Despite little mainstream recognition, water polo inspires among its devotees a passion that often spans generations—a telling example of which is the Mujica family’s the long association with the sport. Agustin Mujica, the family patriarch, first became involved with the sport in the late 1970s, when his oldest son Gus started playing as a youngster in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Agustin’s five children—all boys—would go on to play polo on the island and also in the United States, including his third son, Jean Pierre, who played at Chicago’s Loyola University for two years before the program was shuttered in 1989.
After completing his studies at Loyola, “JP” as he’s known, returned home, married and had children. Lured into coaching by his children, his opportunity to succeed were greatly enhanced by the pool at the Encantada housing complex, which his father built in Trujillo Alto. Enacatada’s Olympic-sized pool is one of the city’s best, allowing Mujica to develop a robust age group program.
Much like his father, who helped organize polo at the 1979 Pan American Games held in San Juan as well as the 2010 Central American Games in Mayaguez, JP rose through the ranks of the Puerto Rican Swimming Federation, which oversees men’s and women’s polo on the island.
Along the way, the younger Mujica learned an invaluable lesson: there’s no money in polo. To maintain his program’s success meant countless unpaid hours and often picking up his athletes’ tab for travel and meals. But, with sons who played and a desire to see his club succeed, JP Mujica persevered. The highlight of his efforts came at the 2018 Central American and Caribbean Games, when he coached a young Puerto Rican men’s team to a bronze medal finish.
And then, he was out. Willo Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican who is the head men’s coach for West Valley College in Saratoga, California, was tapped to lead the team Mujica had helped build to the 2019 Pan American. Dismayed but not discouraged, Mujica bided his time, and his patience has paid off. Earlier this month he was tapped by Federation President Fernando Delgado to lead the Technical Water Polo Committee (TWPC), the top polo position in Puerto Rico.[West Valley’s Willo Rodriguez on The Past, Present & Future of Puerto Rican Water Polo]
Total Waterpolo recently spoke with Mujica about his new position, his efforts to restore Puerto Rican water polo to a place of prominence in the Caribbean, plans to host the 2022 Central American and Caribbean Games, and the Mujica family’s enduring commitment to polo in their country.
– When you mention the Mujicas, you’re talking about one of Puerto Rican water polo’s legendary families. In assuming leadership of the Technical Water Polo Committee for the Puerto Rican Swimming Federation you are continuing your family’s polo great tradition on the island.
The first thing is, my dad was really proud for me to be in a position that he was in 10 – 15 years ago. He also was president of the TWPC. My brothers—they asked if I have time, because they know I have put a long time into water polo development in Puerto Rico. All my brothers and my dad have already asked: How can they help?
My dad has come out of retirement to lead a group I set up to develop international tournaments on the island. He has experience—he ran the water polo part of the PanAm Games in the Dominican Republic in 2007. He ran water polo in the Central American Games here in Mayaguez 2010.
One of my brothers in the States told me he’s also willing to help develop water polo in the island. Another one wants to become a coach, so he’s getting involved.
Another has set up a group of ex-water polo players to hold activities, such as a golf tournament to raise money for water polo programs in Puerto Rico.
And, probably in 2022 we’re going to host the Central American Games. It will be good to have people involved who know the sport and who have the experience that I can learn from.
– So many parts of the world have been devastated by the virus, and Puerto Rico has had an extended share of misery. Natural disasters, the COVID-19 situation and political issues. Now is an opportunity for polo’s renewal by people who really care about the sport.
I’m reaching out to everybody that used to play or had some involvement in the sport, even, Dr. Antonio del Valle, also retired. They all want to be part of it. After Hurricane Maria, a lot of people left and some of the top clubs closed. We were down to three water polo clubs, when we used to have six.
At the beginning of 2020 we had the earthquakes in the south; after that COVID-19 struck. So, it has been very tough the last three years. There’s still some pools closed since Hurricane Maria in 2017.
At this moment, we’re planning with all these collaborators. Any one that is willing is accepted to be part of the water polo development on the island.
– Fernando Delgado is the newly-elected president of the Puerto Rican Swimming Federation. He brought in Manuel de Jesus, a well-respected former coach, to advise him and now has selected you to run the TWPC. How do these moves create the right atmosphere for polo to flourish?[Special Report: Puerto Rican Swimming In the “Toughest Fight in the History of Our Island”]
From the beginning, it has been a great relationship. He has given the support that we need from the Federation and the greenlight for a couple of projects that we want to do, He has also helped getting more people involved.
This is going to help a lot on the development side because of having support from the president of the Federation is essential. Even though he’s more involved in swimming, he used to be a water polo coach. He brought water polo to the south of the island 30, 35 years ago. He knows water polo and knows how to start programs.
– One thing Delgado mentioned is giving autonomy to individual disciplines—polo, synchronized swimming, diving, swimming—because from a financial standpoint, you need to have access to whatever funds you raise.
That’s fundamental and basic—to have the funds that we raise available for the sport. [Delgado] has shown that the he wants to keep to the path that he promised on giving autonomy to the different sports. We have set up a financial group of people. Alfonso Fernandez and Juan Aguayo are some of the collaborators.
We can raise more money and have a better communication if the Federation will let us use the funds that we raise for water polo programs. Of what we raise, not all is going to be for water polo, but probably most of it—90, 95%—is going to be used for water polo development on the island.[Delgado] has only been [in office] four months, and the pandemic [will] not let us do the things we want, to reach the autonomy that has been discussed. But, he has shown that he is going that way, that his leadership supports that. It will take one or two years until we reach something that’s really efficient to manage with the autonomy we’re expecting.
– Big tournaments like the Olympics are both an athletic event and a huge tourist attraction, but given the impact of the virus, how difficult will it be to host CACGs in 2022?
If we can host them it would be a great celebration. It will be good for the Puerto Rico economy. It will be good for our culture. It will be good for our sport, we need to market it right, and prepare our teams to be at the podium. The investment is not going to be high, like it was in 2010. The outcome of the economic impact on the island would be great. Who doesn’t want to come to Puerto Rico to watch some games and have fun in the Island?
It will be a celebration for our sport just to go and win a medal in our backyard.
– One of the things that’s interesting about the impact of the coronavirus on sports throughout the States is that some clubs can play and are doing everything they can to keep their players involved. But many cannot.[Munatones on Water Polo in California: Lockdown is Absolutely Crushing]
California is struggling to keep polo alive, but in Florida, parts of the Northeast and in Texas polo is being played. How is it for polo in Puerto Rico? Can your athletes training now allow them to catch up to some of the better regional rivals, including Cuba and Mexico?
It’s really good for us if the East gets close or to the same level as the West, because in a rebuilding time it’s easier for us to collaborate with the East. We just jump in the plane and in two hours we are in Florida; in three hours we are in Philadelphia. New York is four hours [away].
It’s less costly for us to go to the East and try to play more because to get that gold medal what we need is more playing time. The problem is, we live on an island so we can’t take a bus. If you’re in South America, you just take a bus in Brazil and you’re in Argentina,
We can’t do that. You have to jump in a plane. So, it’s not cheap, it’s expensive to play. If we can get that level up on the East Coast—we’ve been trying to set up an international league and play with teams in Miami—we can have more playing time; that will help us get that gold medal that we’re looking for in the Central American Games.
Our players are getting back in the water, and some of them have being playing to be in shape for our next international tournament. Teams in California are not playing so we’re trying to keep [those players] that are in California in shape. Because we need them for a qualification tournament is this year; we also want to bring that qualification tournament to Puerto Rico in August.
I have my dad and a couple of more people working on that. I don’t think there will be a problem for us to qualify, but we need to get into shape. We need to show the government that we are in the hunt for a gold medal, so they can invest more money on our team. And we have to show our also our ex-players that we are committed.
– If you are to host, what facility would the qualifier in August be held at?
It’s the Albergue Olímpico [Germán Rieckehoff] training center [in Salinas] which is run by the Olympic committee on the island. Or Mayagüez, which is where the Central American Games will take place if we host, The Olympic Center makes most sense because we have room and board and the pools.
We can do a tournament under FINA protocols of a bubble, because we don’t know if in August everybody will be ready with a vaccine. We need to have a tournament that [works as] a bubble, and that [location] will be perfect because we can control access, we can control the COVID test. It is all in one place and they’re already working with a bubble system there.
So, it be easier for us to implement that in the facility.
– This is all predicated on athletes getting back in the water. How important is it that college programs in the States start up play early this year—when you consider that the development model for Puerto Rican players is to have them compete on the mainland and come back and represent the island in international competition?
That’s a bump on the road—temporary for one or two years. We’re trying to develop more competition on the island. We want to set up a high-level league here. We’re thinking four or five franchises like basketball. We’re talking already with the Olympic Committee to do ti. We need to do that because we need to have something to present to the clubs and the kids when they’re in high school so they can look into where they can play later on if they cannot make a university in the States.
Now, it’s difficult because there’s no games. We need to give them something that they can look forward to. Where they’re going to be playing during or after the high school.
– How do you see that happening? Is it a parent initiative—where they will literally fly to Miami so their kid can practice?
Right now, we want to develop a process and competition on the island. And you mention it’s very hard to find water in New York, find water in California. We’re an island. We’re surrounded by water. One of our goals is to set up regular beach water polo tournaments on the island. I’ve been reaching out to people [like] Maggie Steffens, Tony and Ricardo Azevedo. I talked to him about a month ago because they have their aquatic games in Long Beach. [Ricardo is] a long-time family friend. He came in with his team 10 years ago.[On The Record with Ricardo Azevedo, Former US Head Coach, Now Advising Brazilian Water Polo]
They want to help us. I have to find the people that want to collaborate, and we can develop something together just to have activities for the kids here. Then we can send them to play a tournament in Miami. Or have teams come to the island to play against us.
The COVID-19 situation now is not as bad as in California or other places in the States, We hope in January they let us get back in the water with more flexibility to start competing in two or three months because we are already getting the vaccine.
We should be at 70% in the summer. This is the planning phase for us right now. We have to be ready with tournaments, competition, things available for the parents, the coaches and the athletes. We signed an agreement with Barcelona International Water Polo Academy and Quim Colet to develop our coaches. I already have 20 coaches sign up for the first session that started this month.
We want to have the coaches develop the athletes and have pools available everywhere on the island.[Dispatches from Spain: Quim Colet of Barcelona International Water Polo Academy]
We want to have the coaches develop the athletes and have places everywhere on the island—any pool that’s available.
– There’s been a drop-off of interest from talented young athletes in Puerto Rican water polo and swimming, Sports like baseball, basketball and soccer have siphoned off athletes who typically would have gotten in the water. How will you and others reverse that trend?
We need to do a lot of publicity to let people know the sport. We’re talking to three, four or five school so they will start a program or at least have games and show them on YouTube or Facebook live. We need people to see the game.
That’s why we’re focused on beach water polo—we want to have goals at the beach so individual people can go there anytime they want and shoot on the goals. So, they can know the game. We can set up in the swimming clubs or other pools and the schools having swimming classes for water polo.
We have to know how to send that message to the parents and the kids.
– You mentioned Maggie Steffens; how much do you expect her to assist in this effort to revive polo in Puerto Rico?
We’ve been talking about how Puerto Rico can be a hub for beach water polo. You can play beach water polo 365 days of the year in Puerto Rico. You can’t do that in the States. There’s so many places here on our beautiful island. People like Maggie, like Tony, they have already set up a brands for themselves. And if they can help to develop that water polo sense for the people in Isala, I think we can bring in maybe a hundred, 200 more kids into the game[Steffens’ Water Polo Legacy Started with Carlos, Former USA National Team Member]
– This is all to make a new chapter in water polo in the island, and to improve on Puerto Rico’s best-ever finish at the Pan American Games—tied for third in 1979.
If we want to win a medal in the Pan Am Games, we need to work from the age groups to get to that level. Our coache need to teach our kids the right fundamentals. We’re getting there, I mean, we did the right agreement with the Barcelona International Water Polo Academy. First are the coaches—so they can translate that to the kids.
It’s very simple. We have to work as a team as a one, so I’m bringing in all the help that we can , I’m talking to all these experienced people who were part of the golden age of water polo and asking: How do we get back to that stage again? I cannot do it by myself. I need their experience.
I’m bringing in anybody who wants to collaborate with us. The leadership that was there before was not reaching out to them and not seeing that there’s a group of people who are very committed to bringing back the sport as it was before.
All Photos Courtesy Jean Pierre Mujica