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San Francisco Tsunami Water Polo was started in 2000 as an
inclusive LGBTQ masters team.
From the beginning, Tsunami Water Polo has attracted women and men who are visceral,
fun-loving, smart and ready for anything.
While the ability levels of our players range from new recruits to college stars, we all share a love of a collective physical and mental effort that sets us apart from the more individually focused aquatic sports of swimming and diving.
Water Polo is not a sport for loners; we must be able to constantly telegraph our thoughts and movements to our teammates. While this is difficult enough to do on land, the ability to sense a passing opportunity while struggling against an opponent halfway underwater makes the sport truly challenging and unique.
The story of Tsunami Water Polo is more than just a timeline. It is the story of a group of players who have taken the lessons of the game to heart and applied them to the development of the team itself. From Tsunami Polo's humble beginnings in 2000, when we bobbled along the three-foot-deep bottom of Hamilton Pool during the staff's lunch break, the team has grown to over fifty members, hosted an international competition at one of the finest pools in the world and recently placed second at Gay Games IX in Cleveland, OH.
This didn't just happen. Those who have been Tsuanmis since the beginning know the reason for the success of the team, and it has everything to do with the quality of the people we have attracted and the level of energy they have applied to the growth of the team.
The Early Years
Sometime in 1999, team founder Jim Ruggiero received a phone call from Felipe Munoz, who was lamenting the fact that no gay water polo team existed in the Bay Area. The last SF team - "Homopolo" - folded in the late 1980s, and while a number of other American cities like L.A., D.C., Philadelphia and New York had successful gay water polo teams, San Francisco did not. In early 2000, missing his former polo team in New York City and wanting to reestablish gay and lesbian water polo in the Bay Area, Jim posted a signup list at a Tsuanmi Swim workout.
About 15 people expressed interest. A few of those people met and parceled out tasks: John Metallic found pool time; Felipe Munoz prepared a coaching plan; Melissa Morandi offered her expertise as a polo instructor at the Golden Gateway Swim and Tennis club.
Soon, the team found free pool time at Hamilton Pool during the lunch break each Saturday at noon. We were underway. The team coached itself for a few months, with Jim, Felipe, Melissa, Mark Harlow, Eric Terreri, John Wright and Rodney Kerr volunteering to coach. Workouts were simple, chaotic and often involved a game of sharks and minnows to finish off the hour. Jim met Todd Aghazadeh on a rafting trip in the summer of 2000 and invited Todd to join as a player and coach. The team even briefly hired coach Randy Sabbagh, who at one point coached the Philadelphia polo team and who helped us out for a few months.
The team roster continued to grow, thanks to personal recruiting and help from the Tsunami Swim team. Many of our most loyal and loved players joined during this first year, including Beth Burkhart, Mike Frick, Andrew Harper, Steven Aronowitz, Christina McCall, John Kennedy, Larry Fry, Scott Shafer, Tyler Schnoebelen, John Lum, Rolf DeVegt, Virgina Alber, Roger Wery and Lelia Shunnar.
We officially became Tsunami Water Polo that summer. Potential team names were tossed around on the way back from a college game at Berkeley. Other candidates included "AquaNettas", "Fog Fags", "Sea Monkeys", "Vicious Flounders", "Storm Surge", and "Narwhals" (the diminutive long-toothed whale that has become our unofficial mascot), but a vote conducted by Scott Shafer affirmed that the team wanted to join with the swimmers under the banner of Tsunami.
The fledgling Tsunami Polo entered its first sanctioned tournament in February of 2001 in Seattle, WA. We were in an open division of 15 teams and placed dead last. John Lum endured about 30 three-on-zero fast breaks because our players were unable to negotiate the never-before-seen 30 meter course. We had a lot of fun, and took pride at our title of the worst water polo team west of the Rockies. There was, after all, nowhere to go but up.
The Road To Sydney
The next two years saw Tsunami Polo mature into a legitimate water polo team. We entered our first IGLA (International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics) world championships in Toronto, Canada, in 2001, with two teams and some new talent, including Chip Conley (a former Stanford player), John Domine, Christina McCall (USC) and Mike Slyter. The A team placed fourth, and the B team introduced new players to the reality of water polo competition. In September, we hosted our very first polo scrimmage during the Tsunami Swim Team's Swim SF meet at the Burlingame Aquatic Center.
Energized, growing and financially solvent, Tsunami Polo began a year-long effort to prepare physically, mentally and financially for our biggest goal yet: participation in the 2002 Gay Games XI in Sydney, Australia.
The out-of-pool teamwork was astounding. Todd orchestrated a series of "Splish" fundraising parties and organized our first Tsunami de Mayo sanctioned tournament (which has now matured into one of the best-run local tournaments in the Bay Area); Scott Shafer ordered snappy team suits; John Lum offered his studio for a fundraiser and secured us regular pooltime in the newly-build Martin Luther King pool; Chip Conley donated time at his properties such as the Red Room and the Phoenix Hotel to use for fundraising rallies; Steven Aronowitz orchestrated a fundraising campaign that raised $25,000 for coaching, pooltime and travel; Andrew made t-shirts; Beth organized cooperative scrimmages with Mills College; Tyler organized an incredibly successful fundraising raffle; Rich Herling organized key social events; Ryan Bazeley and Christina McCall stepped up to be Tsunami's first official paid coaching staff.
The amount of effort, cooperation and energy leading up to Sydney brought the team together, and allowed our two full teams to travel to Australia fully prepared. The A- team placed third, earning a Bronze medal, and the B team played beautifully. For a team only two years old, Tsunami Polo was doing pretty well.
San Francisco hosts IGLA at Stanford University
The next year saw Tsunami Polo grow into a formal sports organization. Until this point, Tsunami Polo had been unofficially led by founder Jim Ruggiero. After Sydney, a team committee, under the supervision of Felipe Munoz, drew up bylaws, and the team elected its first board of directors. Tyler Schnoebelen was elected President, leading the rest of the newly-elected board, including Todd Aghazadeh, Beth Burkhart, John Kennedy and John Lum. The formal leadership helped Tsunami cope with its growing numbers and prepare for its largest challenge yet: organizing the water polo portion of the 2003 IGLA Championships at Stanford University.
Over a thousand swimmers, water polo players, divers, and even synchronized swimmers converged on Palo Alto's Stanford University August 22-24 for the annual IGLA meet, hosted by San Francisco Tsunami Swim and Water Polo. Water polo enjoyed the largest gathering at an IGLA event ever, including a tournament of women's matches, a first for IGLA.
Sixteen open division teams, from US cities Chicago, San Diego, West Hollywood, New York, Seattle, Washington DC, Atlanta; Canada's Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto; even two Australian squads (Sydney and Melbourne), guaranteed a diverse array of talents - and accents - among the over 250 athletes. Tsunami fielded three open teams and a women’s team, a record that has yet to be surpassed. Todd Aghazadeh played a central role in organizing the water polo portion of the event. Tsunami's Virginia Alber-Glanstaetten described her squad as "a mix of women players who played in college and high school, and aren't regular players."
She said that Oakland's team calls themselves 'The Grey Hairs,' "But they're really solid players in terms of consistency." She credits Tsunami's Beth Burkhart for having made "an incredible effort to get women together, and making it happen." Tsunami women finished 3rd in overtime, beating L.A. on a last-second buzzer-beating amazing shot by Beth Burkhart. The women's championship game was played in front of a crowd that probably equaled that of an NCAA championship, and featured college-level play from lots of former stars and national team members.
That game led to an even bigger crowd for the men's IGLA polo championship, pitting the heavily favored West Hollywood A team against the Tsunami A squad. In a closely-fought game with seemingly the entire crowd cheering for Tsunami, the home town boys suffered a narrow defeat. While the sting of defeat at the hands of our SoCal rivals was bitter, it was reassuring to know that after just three short years, Tsunami was in contention for IGLA gold.
Passing the Torch
Since 2003, Tsunami has continued to grow and mature as a team and as a group of friends. Over the years we have had the fortune to be coached by some of the best players in the game, including
• Inna Fedoseyeva (first team All-American, San Jose State)
• Scott Pegg (player at UC Berkeley and coach of Burlingame club team)
• Lex Georgiou (player at Burlingame club team)
• John Joyce
• Spencer Dornin (3 year all-American and team captain, UC Berkeley; USA national team 2001-2007; professional player in Hungary, Italy and Australia)
• Aditya Prabhakar (player with MIT collegiate team)
• Jon Weiner (collegiate club head coach at UCLA and Williams College)
• Erik Koland (player at Los Altos High School).
The team has continued to travel and compete internationally at annual IGLA tournaments and at the Gay Games, including trips to Chicago (2006), Copenhagen (2009), Honolulu (2011), Seattle (2013) and Cleveland (2014). 2015 will mark the 15th anniversary of the annual Tsunami de Mayo tournament in early May. The story of Tsunami Water Polo is by no means complete. It is now up to the young guns on the team to document our unfolding history and carry on the great Tsunami traditions of camaraderie, hard work and a fun-loving spirit.