Around 2,500 years ago, nomads in the valleys of Central Asia invented polo, a game played on horseback that was later refined in India, and whose one lasting contribution to the culture as we know it is a short-sleeved shirt worn with its collar popped by the villains in eighties movies. In the nineteenth century, British lads began playing a new game with the same name but on rivers and lakes—and so was birthed water polo. Then, 36 years ago, water polo was revolutionized when a group based in rule-abiding Switzerland decided on bylaws for playing the game in kayaks, formally trading the swimming nonsense for a faster game, one played above water and thus easier to watch.
When I first started playing kayak polo in the summer of 2020 and told friends about it, they’d act as if I were speaking gibberish. I’d tell them it was simple and to sound it out: kayak polo is polo played in kayaks. The pitch is a body of water ideally 23 by 35 meters, set off by buoys or landmarks. Two teams of five kayakers, with watertight nylon spray skirts, in sit-in boats that can roll, compete during two 10-minute halves. The game is quick because it is intense. Each team tries to get the ball (about the size of a soccer ball) into one of two nets, which hover a couple of meters above the water at either end of the pitch. You can pass the ball with your hands or by scooping it out of the water with your paddle blade and flinging it, trebuchet-style.
You can dribble but can’t paddle when you have the ball in hand, so the key to success is learning how to give yourself the correct angular momentum before you catch or pick it up, so that you can coast with it. Defense usually involves ramming into the ball carrier’s boat and pushing them off their course. One of the other defensive strategies is pushing someone who has the ball, forcing them to capsize and have to roll back up—at which point, if you’ve done things correctly, you push them underwater again. Being in that death spiral isn’t fun, but it does cool you down. There is no better way to exercise in the Texas summers, for which the game was seemingly intelligently designed.
The move of polo to kayaks is roughly equivalent, in my mind, to the transformation of Nintendo—a company that, after more than eighty years of making playing cards, became a video game empire. Kayaking is more fun than swimming; being atop the water diminishes the need to exert resources to stay alive and makes the actual game, and strategy, a real focus of recreational play. Though not quite like video games, kayak polo also caught on quickly and spread across Europe, where it’s known as canoe polo (because the Inuit word “kayak” has not crossed the Atlantic Ocean; they play in kayaks too). By the early nineties it had reached Australia and East Asia, with formal international tournaments every other year.
In the mid-nineties the sport made its way to the U.S., via Texas. At a paddling expo in 1997 near Houston, where experts in other disciplines (slalom, sprinting, et cetera) led workshops, a kayak polo seminar was put on the docket. Ezio Ambrosetti, an Italian expat who had played at home before moving to Austin, showed up as an attendee in full gear, including a helmet and a plastic polo kayak with bumpers rather than one meant for white-water paddling. The expo leaders realized he knew more than they did about the sport and tapped him to lead the demonstrations.
There Ambrosetti found an interested player in Mark Poindexter, a kayak slalom expert, who later brought the game back with him to Central Texas, where he was teaching kayak racing. He and Ambrosetti first set up shop on the Guadalupe River, scattering large rocks to form a rough embroidery of the pitch. Then after a year or so, Poindexter realized he could string goals between the MoPac overpass poles on Lady Bird Lake, in Austin, where to this day, the Aquabats (the city’s official team, and the biggest in Texas) play every Sunday afternoon as well as Tuesday and Thursday evenings in the summer (in the winter, we play on Barton Creek).
Initially, players were mainly those who were already kayaking enthusiasts, but moving to a highly visible location in the center of town attracted new talent. Ahmed Sami Khalil, who grew up sprint kayaking on the Nile in Cairo and now is the club’s vice president, told me he saw the Aquabats launching from the dock one day in the early 2010s and decided to join in. (He says the Austin water is less muddy than that of the Nile, and Lady Bird is more in the middle of nature, which makes paddling here more pleasant.) Alma Adriana, from Pasadena, Texas, who is now the registrar of the team, had never kayaked before but found the group around the same time on Meetup.com. For many others who got into the sport a few years ago, it was relief from the pandemic—one of the few activities that, on account of being outdoors and somewhat distanced, was basically risk-free. For me, it was also the perfect excuse to skip leg day—about the only muscle group that isn’t much used during the game.
Poindexter, the president of the Aquabats, grew up playing soccer and water sports and says the draw of kayak polo, to him, is that it’s an amalgamation of the best parts of other games, like some mythic Greek beast of a sport. It requires hockey’s mastery of medium to even begin to play well, trading skating for boat skills. It steals from chess, as the limited mobility of kayaks (and inability to paddle with the ball) births a strategy that requires thinking several moves ahead. You need to know not only where you’ll pass the ball before you catch it but also where the person you pass it to will pass it, and where you thus need to get to. And unlike other sports, Poindexter said, it has enough variables, with the water and waves and chaos of paddling, to always feel new. “I’ve been playing almost thirty years,” he says, “and I’m still learning.”
Some of the Aquabats compete on the U.S. national men’s and women’s teams—which also pull from clubs that have sprouted in Boston, New York, and San Francisco—traveling to Asia, Europe, South America, and Canada for tournaments. (The U.S. men’s team is currently ranked twentieth in the world, while the women’s team is twelfth.) I’m not good enough to attend most tournaments with boundary markers on the pitch, and with refs with a sophisticated knowledge of the rules beyond “No Blood, No Foul,” so it’s the spontaneity that is the biggest draw. The sport has a sandlot feel, and at times playing reminds me of roughhousing at home as a kid, when all that was needed to fend off boredom was a balloon, or a Nerf ball, and the tiniest amount of space and curiosity. It’s the endless variables, and the free-flowing nature of the game requisite to its inherent unpredictability, that call to me.
And, perhaps contradictorily, it’s also the simplicity of the premise of the game. I, like most kayak polo players, grew up playing other sports: organized baseball and recreational hockey. I love those invented games, whose rules and fields of play are so contrived as to make playing ethereal and symbolic of some greater human struggle. But sports that are “discovered”—those so beautiful in their simplicity as to seemingly emerge from the landscape, like language from consciousness—have their own pull.
For as long as there were water and boats, there was no way to avoid kayak polo being discovered. In Austin, they built it (a lake), and so they came. Indeed, it’s a familiar story. Khalil told me that in the late nineties, before the internet ruined serendipity and discovering things for the first time, a group of kayakers in the Carolinas had independently begun playing a game very similar to kayak polo, just with a net more like a basketball hoop. They thought they’d invented something new and were proud. What better way to spend a summer day or to jolt the senses in a winter storm?
Indeed, the game was not new, but no matter: it was perfect. The bored nomads in the steppes of Central Asia surely did not know where their favorite pastime was heading. But I salute them for suffering through their sport on horseback so we all could find this.
An abbreviated version of this article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Marco Who? Kayak Polo Is the Ultimate Water Game.” Subscribe today.