The Columbia Women’s Water Polo team started from the bottom, and climbed their way to nationals. Here is their story.
Amy Gong Liu started the year as the captain of the Women’s Water Polo club team. She was also the only member of the Women’s Water Polo club team.
“It was just me at the club fair,” the CC sophomore said of recruitment season. Club sports don’t receive the same financial and institutional support as their varsity counterparts at Columbia. The Club Sports Governing Board gave the team about $4000 this year, over half of which went to paying league dues. And while head coaches of varsity sports normally recruit from elite high schools, Women’s Water Polo didn’t have a recruitment process, or a head coach.
“I knew that if I didn’t recruit a good set of new people, our team wouldn’t have enough people to compete in the league.” The 2015-16 team’s captain had graduated, and the president chose to study abroad. With only her own resources, Gong Liu recruited as hard as she could. “My pitch at the club table was, ‘Hi, do you know how to swim?'” Of the 11 members of the team who were recruited and stayed, only five came in with any water polo experience.
The newly formed Women’s Water Polo club team, comprising not a single graduating senior, would need dedication and perseverance to succeed and even survive. They solicited and received help from some unlikely sources. Granger Abuhoff brought his YMCA club team to scrimmage with Columbia every Sunday. “They kick our ass every single weekend,” Gong Liu admitted, “but it’s been really really good for our growth.” Preslav Djippov, formerly involved with Bulgarian and American national teams, runs drills with the team every practice. “But I think the most valuable people we’ve had coaching this year have been People on the men’s water polo team.” Gong Liu thanked Wei Shen Ng and Casidhe McClone specifically for their contributions.
While it took sacrifices for members to show up for 9:30-11:30 pm weekday practices (let alone four other days of practice, on land or in the pool), the experience drew them closer. Gong Liu’s main goal as a captain was to “make the team feel like a family.” Part of this was pragmatic – you get people to show up to practice by becoming friends with them. But late practices and later nights brought the team together. “We were sitting at our holiday party, and we were writing notes to each other about how much each other have impacted our lives. We passed around sheets, and we looked at each other and collectively started crying. I looked around and thought… ‘this is it.'”
When their season began early the next semester, they hit the ground running, taking first place in a five-team tournament against their New York division rivals: Colgate, Cornell, Syracuse, and NYU. The Violet specifically were Columbia’s most formidable foes. The local rivals and defending division champions had three times the number of students and an official recruitment campaign. But Columbia got the better of them in a 7-6 victory. Stephanie Norwood, the team’s starting goalkeeper, came into the team with no experience, and was told to try water sports after tearing her ACL. Nine months later, Gong Liu called her “one of the best goalies I’ve ever seen.”
The scrappy team continued their climb, eventually facing off against NYU once again to determine who would attend the national competition in Pittsburgh. With a balanced and deep attack, the Lions made it difficult for the Violets to double- and triple-team the team’s chief offensive threats: Amy Gong Liu, Hannele Jane, and Ruthie Kornblatt-Stier. In their home pool in the Dodge Fitness Center (where they annually host the New York championship), Columbia notched an 8-7 win, punching their ticket to the nationals.
That competition starts on Friday, the first day of Finals. While they’ve gotten all the help they can get from Athletics, the team will still be missing a few players who couldn’t reschedule their exams, leaving the team at a significant disadvantage to compete. They also have used up their club sports budget, and are taking donations on their GoFundMe page. “We’re going for the experience. I think we’ve earned it.”
Photo via Columbia Women’s Water Polo