There’s a pool of talent when it comes to NI’s water polo scene, writes Lorraine Wylie
Whether it’s football, snooker, boxing, motor-bike sports, or even the glamour of Formula One racing, Northern Ireland has contributed more than its share of sporting champions. Now, judging by the pool of talent at Bangor Barracudas, water polo could be next to join the superstar line-up.
Established in 2012, the club, situated at Bangor’s Aurora Aquatic and Leisure Centre, offers young people the opportunity to play competitively throughout Ireland. But, as founding member, Sarah Branigan, explains, there’s more to being a Bangor Barracuda than scoring goals.
“Water polo is a great way for everyone, including kids to get fit,” she says.
“I think it’s important to encourage children to embrace a healthy lifestyle and sport certainly plays a big role. But apart from all the obvious benefits, water polo is a fun kind of sport. Kids love it.
“As coach for under 11s I get to see the difference the game can make to a child’s confidence. Sometimes, when they first come to the club, the younger ones can be a little shy but, as they start playing, and learn to communicate with other team members, they become more self-assured.
“It’s wonderful to see them develop confidence, make friends and feel part of the team. The Bangor Barracudas is a very friendly club, and we welcome all levels of ability.”
The sport wasn’t always so inclusive. Back in the early 19th century, ‘water rugby’ as it was then known, was considered a man’s game.
Aggressive practices such as wrestling and holding opponents under water to recover the ball were deemed too rough for young ladies.
By 1887, the name had changed to ‘aquatic football’ and in the same year, Scottish Coach William Wilson drew up a new set of rules.
But it was another hundred years before women finally embraced the sport.
Now with Olympic status, the popularity of water polo is at all time high with approximately 15,000 people across the UK participating at all levels. In Northern Ireland, several schools, including Royal Belfast Academical Institution, offer water-polo among their sporting activities.
How did Sarah, a teacher at Northern Regional College first get involved with the sport?
“Back in 1996, I was working as a classroom assistant and one of my colleagues happened to mention she played water polo. I asked if I could go along and that was it. I loved it!
“I’d always enjoyed swimming and although, it is a fantastic way to keep fit, it can get a bit lonely at times.
“I found water polo gave me the best of both worlds.
“When I went to my first session, I really liked the team aspect. There is a lot of camaraderie amongst the group, and we have some good-natured banter and a lot of laughs.”
Some sports can be an expensive outlay, but parents will be happy to know water polo isn’t one of them.
“Unlike horse polo where participants need to buy a horse, water polo isn’t an expensive sport,” Sarah says.
“When kids come to the club, they’re usually looking for a hobby — all they need is a swim-suit and a hat!”
Do water polo players have to be elite swimmers?
“There is a misconception that all players come from a competitive swimming background,” Sarah explains.
“But many, like myself are not ‘elite’ swimmers at all. Prior to the Barracudas, our family didn’t belong to any swimming club. Having said that, we play in deep water, so we do have to be strong, confident swimmers.
“When children come to our club, they already know how to swim and are happy in the water. Even from a safety perspective, I think it’s important that all children take swimming lessons as early as possible.
“At first, we teach young members to play across the pool but as they get older and their skills improve, they move on to a proper, 25m pool.
“They don’t need to be gold medal standard, but they do have to swim well.”
Described as a cross between football and basketball, only played in water, the object of the game is to outscore your opponent by passing the ball to teammates across the pool and attempting to get it past the opposition’s goalie.
It’s a high impact sport where players can burn as many as 700 calories in a single session.
“Water polo certainly gives a full body workout!” Sarah laughs.
“All that kicking, stretching, throwing and treading water really gets the heart pumping. It builds stamina and endurance while at the same time it’s a fantastic way to relieve stress.
“With all those endorphins floating around it promotes a feel-good factor. As it’s a water sport, players can enjoy a high impact workout without damaging joints etc. With the water acting as a cushion, water polo has a very low rate of injury.”
What are the drawbacks?
“The chlorinated pool water can, in some cases cause an eye irritation. But for our club, including my family, it’s rarely an issue.”
It’s been almost 10 years since Bangor Barracudas opened their doors and the club has gone from strength to strength.
“When we first opened, we had approximately ten children,” Sarah recalls, “now we have around 60.
“Most of the original group are still here and have played for Ulster as well as Ireland.
“Our eldest daughter, Niamh, who was just nine when we opened and is now nearly 18 and currently plays in the under 19 in the Irish League. She loves it and when she’s goes to university, I’m sure she’ll keep it up.
“As a mum, I’m glad that I was able to instil an interest in health and keeping fit when the kids were young. It will stay with them.”
Sarah has contributed another three recruits to water polo.
“For us water polo is a family affair. My husband Jamie, who originally played ice hockey, decided to join us in the sport and is now chairman of the club. Our son Conor who’s 12 is also a keen member and a great player. Erin is our second daughter and at just 15 she has already played for Ireland. In the under 13s she was the Irish goalie.”
Considered one of the most difficult positions within the sport, the role of goalie is physically demanding and makes Erin’s achievement all the more impressive. But she isn’t the only goalie in the family.
“I play the same position,” Sarah says. “It really is quite a challenging role. For a start, unlike outfield players who can swap in and out, the goalie has to stay in for the whole match.
“We have to stay afloat by treading water or swimming and move around the net by jumping.
“Goalies have to rely on core strength and strong legs. It’s also lucky we have long arms!”
During the pandemic, Covid restrictions brought all indoor and group events to a close, leaving the Barracudas beached.
“With no pool, we turned to open sea swimming. It’s very popular and has attracted more fans since Covid19 arrived. Although cold it can be great fun. I think we are very fortunate in this part of the world to be surrounded by such lovely beaches and the opportunity to swim whenever we feel like it.”
What do the Bangor Barracudas have in-store for the future?
“We are working on a project that we hope will encourage older folk to get involved.
“Some of those who enjoy open-sea swimming are already showing interest in water polo. However, with the current situation plans are still coming together but details will be available on our website.”
For more, see www.facebook.com/bangorbarracudas/