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 skills for the next competition. While the team has received some corporate contributions in the past, it lacks a steady sponsor, so the members (a core group of about 12, although when the weather gets pleasant the number can get as high as 30) bear most of the costs of equipment and travel themselves. Canoe polo is more common in California and New England than in Texas, according to Ambrosetti, but the sport is played in several places outside of Austin. Teams of juniors play frequently in Dallas and San Marcos, and in Waco, a former Dallas player started up a club at Baylor University. The appeal is the game’s challenge. “I loved the physicality of the game, and the beauty of its movements,” Ambrosetti says of his attraction to the sport. But, he cautions, the appearance of ease of motion can be deceiving, “It takes quite a lot of effort when somebody is doing their best not to let you move against them!” Perhaps that is why canoe polo has taken hold in Texas—the challenge is irresistible.
For more information, visit the MoPac bridge on Wednesday nights around 6, or go to