On Your Marks

Reporter can’t tread water with Charlotte’s champion kayak polo team

This intense and physical game made Marks’ head swim

jmarks@lakewyliepilot.comAugust 28, 2012 

— Call me fish meal.

I’m captain of a vessel half-submerged already, plastic paddle blades and a thin-cage facemask my only defense against onslaughting offenders. Their life-vested torsos protrude from slender hulls like angry dorsal fins. The ball splashes midfield. They thrash.

Beyond that divine and deceitful distance to the McDowell Nature Preserve shoreline on Lake Wylie, kayak polo seems such a palatable endeavor. Teams of uniformed paddle pushers navigating a rectangular pitch in Sunday morning light, passing the ball in close and firing toward a suspended goal overhead. From a distance, it’s elegant. Within the float ropes, cadaverous.

“We don’t always think as clearly as we should,” says Kim Parker, twice member of the women’s national team and lone female in the Carolina Kayak Polo Club.

Parker tallied a goal in the most recent world championships against the Netherlands, and will represent her country again next month in Poland. On land, she’s a nurse and dog lover. Between these whistles, it’s nothing to glance, jackknife or all-out board an opponent boat.

And not, “may I see your ticket” and “enjoy your trip” boarding. I’ve seen pirates board with less vigor.

“When you’re playing the game and you want the ball, you want the ball,” Parker says.

I launch this ill-fated venture on two premises. Preeminent, we won’t be drowning one another.

“We try to,” shrugs host and men’s national teamer Elliot Faure Garcia.

The shallow cove should safeguard against such disastrous fates, I think. Not so, I’m told. The far end of play dips to 20 feet. Acapulcans cliff dive into 20 feet of water.

Faure Garcia calls my number. Veterans mash into the midfield, slapping sterns and rolling when overturned. Debutantes like me get outlet duty. Essentially, I’ll take passes on turnovers or goals scored and help the ball up field.

I’m in a relative tank of a kayak, but anyone who thinks I won’t hug the float rope like a skittish preschooler doesn’t know survival instinct. Team members aren’t surprised. There’s a reason nobody protested our team having more than the standard five players.

This isn’t their first paddle in the big boy pool. These software company owners, mortgage brokers, mathematicians and writers began playing on this Lake Wylie cove in Steele Creek in 2006, winning their first of three B Division national championships the same year. The top tier team has two third place finishes since 2008, and Carolina Kayak Polo hosted the nationals in 2010.

It’s halftime before the whitewater stills. I anchor up beside a Scotsman named Graeme. If his two decades of play back home don’t win him awards, his commute to McDowell should. He’s jazzed to find a club just two hours from his year-long teaching gig in Greensboro, N.C. The next closest is New York.

“Compared to New York,” says the fellow first-timer here, “two hours is practically on the doorstep.”

Graeme fits in like a drenched hull skirt. Half the players out here sound like they grew up eating biscuits for dessert. Long-timer Chris Sewell arrived from England a few decades back. He’s the goalkeeper, tactical advisor, volunteer referee and color analyst all in one.

He’s also the wise guy who keeps calling for me to pass to him despite our being on opposite teams. I’m unfazed, more acclimated to bickering Brits than most. I married one. But he’s another former national team player, perhaps the foremost kayak polo expert within two tanks of gas.

So I endure the ribbing. Old man Crocker never told Betty how to grease her muffin tins, and I’m not telling Chris Sewell how to kayak polo.

I’m feeling a little “froggier” by the second half lineup. I’m even considering swapping a little bow paint. The ball splashes. A sprinter from each team darts toward. They arrive simultaneously. Decapitation puts it mildly. Check please.

Now I’m certainly one prone to hyperbole, but how one player didn’t saw the other in half is beyond me. I’m talking oyster shell vs. one bad muscle shucker. One man and his entire boat literally sit on top of the other. These two just made Shark Week look like a “Bubble Guppies” reunion episode.

I quickly resume outlet duty. As in, somebody let me out of this boat.

“Mostly if people show up,” Sewell says of rookies, “they come more than once.”

I’m barely committing to finishing the half. I complete several against-the-grain passes to teammates in stride. Mostly because play turns so quickly from one end to the next, I’m spending half my time stern-turned to the ball. I attempt no shots. I score no goals.

I’m of the sort that thinks of kayaking as spider lily patches and granola for lunch. This isn’t Katie Hepburn basking in the loon landings on Golden Pond.

“We don’t see too many birds,” Parker says.

At one point I muster the nerve to attempt defense. I bump into Parker’s boat. I’d be surprised if she noticed. Facebook friending requires more physical contact. Otherwise I’m left scratching my helmet as to how teens and retirees manage this sport, some twice weekly for years.

Maybe I’ve just thrown myself into the deep end, with practice intensity welling just two months out from another run at nationals. And these folks aren’t exactly gondola guides low on tip money.

“We have quite a few decent players,” Sewell says.

The mercy whistle sounds and I’m beach or bust. I little note nor long remember the score. Couldn’t even say who won. It’s like asking a victorious gladiator who lost more teeth in the arena. If you’re alive to answer, what does it matter?

I practically leap from the cockpit. It’s my most athletic move thus far. Firm atop dry ground on a glorious summer Sunday morning, I can’t help but glance upward and pray. Mostly, that any future I have in kayak polo never again sets foot past shoreline.

On Your Marks is a monthly column where reporter John Marks takes on competition from the greater Lake Wylie and Fort Mill areas, challenging them in their field of expertise and profiling what makes them special. Check out past On Your Marks columns at lakewyliepilot.com. For ideas on who you think Marks should challenge next, email jmarks@lakewyliepilot.com.

On Your Marks Scoreboard

Competition: Carolina Kayak Polo Club in Steele Creek

Contest: Two 10-minute halves of play

Score: I honestly don’t recall what the final score was. Let’s say 3-1, the other team’s favor. Final score: Carolina Kayak Polo Club 3, Marks 1.

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