If you take a walk along the path beside Austin’s Town Lake on any given evening, you’ll likely find people engaged in various athletic activities. The runners and boaters probably won’t give you much pause. But, under the MoPac bridge, you might come upon a cluster of kayakers engaged in a mini-naval battle.
“What is this?” you’ll ask yourself. “Are they reenacting Trafalgar?” And then it will dawn on you: “Hmm, they’re playing water polo in kayaks.” You’ve stumbled upon Texas’s premier kayak polo team, the Austin Aquabats.
Canoe polo, as the sport is officially known (from the British usage of the word), is played by two teams of five players on a watery field, known as a pitch. Players paddle customized kayaks and attempt to toss a regulation water polo ball through goals suspended six feet above the water, using either hands or paddles. The activity, unusual as it may appear to the uninitiated, has global appeal. Teams can be found from New Zealand to Moscow. The origins of canoe polo are somewhat mysterious, yet it is generally accepted that the modern genesis of the sport can be traced to Germany in the twenties. During this time, leagues emerged and teams competed for championships. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the sport spread, leading to the establishment of a governing body called the International Canoe Federation. In 1992 the ICF standardized the rules under which canoe polo was played, and two years later, the first World Championships were held in Sheffield, England.
Austin’s Aquabats, named in honor of the Mexican free-tailed bat colony that lives under the Congress Avenue Bridge, formed in 1997. The driving force behind the Austin team was its leading founder, Ezio Ambrosetti, who had been exposed to canoe polo in his native Italy and brought his love of the game with him when he moved to the United States. Together, Ambrosetti and the Aquabats represent one of the first major outposts of canoe polo in the U.S. They’re also the current U.S. National Champions, having won the title in 2005.
Almost every Wednesday evening, Ambrosetti and the Aquabats practice on Town Lake. Members of the local women’s team, Austin Powers, also practice with the Aquabats. They all wear helmets and padded life jackets, paddle furiously, and call their own fouls during each twenty-minute game. With their waterproof spray skirts sealing them into their bumper-tipped kayaks, they hone their