This is the second of a two-part conversation with Ulmis Iordach, head coach at Greenwich Aquatics. In Part I, Iordache spoke about his club’s spectacular results at the recent Futures Water Polo League tournament, where they captured first place in the 14U boys bracket and second place in the 14U girls and 16U boys brackets.[On The Record with Ulmis Iordache, Greenwich Water Polo Coach Part 1]
Despite being the top club in the East, it’s not always easy being Greenwich Aquatics.
But, since its founding 14 years ago, Greenwich’s progressive successes against the West has been unmistakable. At the 2021 Futures WPL tournament in Utah, which has supplanted the JOs as this year’s top national competition, the club scored it’s best-ever results against some of the top California clubs.
And Ulmis Iordache, head Greenwich coach for more than a decade, can barely contain himself.
In an expansive interview, he recently spoke about his club’s great outcome in Salt Lake City, the various shifts in fortune for Northeast clubs during COVID-19, the pros and cons of having three Greenwich parents on USA Water Polo’s national board and how his players’ success has sown envy and perhaps resentment throughout the East.
– Three Greenwich parents are on the national USAWP board, including Bill Smith, just elected as board chair. Yet this was not enough to get your club what they wanted most this year: to compete against the California clubs in national Junior Olympics.
Living in a community like Greenwich, you have people involved at all sorts of levels. It’s great that they are willing to support a sport like water polo.
Without Bill, a lot of the programs in Greenwich would not be around. His drive to grow the sport was probably most seen in Greenwich. But this was an unprecedented year, and Junior Olympics, in my opinion, should have happened for everyone at the same level, whether in California or outside. We always considered this the national tournament, and apparently this year it was not.
We put a lot of pressure on the board members from Greenwich, including Bill, but by the time we were told that California couldn’t host us, it was too late to change anything. I understand now that this tournament would be impossible to be hosted anywhere else. At the same time, I also understand that this is more like a water polo festival than a national championship.
– There’s been a lot of discussion about how regional Junior Olympic in Dallas were organized. Being from the Northeast Zone, is it unfair your club won’t get to play against the California teams in JOs?
My whole thing on this California situation; we tried our best to get in to the California tournament. Obviously, there’s no way we could have gotten into [that] tournament; whatever USAWP knows about the [situation]. I think it was about the pools.
The only thing we felt hurt and upset about was regarding the Texas tournament. It could have been handled more transparently: These are the age groups and the teams we have—then you can make a call if you want to come or not. Instead of forcing us to sign up and then you figure it out afterwards.
When that happens you feel like you’re being taken advantage of—“Get them in and then we’ll find things to do.”
– If the Futures and Club Championships tournaments did not come through this summer, then your top athletes would not have been able to show what they can do?
Yes, pretty much. We would have gone a different route. If we hadn’t gone to Futures and Club Championships we would have gone to Europe and play tournaments there—if we hadn’t found anything in the States.
The college coaches not being in Europe, they would not have known who we are or gotten to see us.
– There’s new leadership overseeing the Northeast Zone, and Kim Tierney-Wang is not involved with the zone in the same way as she had been for many years.
Kim and I work very closely—we spend a lot of time [together] thinking about water polo. The level of commitment from Kim never changes.
Regarding the Zone, everyone takes their turn, everyone comes in with new ideas. I think there’s going to be more good ideas brought to the table.[On The Record with Andy Lewandowski, Board Chair for USAWP Northeast Zone]
The Tri-State League was developed before Kim was zone chair. Kim and the coaches at that time—Kim was the main person and because she’s such an amazing administrator with all the tools to do that—the league had nothing to do with USA Water Polo. Princeton, Greenwich Aquatics, Chelsea Piers and Brooklyn created a local league between our teams that was structured.
Then, we asked all the members to join USA Water Polo for the insurance liability purpose. That’s how it became a sanctioned event for USAWP.
This fall we’re going to start the league for 12U and 14U age groups. Kim is going to do the schedules and the league will keep going.
Kim not being zone chair is not going to effect the league.
– How do you envision Tri-State working with the new leadership in the Zone?
I hope everyone’s going to have a say. Our focus for the league is going to be the 14U and 12U [players]. We’re going to work hard to host games because we have a water polo-friendly facility.
I trust that the other people in the zone will do more for the 16U and 18U boys and girls, because there’s not going to be a league for them.
I don’t know what the Zone is going to do and how they will be involved but I’m sure they’re going to be working. In my opinion the biggest challenge is the facilities. It’s great that Miras [Jelic] has been able to get an amazing pool for Capital, and besides the fact that they have wonderful coaches, that’s another reason why his club is doing so well. How do we get more of that?
Talking about the Greenwich parents, they are our biggest assets. It’s a good program and we have a lot of pool time. That’s one of our biggest keys to success: a great facility.
– There are pools in Pennsylvania, and a robust state championship structure. How might those programs and pools be integrated into the Tri-State League to allow Northeast polo to keep growing?
We used to have in the past teams like Maverick that joined our Tri-State League, but only in the older age groups. It would be wonderful to see some of those Pennsylvanian teams joining with the younger age groups. We know for a fact that they have really good coaches and amazing facilities that can grow high performance athletes. We would be more than happy to see them joining our Tri-State in the younger age groups.[On The Record with Andy Lewandowski, Board Chair for USAWP Northeast Zone]
– Your club generates resentment! People like to take potshots at the best. How do you deflect the criticism that Greenwich is only in this game for itself?
We know what we do. Honestly, I don’t see that much adversity from other people against us. I haven’t seen that much that’s going to affect us. We do what we do and it doesn’t really matter to us.
Regarding the kids and especially the coaches, they’re so dedicated. And they’re not just coaches, they’re referees and are so involved with water polo. We have international coaches—we try to mix [styles].
If someone is criticizing Greenwich, it’s probably going to be one of us. [Laughs]
We try to get along with everyone; I hope that’s the case. We like all the other coaches and clubs [in the zone].
Are we selfish regarding our club? We are; it’s our club and we try to do the best for it.
– You come from outside the Greenwich community—one of the world’s most affluent. Do you find at times that parents are more interested in how their kids do than how well the club competes?
I think it’s the right place for any type of successful program. I’m dealing with kids and parents who want to be very successful. They have a lot of resources—that’s how we’re able to travel everywhere—they want their kids to be competitive and work hard. They want their kids to travel to experience different cultures.
It’s a good community for excellence. The kids, the resources… it goes together.
When I came to Greenwich from Romania—we started the program in 2007—I didn’t know what to expect. In Romania the parents are not involved. We went through the club and the coach was our water polo parent who took care of everything.
Here someone has to pay the bills!
It was different yet very similar. In Romania the goal was to be first. There was no goal to be second. If you’re first everything is given to you; if you were second things were taken away. We grew up trying to be first.
Same thing here; different ways [but] same goal—to be first. Our parents are very competitive.
– Have you run into those parents who expect that their kids should get preferential treatment—even if they’re not the best kids in the pool?
Of course we have parents who think their kids are better than they are. How we work is by the example of the good players. The successful players that we have. We emphasize to the kids that these players are successful because they’re swimming a 47 in the 100.
For example, Charlie Owens. We never discussed college with Charlie. There was no focus for me or for Charlie to play for the purpose of getting into college. It was to play water polo and have fun. And Charlie ended up going to Harvard.[Winning is Contagious: Ted Minnis and Charlie Owens of Harvard Men’s Water Polo]
We’re trying to use those types of examples—players who were just absolutely fantastic through their hard work combined with a lot of talent. Also, other players who just work hard, and give their best, and didn’t play in college Division 1 but played club, and they now come to masters’ practice, they still love the sport.
The parents understand that. They see it objectively and [realize] we’re doing these things for the right reasons. We’re here for the athletes and we’re committed to doing really well.
Naturally some of them will be very successful, and some will not be as successful as they want to be but still be happy.