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Friday, February 28, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Water polo: aggressive sport easy on aging joints

Mark Boyles’ joints were done with soccer. With little cartilage left in his knees, the Post Falls man needed a new sport, something fun and fast-paced that wouldn’t stress his aging body.

The Internet directed him to water polo and local coach Mark Collingham, who started a club nearly five years ago at the Salvation Army Kroc Center in Coeur d’Alene.

Three years later, Boyles is a regular at the Wednesday night practices and scrimmages.

“It’s just great,” he said recently before jumping in the pool for warm up drills. “I encourage all the old, fat guys to come.”

Boyles likes it so much he’s always challenging his friends to join. At 54, it’s ideal for his sore knees because there is no impact. He also likes the camaraderie and the mix of people – from high school students to “old guys” like him.

If you can swim, you’re in.

Collingham, 54, is always looking for more players and wants to expand the program. He reiterates that water polo is for anyone who can swim and wants to get a great workout while having fun. Beginners are welcome and several people from Spokane and Sandpoint have joined.

The other coach, Peter Neirinckx, 48, agrees.

“This is a whole lot easier on your body,” said Neirinckx, who coached at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a certified referee.

Collingham, who played water polo for Washington State University, and Neirinckx also coach Coeur d’Alene High School water polo team that has won the state championship three years in a row, a coup for the only team in North Idaho.

The high school team plays with the master’s group as well. Because there are so few teams in the area, their tournaments are usually with regional college teams from Idaho, Washington, Montana and Utah.

Yet don’t let that intimidate newcomers. Boyles said the coaches are great with beginners and that the fun part of playing on an all-ages, co-ed team is that you have people of all skill levels.

“He never laughed at me,” Boyles said of coach Collingham. Growing up in the area, Boyles never had formal swimming lessons – he learned in the lake. The coaches helped him with his strokes and the strategy for the game. Today, he is a strong player, gliding through the water with an effortless look.

Yet Boyle classifies it as an “extreme” workout, especially if you aren’t in water polo shape.

The game is played in the deep end and players use the “eggbeater” kick, where each leg is moving in a different direction, to tread water and keep their body out of the water. You can only use one hand to grab and pass the ball. Players can also swim the ball up the pool toward the goal, not touching the ball but using the waves to push it. In water polo, players always swim with their heads out of the water so they can keep track of the ball and game.

In midgame, Boyles smiled through his beard as he tried to take the ball from Neirinckx. There is noise and splashing. Soon Neirinckx is off like a water bug, fiercely pushing the ball toward the far goal. Boyles takes long side strokes to catch the coach, who soon passes the ball and is yelling instructions.

“Get some distance,” he said as two high school players tried to figure out their positions. Collingham is on the deck, refereeing. He blows the whistle frequently and waves his arms in a set of signals.

Water polo is aggressive and unlike basketball, fouls are encouraged. That’s how the ball stays in play. There is a lot of wrestling and grabbing, a lot of which is unseen underwater.

“If you’re not fouling, you aren’t doing your job,” Collingham said.

Each team has six players and a goalie. A goal floats in the water on each end. The yellow ball resembles a volleyball but is easier to grasp with wet hands, and it floats. All team members wear swim caps with ear protectors but no goggles.

Water polo originated in 19th century England and resembled rugby more than the modern version, which is like soccer and embraces skill – passing and speed – over force. By 1900, water polo became the first team sport added to the Olympic Games, according to a history by the Collegiate Water Polo Association.

The word “polo” itself is the only connection between it and the horseback game.

Water polo has little resemblance to lap swimming, other than they both take place in the water. Most of the high school players also are on local swim teams, yet that is a quiet, independent sport.

Water polo is loud and depends on a team.

“I just like the excitement and rush of it,” said Gabe Markowski, 16, who is on the swim team and plays water polo for Coeur d’Alene High.

He enjoys playing with older, bigger players.

“I’m less scared now when I have to play against the bigger guys,” he said.

Courtney Monsees, 27, recently moved to Coeur d’Alene from California and was shocked to find a water polo club. Her dad, 68, is a coach and her brother just missed qualifying for the Olympics. She’s played water polo since age 9.

“It’s great,” she said. “I love playing anyone and everyone.”

That’s what Collingham hopes attracts more people to the sport.

“It’s just a fun game,” he said. “You get exercise but you really don’t think about that. You are just out there having fun.”

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