The game of polo has been around for thousands of years, dating back as far as 6th century BCE. But the game has not escaped evolution. From moto-polo in Uganda to bike polo in New Zealand and even elephant polo in Thailand, people everywhere have adapted the sport to new cultures and new elements.
Kayak polo is one of the younger adaptations of the sport but one that is, nonetheless, gaining in popularity and legitimacy. Images from the late 19th century depict Europeans utilizing a makeshift wooden craft, ball, and paddles in casual play, but the competitive form of canoe polo as it stands today did not come around until the late 1920s. Germany and France were the first countries to form “kanupolo” clubs, playing a similar version of the game not as a competitive sport but as a means of developing and learning whitewater skills.
A little over a decade later, the clubs abandoned canoes for the more maneuverable kayak, set rules in place, and began hosting tournaments throughout Europe. By the end of the ‘70s, kayak polo teams had sprung up in England, Finland, Sweden, Australia, the Netherlands, and Spain. Although kayak polo was gaining tremendous momentum, years of heated debates between the various leagues prevented the International Canoe Federation (ICF) from finalizing the official kayak polo rules until 1990.
“When I first came here and started researching local kayak polo leagues, it was just a barren waste field.” That’s Asheville-based Chris Smith, a player on the U.S. Men’s National Kayak Polo team from England who moved to the States just a few years ago (albeit, not for the kayak polo scene). Although Smith has been playing canoe polo competitively since his early teenage years, he never realized just how little Americans knew of the sport.
“I was really fortunate in that I found a club in Charlotte, N.C., which was only one hour away,” Smith says. “My next closest club would have been in New York, a short 10-hour drive.”
Charlotte’s kayak polo club is one of only a handful of legitimate leagues in the country, a far cry from Smith’s homeland where over 30 different teams exist in the northwestern and central regions alone.
“I suppose the silver lining is that it’s very easy to integrate onto the U.S. team,” Smith says. “In England, there are people that commit five or six days a week to training. I never would have gotten the opportunity to play on England’s national team.”
Smith trains once a week on the French Broad River, working on distance training and sprints as well as ball control skills. He says the Charlotte club typically only trains together once a week, which makes it difficult for the team members to maintain enthusiasm for competitions.
“In England, I could cycle five minutes to my local club and get out on the water to train whenever,” Smith says. “Between summer weekend tournaments and daily paddling, getting involved with the competition scene there was easy. In America, you’re lucky to go to three kayak polo competitions in a year.”
Although the kayak polo scene here is small, Smith remains optimistic about the future. Universities and colleges in the region have already expressed growing interest, and local clubs in Nashville, Columbia, and Asheville are becoming more serious about the sport.
“I want to think we’re at the beginning of something here in the Blue Ridge,” Smith says. “If we can get three or four smaller clubs to schedule grassroots matches against each other, I think the sport will grow tremendously.”
For experienced paddlers or aspiring amateurs, canoe polo offers an entertaining means of developing kayaking skills quickly without a formal instructional setting. Because of the fast nature of the sport, players are constantly utilizing and fine-tuning basic maneuvers like braces, hand rolls, hip snaps, and general boat control. The Charlotte club in particular is always looking for new team members, regardless of skill level, and will travel to other clubs to provide demonstrations and instructional sessions.
“Kayak polo is so different than any other type of kayaking,” Smith says. “Whitewater kayaking is a very individual sport: it’s me against the rapid. But kayak polo allows you to combine all the things you know and love about kayaking with all the things you know and love about team sports.”
Individuals or clubs interested in pursuing the sport should contact Smith and the Carolina Kayak Polo Club at carolinakayakpolo.org. Charlotte, N.C., is set to host the 2014 U.S. Canoe Polo National Championships this summer, so stay tuned to their website for more details.
KAYAK POLO BREAKDOWN
rectangular playing area: 35m x 23m in size
elevated goals positioned 2 meters above water’s surface
maximum of eight players per team with five permitted on the playing area at any one time
match is divided into two 10-minute halves with a three-minute break in between
players are allowed to capsize opponents in order to prevent passing or scoring of the ball
one point is awarded for each ball that passes entirely through the goal’s net
the ball may be passed using paddle blades, hands, and kayak bows