"You want to purposely throw elbows and get away with whatever you can."
It sounds like ice hockey, but that's how senior Becky Dunlap, the women's water polo captain, described her sport's mentality.
"It's not uncommon to get pounded in the face or kicked in the balls. It's like WWE out there."
Men's captain Ed Gulko, a senior, agreed.
Water polo's rules and set-up are similar to those of soccer, but with basketball's pace of play. Water polo, like soccer, has offensive and defensive positions and numerous offsides rules. Six players and one goalie for each team are all in the water at any given time. Matches typically last about an hour, with four seven-minute quarters.
Matches can be very tiring for players, since they must tread water at all times during game play. More importantly, players must defend themselves against unwarranted rabbit punches.
With all of this activity, it's necessary for the team to be thoroughly conditioned. Team leaders are set on making players tough for the short six-week season.
Three nights a week, the team practices for two and a half hours, going until 11:30 p.m. That may seem late for practice, but pool space is limited--the varsity swimming and diving teams, as well as scuba and kayaking, also need time in Levien Pool.
A water polo player's typical workout includes about 4,500 yards of swimming (about three miles), exhausting drills, a scrimmage, and the ongoing risk of breaking a nose, a common injury among players on the team.
"We do this one drill where you're treading water with arms at 45 degrees, going across the pool," Gulko said. "Your legs just feel like they're on fire."
"We practice hard and we compete hard, but we socialize and have fun together, too," Gulko said. "And after the Wednesday night practices, well, that's when the real practices begin."
Since water polo is a club sport, anyone who attends Columbia can join. With about 30 male and female students in the club, and with representatives from Columbia College, SIPA, and the School of Law, water polo is one of the most diverse club sports on campus.
"Water polo can accommodate many athletic backgrounds," Dunlap said. "We have swimmers, soccer players, and crew people all playing. Some people compensate ability for aggression, but anyone can play."
Men's coach Lazar Mustur, a 25-year veteran of the sport, agrees.
"Everyone that wants to play can play," he said. "They enjoy the fun and the camaraderie."
Men's and co-ed seasons take place during the fall (though the men's competition is generally considered to take precedence), and the women's season is in the spring.
This past weekend, the men's team hosted the New York Eastern Regional tournament, which fielded teams from Colgate, NYU, and Army. Columbia did not win any matches (the Lions lost games by scores of 13-9, 11-7 and 14-10), but did show promise considering the team has a significant number of newcomers. The team was further hindered by only having one week of practice under its belt before last weekend's competition.
Even with its lackluster performance so far, both men and women note the raw talent for this season.
"We're definitely talented," Dunlap said. "We just need to learn to play well together."
"We have a talented group here and we play other talented teams," Gulko said. "My job is to get people in shape and get them to play well together. We have little time, so we must focus."
The men's team finished fourth out of eight teams in New York Division club water polo competition last year. The women fared better, finishing the regular season undefeated and with a New York Division title. The women's team then went on to compete at Club Nationals, where they finished ninth, raising their ranking to 10th in the nation among club programs.
The men this year will be led by Gulko and Ben Yemini, a student in the business school. Key additions are first-year Marnix Hollander and the team's new goalie, Sean Glickenhaus, a SIPA student.
On the women's side, Dunlap (First Team All-Conference, New York Division), along with Second Team All-Conference standouts junior Larissa Brewer and law student Adi Koll will play key roles in the team's success.
The teams travel next to the Villanova Invitational this weekend. Following that, the New York Division Championships are Oct. 18-19. If the team wins, it will go on to compete at the National Collegiate Club Championships, held at Texas A&M in early November.
"We're optimistic about the season," Gulko said. "Ultimately, we want to go to nationals in Texas."