Top Five Stories from 2021: No 1—Hard Truths Require Tough Water Polo Leadership

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Editor’s Note: The end is already here for the 2021 water polo season. TWp looks back on the five biggest story lines of the year. Today we focus on what challenges from the previous year will carry on into 2022.

This year will be pivotal for American water polo for a number of reasons. A post-Olympic year, there will be an examination of the results at Tokyo last summer—even though USA Water Polo leadership has already signaled its approval of the current course of the men’s and women’s national teams.

A huge settlement due to alleged sexual abuse will have multiple impacts on USAWP, likely including increase insurance rates—with costs passed along to member clubs. There is new leadership at the organization that oversees polo in America, as well as sad times for programs shuttered due to COVID-19, which has yet to be eradicated. And a challenge to us all: transparency is best no matter what may be revealed.

Sticking with Krikorian and Udovicic

With three gold medals in the past three Olympics, including a dominant run at the 2020 Tokyo Games, it makes absolute sense to continue with Adam Krikorian, who has helmed the women’s squad since replacing Guy Baker in 2009. The choice to retain Dejan Udovicic for another Olympics is debatable, but with a short turnaround—and reduced expectations—this is entirely understandable.

[Is Continuity Best? Krikorian, Udovicic Re-Up for Paris in 2024]

The biggest issue for this coming year, especially for the national governing body for polo in America, will be leadership. And, on this front, there’s reasons to be concerned that the organization headed by Executive Director Chris Ramsey may fall short. Especially as it comes to the 2028 Los Angeles Games—the biggest moment for the sport in America since the games in Los Angeles in 1984.

Biggest insurance settlement in water polo history yet crickets from USAWP leadership

The biggest knock against both Ramsey and his organization is the $13.85-million-dollar settlement last June to alleged victims of sexual assault by former International Water Polo Club coach Bahram Hojreh. In total, two law firms represented 13 alleged victims in suits against Hojreh, USAWP, his former club, and the Irvine Unified School District.

[Settlement of $13.85M Reached in Civil Suit Involving Water Polo Coach Bahram Hojreh]

These alleged victims—Hojreh has been accused and a criminal indictment has been filed against him but he has yet to be convicted—had the same hopes and desires as the 13 women who represented the U.S. in Tokyo. They are now consigned to anonymity, their comfort being the money that Manly, Stewart & Finaldi wrangled out of USA Water Polo’s former insurer.

It might be expected that such a disastrous incident would entail a leadership change. In this case, despite calls by many long-term polo supporters, many of whom were outraged about how Ramsey allegedly ignored the warning signs about Hojreh’s potentially criminal behavior. And the organization’s statement places the decision to settle—after Ramsey emphatically claimed that USAWP would prevail in court—squarely on its insurer, stepping back from the blistering criticism his organization has received.

[Statement from Manly, Stewart & Finaldi Regarding $13.85 Million Settlement against USAWP]

Surprisingly, the organization’s executive director has not only weathered this storm, but he also appears firmly in charge after a significant leadership change in his board of directors. Still, Ramsey’s high-profile detractors—some of whom have been involved in the sport for half a century—are not going anywhere.

[Water Polo Olympians Start Petition Demanding Removal of USA Water Polo CEO, Board Chairman]

New board chair, same message: stay the course!

There was a leadership transition at USAWP, which was little noticed except by those who follow the organization. Mike Graff, who was part of the group that restructured the organization in 2006 amid financial concerns, stepped down from leading the USAWP board for the past 15 years. Bill Smith, Graff’s long-time collaborator, is now the board chair.

[A Moment of Truth at the USA Water Polo General Assembly?]

Given his many years in Graff’s shadow, it will be interesting how Smith—who is as diplomatic as Graff could be, well, gruff—imposes his vision of where the organization should go. Given some of the challenges the organization faces, now would be an ideal time for Smith’s vision—even if it’s a rehashing of what USAWP has focused on the last two decades—to be articulated.

A different future for a signature event

Last July, the national JOs were held after being canceled a year earlier—the first such cancellation in the event’s decades-long history. Due to pandemic restrictions, only teams in California were allowed to compete there, as competitors from outside the state were banned. This led to a bifurcated tournament. Teams from the Golden State competed for their regional championships, while the rest of the country descended upon Dallas for a separate competition.

[A JOs Wrap-Up and Positive Signs for Fall in The Northeast]

This arrangement made such sense that it will continue in 2022. The only question: will there be some variant of a “JOs playoff” to ensure that the best teams from outside of California earn a chance to play the nation’s best from the Golden State—a key consideration if the sport is to expand from of its West Coast stronghold.

JOs held in Dallas, Texas for the first time ever. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

Monmouth College water polo disappears

There have many COVID casualties, it’s been hard to keep up. One of the absolute tragedies was the elimination last year of Monmouth College’s DIII men’s and women’s teams. Parents were understandably outraged regarding the demise of programs that their athletes had been recruited to attend. However, once head coach Peter Ollis resigned in July of 2021, the pressure was on Scots Athletic Director Roger Haynes to find a qualified replacement.

[Monmouth College (Ill.) Drops Men’s and Women’s Water Polo]

Perhaps if there wasn’t the additional complication of beloved Monmouth swim coach—and assistant water polo coach—Tom Burek succumbing to COVID-19, perhaps Haynes could have focused on a replacement. But, for a small liberal arts college three hours outside of Chicago, finding a coach who would continue what Ollis had spent the previous five years building was more than the Monmouth’s AD could accomplish in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, what’s to prevent the elimination of other polo programs, especially as issues surrounding money in collegiate athletics—specifically NILs, “name, image, likeness—roil the budgets of non-revenue sports?

Then there are the Vavics…

There’s no individual who engenders more reaction among the most devoted American water polo fans than Jovan Vavic. The winningest polo coach in NCAA history—and one of the most successful in all of collegiate athletics, Vavic has been fighting for his legal life, the result of allegations from the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.

[Operation Varsity Blues’ Jovan Vavic Intends to Fight His Charges In Court]

At least Vavic’s fate will be decided this year in a Boston courtroom. The treatment of his sons Marko and Stefan remain open-ended. The two Vavics have not touched the water for competition the past two years despite being listed on the USC men’s polo roster.

Marko (cap) & Jovan Vavic after winning 2018 NCAA title. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

The Trojan legal department must be afraid that allowing head coach Marko Pintaric to play two of his best athletes will lead to an NCAA investigation concerning eligibility.  Whatever the reason, it can be said that that cautious approach cost USC a national championship. A 13-12 loss to Cal in last month’s NCAA final can be directly attributed to forcing Marko—an Olympian and therefore one of our country’s top players—and his brother to sit in the stands while their Trojan teammates squandered a late two-goal lead.

[NATIONAL CHAMPIONS! Cal’s Men’s Water Polo Team Defeats USC For 15th NCAA Title]

Compounding this situation is the silence surrounding their absence—so much so that during the broadcast of the 2021 NCAA final, there was no mention of either Vavic. A recent inquiry to the Trojans’ athletic compliance office resulted in a response that despite being in good academic standing—and with no acknowledgement of any athletic infractions—both Marko and Stefan were in fact ineligible this season.

But no one will say why.

It should be noted that David Roberts, chair of the NCAA Committee on Infractions, is listed on LinkedIn as Vice President for Athletic Compliance at USC and recently served as the Trojans’ interim Athletic Director.

Apparently, Vavic’s sons are being punished for the crimes their father has been accused. Is this a situation that polo fans are comfortable with? Is it one we should accept going into a momentous new year when so much is uncertain—including a new round of positive COVID-19 cases due to the arrival of the Omicron variant?

If there’s one thing that’s needed a year after COVID almost wrecked polo, it’s understanding how this great sport can best reflect the passion of those who support it—and how USAWP leadership will confront hard truths so as to make polo the sport we all hope it can be.



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