo with their friends who also have eliminated their visits to retail locations.

Olympus Head Coach Shawn Stringham with daughter Amelia

The grass roots is willing and capable of accepting responsibility. When you’re head of a governing body, your actions could impact somebody down the line that you cannot control or even envision. I think every governing body is fearful of liability and doing the wrong thing, they are understandably cautious and want to make sure every scenario is thoroughly thought out as they protect the sport and their own organization.

So in this vacuum of action, either real or perceived, they sit back; whereas at the grass roots level, especially in a vacuum, some parents and coaches feel compelled to do something. Anything positive for their own children.

USA Water Polo is in a unique position among governing bodies; so much of its membership located in California where the state has shut down youth sports. They are locked into not being able to do anything – without a timetable for action.

[First-Ever Cancellation of Water Polo Junior Olympics Underscores USAWP Financial Challenges]

That has got to be tough; waiting seems to be its logical alternative. But time is ticking for the athletes, especially the juniors and seniors. The timetable for governing body administrators and players are on two different realms.

I was happy to hear St. George [in Utah] and Nick Baba—the biggest tournament director inside of USA Water Polo—is helping out and is getting involved.

I imagine these tournaments in Utah, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Texas were mostly regional tournaments, with 10-12 teams. With the shutdown of water polo in California, there is a strong possibility that the demand at the 12U, 14U, 16U, 18U and masters’ divisions will increase. Nick, who organizes the JOs with USA Water Polo, has that practical experience.

Especially if the NCAA men’s and women’s seasons are cancelled, the impact for 2024 is going to be devastating. Long-term, this will impact the Olympic side of the equation, but the hopes and dreams of a lot of kids and coaches will also be impacted. There may be a continued exodus—but I am hopeful that clubs, pools and entrepreneurial-minded parents like Shawn will continue to step up.

Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center during the 2018 JOs. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

There’s approximately 30,000 kids in California—that’s 75% of the market—who don’t have an opportunity to play. Not all 35,000 are going to another state. There will be a portion who will just quit the sport, flat out. There will be another portion that can’t afford to go anywhere. But there will be at least half of that number who are willing to play.

It’s interesting; the state of California has different regulations depending upon where you live. Different school districts even have different regulations. In my area, what the school districts can do are very different. Some school can pass together, some schools cannot even practice. That alone creates its own haves and have nots.

– Let’s apply that to the national picture. The West has dominated the rest of the country since the sport took hold in the U.S. but now with areas outside of California able to practice, might we finally see the possibility of narrowing the talent and competition gap throughout the country?

If I’m a decent to very good player in any of those states—water polo is a game where you’re always comparing yourself to someone else. If you’re swimming, passing the ball, playing defense, getting more and more experience, especially at the high school ages….

The really big difference between athletes in sports like baseball and water polo if they have more opportunities to play against better competition. Many of the California kids have over 400 competitive games under the belt by the time you get into college—sometimes many more. For those kids with 400 games experience, they can anticipate the game just like a second baseman who has played 400 games in California. They know what to do in every scenario.

Let’s say you played high school ball in Wyoming, and during your high school career you’ve played 50 games. In the game of baseball. Compare that to a California baseball player who is playing travel ball year-round. California water polo players are like those baseball players; they’ve seen many scenarios in their careers which makes them better. Especially for those sophomore, juniors and seniors in high school, one reason why California has been the cream of the crop is because they’ve been able to play year-round against top competition under the guidance of experienced coaches in outdoor pools.

Sofia and Sydney Munatones (front row, left and right)

Now, those opportunities are taken away from them and they’re not able to utilize pools as much. Some of the key advantages that California players have always enjoyed are wiped away.

For players from Greenwich, or St. Mark’s School in Dallas, now is a great time to train and compete and get better relative to your competition. Those kids in California always have opportunities to compete more than you. But, guess what? Now the tables have turned.

I have to hand it off to a parent like Shawn; he saw this. In the 18U girls’ division, there were 16 teams and 10 of the teams were from California. The Utah teams were playing so hard, in their local pools, it was like they were playing at JOs. They had been playing in their own pond. Now, these big fish from California came to their pools—[teams] which had not trained as much, had not played a game in nine months, and they were rusty.

Depending on the length of the ban against youth sports in California, there will be a significant leveling of the playing field. It’s not only that kids [from other states] will get better, but also the development of the kids from California is being severely impacted. These years between 14 and 18 are absolutely critical. Players like Johnny Hooper and Ben Hallock are the type of players who were able to hone their skills between the ages of 14 and 18. They got to a certain level and continued to push themselves in college.

Now, you’ve got this group of 14 to maybe freshman and sophomores in college. It’s a wash for a year. It may take them another 6 – 12 months just to get back to where they were. Essentially, they will have lost two of their most essential years. Those critical four years were where Hooper and Hallock developed into the players that they are—but half of that time is now potentially wiped off the books for this generation, at least in California.



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