Few people crammed into Birmingham’s Crossplex venue had ever seen a match of canoe polo before; most had no idea what it was they had signed up to watch, but they knew it sounded “kinda fun”.

It didn’t take long for the enthusiastic American crowd to understand not only was this sport played in a swimming pool by men and women sitting in kayaks fun, it was also fast, brutal, and exciting. The widely-held sentiment by many was that of all the “unusual” sports on the program at The World Games, canoe polo was the coolest.

In the opening seconds of the canoe polo match, when two crazy-brave kayakers steamed at full-speed from opposite ends of the pool towards a ball bobbing in the middle, the capacity crowd held its collective breath.

“Surely they won’t crash,” one spectator gasped. “Oh my God, these guys are crazy,” another blurted out. With eyes like dinner plates and mouths agape, no-one dared look away as they awaited the inevitable bone-crunching confrontation that must surely unfold.

Canoe polo has been part of the World Games program since 2005. The International Canoe Federation hosts a world championships every two years. The sport has grown from a pastime enjoyed by a handful of European countries to a global competition with teams from all over the world.

The United States is one of the countries where the sport is still developing. So the 2022 World Games in Birmingham presented an opportunity to showcase canoe polo to a new audience.

Greg Smale is the chair of the ICF’s canoe polo committee and is in no doubt how important the opportunity was. And he’s confident the sport achieved everything he hoped it would.

“The World Games is an opportunity for a long list of sports which are not so well known to show off what they offer,” he said.

“We have always been confident of our product. We know when people get a chance to see what canoe polo is, they are amazed. And I can tell you from wandering among the big crowd at Crossplex in Birmingham, they loved what they saw.

“People were amazed how physical the matches are. They couldn’t believe canoe polo is a full-contact sport, and that athletes were putting their bodies on the line so much. They might not have fully understood the rules, but they really appreciated the spectacle.”

One American told me why he thought canoe polo could succeed in the States. It had the physicality of American football and ice hockey, the athletes had the throwing arms of baseballers, and the end-to-end contests featuring athletes skirmishing under a basket had all the trademarks of a basketball game.

“A canoe polo match is like an NBA, MLB, NFL and NHL contest all thrown into one, in a swimming pool,” he said.

“Why wouldn’t we love it? It’s such a crazy idea, which we Americans like, but its fun. And these athletes have no fear!”

As host nation USA had a team in both the men’s and women’s competition. Both finished at the bottom of the table, but that wasn’t unexpected. What is good news is both teams will be in France next month for the ICF world championships, where they will come up against other teams who are beginning their journey towards the top level.

USA women’s captain Stephanie Schnorr is confident the sport will continue to grow in her country.

“We came in here pretty clear-eyed about what we were up against, we know everyone has a lot of muscle, and we’re just really honoured to play against everyone,” she said.

“As USA we almost never get the opportunity to play this kind of level of polo. We really only have one or two tournaments a year, so it’s a challenge to build but we have a lot of dedicated individuals who have really pushed the sport through in the US.

“We’re really trying to develop the youth and bring it into the schools, we feel like this is the way forward."

Prime time coverage on ESPN might still be a little time away for canoe polo, but the television broadcasters, hundreds of spectators and dozens of volunteers in Birmingham are all converts.

The seeds have been planted.

“Americans love their sport, they love a good contest, and they loved the show we put on for them in Birmingham,” Smale said.

“If a handful of the children who were sitting in the crowd go to school and tell their friends what they saw, and they decide to give it a go, then we can be happy. It’s a long road to the top, but from little things, big things grow.”

Canoe polo crowd Birmingham

Canoe Polo
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