This week in the continuing Washington Blade series on the rookies and veterans that play on the LGBT sports teams in Washington, we take a look at the sport of water polo.
The Washington Wetskins returned from the 2015 Stockholm EuroGames a few weeks ago after finishing in fifth place in the competitive division. Their women’s team, the WCAPS also competed this month in the Midwest Open Water Polo Tournament in Chicago where they captured second place.
Marni Von Wilpert’s first three months as a Wetskin weren’t a normal start for a rookie player. She started with the team in September 2014, played in her first tournament in October and was on the board of directors by the end of the year.
Growing up in San Diego, Von Wilpert swam and played water polo on her high school team and at UC Berkeley, she played water polo on the club teams. Her work in civil rights took her to Mississippi where she found herself without a team.
“I really wanted to get back into water polo, but masters’ swimming was the only thing available, so I joined the swim team,” Von Wilpert says. “My teammates knew my passion, so on my last day of practice before moving to D.C., they brought out some water polo balls and we played a makeshift game.”
After arriving in D.C., she looked up the local teams and chose the Wetskins because she liked that they were LGBT-based and seemed to be the most inclusive. Von Wilpert, who is straight and works as an attorney on workers’ rights cases, emailed the coach and began playing immediately.
Even though she had the water polo background, she found herself looking to the veterans in her first few months on the team.
“In theory, I hadn’t played in 10 years and the rules had changed. I was really nervous and was thinking that they wouldn’t want me in there during matches,” Von Wilpert says. “The veteran players on the team step up on a consistent basis to coach and help players like me.”
Von Wilpert has played in several tournaments since re-starting her water polo career with the Wetskins, including an overnight trip to University of Virginia for a women’s tournament.
“I love this, especially the camaraderie between the teams in D.C., Virginia and Maryland and the fact that the Wetskins are so inclusive and welcome players that are new to the sport,” she says. “What kept me coming back last year was the encouragement I received from the other players.”
Some 16 years ago, Mark Osele, who is gay, was new to the sport. He had always heard that if you weren’t good at competitive swimming, then you would never make it in water polo. A friend convinced him otherwise and he suited up.
His sports background from Pittsburgh included high school track and field and playing sports around the neighborhood. After arriving in D.C. 26 years ago, Osele tried swimming but ended up turning his focus to water polo.
Osele, who works in the U.S. Patent Office, is now a seasoned veteran and has tournament experience with the Wetskins from all over the world including Paris, Sydney, Seattle, Stockholm, Reykjavik and Toronto. He has his “big tournaments” earmarked through 2018.
“There are teams that are more competitive than the Wetskins, but we have more fun,” Osele says. “That’s the ideal. Even when we lose, we are just happy to be with each other and to play with each other.”
As for interaction with the rookies, Osele says that it is kind of an expectation that the veterans will step forward to help the new players.
“We have announcements at every practice and the rookies are identified and welcomed. The veterans know to engage with them,” Osele says. “It’s important to let them know that we want them there and that they aren’t holding us back.”
As opposed to some of the other area water polo teams, the Wetskins are a “teaching” team. For weeks they will work on a particular element such as swimming, passing, shooting, offense or defense skills.
“We have a great coach but the veterans do some assistant coaching, refereeing and filling in as goalies. It helps to keep the practice running smoothly,” Osele says. “The team as a whole is only going to get better if everyone gets better.”