Editor’s Note: This past February 18 – 20, teams flocked to the Coral Springs Aquatics Center in South Florida after a COVID-19 break last year. The South Florida International Water Polo Tournament—now in it’s 19th year—saw a return to form, with teams from all over the region participating in one of the country’s premier youth water polo events.
After the triumphal return of the South Florida International Water Polo Tournament—after a year off due to COVID-19—Michael Goldenberg is ready for a well-deserved rest. A FINA-certified referee who last summer whistled the men’s gold medal match at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and head coach for the club that hosts a popular age group tournament at the Coral Springs Aquatics Center, Goldenberg is a tireless promoter for the sport. Now, following a year filled with tournaments as well as his bucket list achievement at the Olympics, he’s ready to unwind.
In an expansive interview following the tournament—held annually since its founding in 2003 by Bruce Wigo, Jim Shoemaker and Istvan Csendes—was finished, Goldenberg spoke about staging a major event post-pandemic, the privilege of whistling an Olympic final, and the commitment necessary to hold an event that showcases South Florida as one of America’s most fertile areas for polo.
– You couldn’t hold your tournament last year because of COVID. How was it to deal with that disappointment—and how satisfying is it to host this year?
This was supposed to be our 20th year. Since we missed 2021, it was only the 19th. The one in 2023 will be the 20th.
It’s impossible to host this tournament without solid support. Someone has to deal with logistics [and] make the schedule [which] has to be adjusted based upon different factors. Somebody can’t travel earlier; somebody can’t play late. We have to deal with that. Then there’s concessions, orders for the flags, shirts, tickets—whatever is needed.
Organizing an event like that takes a lot of time and [creates] a lot of nervous energy. After the tournament is over, we all feel fried! But at the same time, you feel happy that you put on another great event.
Our tournament is known for good organization, excellent officiating and for everything we give the kids. That’s why clubs want to come back.
– Who are the folks that make up the team for your club’s event—which sometimes is referred to as “Goldenberg’s tournament.”
No, it’s not “Goldenberg’s tournament!” It is tournament hosted by South Florida Water Polo Club. We’ve been lucky to have a great parents’ group that volunteers their time and makes the event great—as it always is.
There are some parents whose children have graduated from college and no longer involved with the club in any capacity… but the parents still are. That is amazing!
I want to give a shout out to Tony and Janice Lopez and Janis’ sister Terry. They’re responsible for the concession [stand]. It’s not only about the snack bar, but also about who’s working at the gate or at t-shirt sales. But there were other parents involved also.
My daughter Elina is a schedule guru and also does a lot of logistical preparation.
There are so many things that need to be done and without those people success would be impossible.
– To have a club like Socal, one of the country’s best, come back year after year underscores how well run your event is.
We used to bring more teams from California; we had Foothill, Santa Barbara, San Diego Shores. I don’t remember exactly what year but KAP7 started their own tournament on the same weekend as ours. That drew a lot of California teams away from our tournament.
Even though KAP7 moved their tournament to a different weekend, the moment for us was lost. That’s why we continue to work on bringing in teams from California—in 2020 we had Commerce come in.
The last few years ours has become a tournament for the teams outside of California. Clubs who are not playing so many games. You see teams from New York, Illinois, Utah, Colorado, Texas, Washington D.C. Teams from outside of California are always interested to come because there’s not as many competitions.
Besides the competition who doesn’t want to come to Florida in February where we have 75º weather?
– As someone on the East Coast, it’s important to have regional tournaments where the teams who want to improve don’t have to take their lumps from California squads.
I agree with you! The main negative for teams outside of California is a lack of competition. In South Florida, you play each other as much as you want but its more challenging to play teams like Capital, NAVY or Greenwich—all very strong programs. The coaching is different and what’s interesting is that there’s are coaches from the clubs coming to our tournament who are from outside America.
At our tournament there are coaches from Serbia, Greece, Spain, Croatia, Hungary, from former Soviet Union—I’m probably missing somebody. They bring their flavor from countries where they played or coached. So, you can see some things that are pretty cool technically and strategically.
Ours is a true international tournament but we could not have as many international teams this time around because it was difficult for them to plan their travel to the U.S. [They had to] get tested before traveling and would have to get tested before traveling back home. God forbid anyone should get stuck and quarantine.
A few international teams were interested and some registered while others backed out. Every year we have teams from 7- 8 other countries—which makes it unique. When else would kids get to play against teams from other countries?
– COVID still casts its long shadow over things—even in Florida!
Obviously COVID had an impact on our event. Last year we didn’t have a tournament, so it was challenging to keep the tournament at the highest level. That’s always our goal; to keep improving competition.
We had a couple of foreign teams already registered; they had their entry fee paid then backed out three weeks before the tournament—which is late because the schedule was already done. We were able to find other teams as substitution.
We had 54 teams in the different divisions of the tournament. Our maximum is 56—so we were almost at 100%.
– Where there any teams from this year’s tournament that stood out?
Greenwich hasn’t been at our tournament for a few years, and they brought a strong boys’ team. They won the 18U and 16U boys division, and I believe their girls finished up second. They are a very solid program and have been traveling to various competition in California. It was good to have them back.
Usually, we have quite a few Canadian teams, but [due to COVID] they didn’t come down. Usually, we have clubs from Hungary coming over, but they didn’t come for the same reason.
I’m sure as the COVID goes away and peace is in the world, we will be able to bring more teams.
The Rocky Mountain Neptunes team has been here before, three or four times before with different age groups.
– Three pools, 54 teams, 137 games—you’ve got a lot of action packed over a long weekend in one facility.
Coral Springs Aquatics Complex is an amazing facility. The three pools in the same facility are close to each other but at the same time they are separate enough that the whistles from one pool don’t interfere with the others. That’s pretty amazing.
Where else would younger players compete then walk a few steps to watch older boys or girls’ teams play? Unlike the JOs where you’ve got to schlep 40 – 50 miles, in our competition everything is compact.
I have not heard anyone say they don’t want to come back. Some come more often than others, but everyone [leaves] with good memories.
– Alex Donis of Hialeah said that every year you know when this tournament is—and now teams have a year to prepare for the next competition. This includes getting rosters together in conjunction with USA Water Polo.
Our tournament has been USA Water Polo sanctioned from the very beginning [in 2003]. The problems that some coaches had this year—and which our club also had—is that we are dealing with the new USA Water Polo website.
I’m not the one to judge but I think it’s not as user friendly as the old one. USA Water Polo is trying to make the roster and verification process 100% safe. But there are glitches in the program with some coaches and admins have had a hard time with.
But everyone worked through it, and it was fine because everyone had to submit a verified roster for every game—the way it’s supposed to be done.
– You’re a world-class referee who nine months ago was on the pool deck for the Tokyo Olympics. What was that like?
It was amazing. The Olympics are the Olympics. Even though it was not exactly the same Olympic experience as it could have been, the level of competition was amazing!
Given the chance to work the gold medal game in the men’s competition was the cherry on top. It is a selective group and an honor to be a part of that group. I have nothing but great memories from Tokyo, even though we were not allowed to go anywhere besides the hotel and the pool.
We had to do a COVID test every day, so there were unusual things, but everyone made it work.
It had always been my dream to make it there, and it did happen.
– How did COVID impact what happened in the water?
As far as I know almost every team that participated in the Olympics more or less went through COVID. This would take them out of their normal preparation, and would take time to recover.
I’m not sure if every athlete who participated there was at his or her 100%. But I’m sure every national team had the best athletes [there] to represent their country.
Australians were locked down at home and didn’t travel anywhere for almost two years. They just trained and trained at home. But who is to blame them; they did their best with what they had.
Some teams did not peak as well for the Olympics. Italy and Montenegro on the men’s side; they played very well three weeks before the Olympics at the World League tournament.
The difference between winning and losing could be one goal, one bad pass. The level is very high. There’s only one winner; everyone else is a loser.
– The American women won gold but were surprisingly stuffed by the Hungarians in group play.
The team that [the U.S.] had was unstoppable. Absolutely unstoppable. What happened in the game against Hungary, the team made uncharacteristic mistakes and everything the Hungarians did went very well. The result was the score: USA lost the game.
I think it was good for them to lose a game at the beginning of the tournament—and they had time to fix their problems. What they showed in the final game [against Spain] was absolutely incredible. They rolled like a train.
Adam Krikorian is doing an amazing job. He’s a very intelligent coach and a has a great coaching staff—Dan Klatt and Chris Oeding.
– You go from a Tokyo Olympic experience to the Paris Games two years later. Is this too short a turnaround time for the world’s greatest athletic competition?
If you’re talking about me, I’m not going to be at the Olympics in Paris because I’ll be over the [FINA] age limit.
Maybe for spectators it is great to see two Olympic Games in a span of three years. For the teams and the athletes, I don’t think so because it takes time to build a team, go through all the training, for coaches to select the players for the best team possible.
Don’t forget that most of those players are professionals and have a number of games that they have to play for their clubs and for their national team. It takes a toll on athletes and I’m not sure that the team that didn’t have a generation change before Tokyo have enough time to do it right now.
– If there’s a silver lining for a young U.S. men’s team, if they can retain many of their athletes from Tokyo, they should be in a good position to compete in Paris.
That’s a very difficult thing to predict. [Laughs] A couple of things were beneficial for the U.S. men before Tokyo. Number one, there are a lot of young players. Number two, that extra year gave a chance for those young players to mature. And number three, a lot of USA men’s national team [members] played in Europe. So, they had an extra year of high-quality games and playing with and against some of the best players in the world.
That’s a big thing.
Now, a three-year period, I don’t know if that’s going to be enough [for training]. I don’t know who’s going to be staying or leaving. Both teams are in Peru right now to play at the Intercontinental Cup. I saw the rosters that were posted on USA Water Polo. On the men’s side there were two Olympians [Ben Stevenson and Drew Holland] but on the women’s side there was only one from the Olympic games [Amanda Longan]; everyone else was new.
– There are thousands of kids playing water polo in the U.S. Why can’t we have a great pipeline of talent for our men’s and women’s Olympic rosters?
I’m not going to be original when I say that the U.S. does have a lot of people playing and yes, we have a lot of talent but unfortunately men don’t usually mature physically and mentally until about the age of 26, 27 or 28. Not everyone is like Tony Azevedo who at the age of 18 was already playing Olympics.
In the States, the best players graduate from college at 23, 24. If they’re not willing to go somewhere and play pro, making very little money, that means they’re done with the sport.
– After all you and your club have been through the past few years, what is one thing that you expect will stand out the most from this period?
Obviously working the final at the Olympics is a great pinnacle… what is higher than that?! There’s nothing. Doing the finals of the World Championships in 2019 was also a cherry on the top.
I have only a couple of years left for my eligibility as a FINA referee. Maybe after that I can share my experience with younger referees; that’s what I’ve been doing already anyway , but maybe more of that.
You never know.
As for South Florida Water Polo Club, I’m not going to be doing it forever. So I have to make sure that when I step aside the club is safe with coaching staff and stable financially. Our club has the lowest club fees in the area and it is not easy.