Joining NYU’s women’s club water polo team was an adventure that I never could have imagined. I never saw myself being an athlete in college — having been the self-proclaimed slowest swimmer on earth growing up, it just didn’t seem like an option.
At my first swim meet in 2004, four six-year-olds — including myself — climbed up onto the diving blocks that were as tall as we were. The beeper went off and the race started as each of us got into the pool in our own ways — some tried to dive and wound up completing painful belly flops, others jumped feet-first and another just went for a cannonball. We pushed ourselves across the pool, gasping for air with our parents cheering on the sidelines. One girl grabbed the lane line halfway through for a break. I don’t remember how I placed, but I do know I wasn’t any better than the other kids. It was a good, symbolic start for my athletic career — I was there for fun, because my friends did it and because spending my summer in the pool sounded more exciting to me than summer camp.
As I grew up, I kept swimming just as slowly, even though the swim scene was naturally becoming more competitive. I started to notice my lack of blue first place ribbons and how easily they seemed to come for everyone else. I swam for my high school team and rarely got chosen for races. I am fairly positive my coach never bothered to learn my name, despite my three years on the team.
Things changed when I joined water polo my sophomore year of high school. It was immediately a challenge, but I fell in love with it. I wasn’t fast, but I immediately felt welcomed.
Despite the fact that I wasn’t, and never will be, an all-star player, being on a sports team has proven to be an invaluable personal experience. Teammates provide a cohesive and strong community both in and out of the pool, and all skills are valued — one’s sense of humor can ultimately be just as integral to the team as another’s ability to shoot. Being on my water polo team in high school is one of the fondest memories I carry of my teenage experience. We dealt with and learned about the world together, bonding as our coach experienced medical issues and growing through our fight and drive to win. Even more importantly, we had fun — we checked out of the world for a few hours a day and created one of our own.
Out of everyone on my high school team, I thought I would be the last person to continue the sport, yet I jumped at the opportunity to join NYU’s club team. I needed something that wasn’t a severe time commitment, but was a way to make friends and have a good workout. That’s exactly what I got, and I am so grateful for it.
On a game day, we make our to way to the pool deck in only a simple and tightly zipped swimsuit and black swim cap. We’re free of most of our dentifying features, from jewelry to our typical hairstyles. We jump into the water and go. We’re engaged in a one-on-one wrestling match while simultaneously sprinting a full pool length every 20 seconds. We play offense and defense, careful to touch the ball with only one hand at a time. There are no breaks. We do not have any time to think beyond the core essentials of the game, functioning cohesively as a single unit in recognition of each individual’s ability to effectively benefit the team. Underwater, we get scratches, bruises and scars, all beyond the watchful eye of the referees. Our coach yells, but it is lost in the echo of the atrium. We push through as a team, engaging our bodies from head to toe in the most exhausting sport most of us have come to know. We all love it. We don’t complain. We huddle together after the game as one, a circle of red faces and thundering hearts, entirely equal to one another. It is a beautiful concoction, and I could not be more proud to be a part of it.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, May 1 print edition. Email Laura Shkouratoff at [email protected]