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Army West Point Water Polo

Working Hard, Playing Hard

By Kim McDermott ’87, WPAOG staff

The game of water polo is thought to have originated in England, over half a century before West Point’s program started.

Photo above: Army Water Polo competes in the 2019 Memorial Tournament at West Point. This annual event, typically occurring on the first weekend of March, originated in memory of a former Team Captain – CPT John L. Hallett III ’01 (KIA, Afghanistan ’09).

The Army Water Polo Team grew out of West Point’s first swim team, which formed in the 1920-21 academic year. The new swim team had a perfect record in its first season—defeating “four of the strongest swimming teams in the East.” A civilian coach, Mr. Alexander Meffert, was reputed to be “the best swimming coach in the country,” and the team lauded the “untiring work of Capt. Pendleton.” Captain Alan Pendleton (University of Pennsylvania, Class of 1916) was an instructor in the Department of Law.

The following year, the Swim Team article in the 1922 Howitzer included a report on a newly formed Water Polo team, also coached by Meffert and Pendleton.

“When the call for water polo candidates was issued at the beginning of the season, it was evident that the building of a team must begin at rock bottom. A few men had seen the game played, and two or three had even participated. But the men were willing to drown learning if need be, the swimming squad itself contributed a number of men, and within a short time Capt. Pendleton and Coach Meffert were busy whipping the water polo squad into shape and forming the nucleus of a team. Submerging was made a painless process, and long before the first outside game was scheduled teams were selected and had mastered the fundamentals of the game.”

The very first game was played against the “veteran team” of the New York Athletic Club (NYAC), and the sport remains one of the longest-running competitive sports clubs at West Point. In the 1975-76 academic year the program became a Division I “corps squad” varsity sport, concluding its first season with a 13-5 record. In the 1994-95 year the program returned to club status.

Colonel Michael Benson ’94 is currently the team’s Officer in Charge (OIC). He is a former player who joined the team at Army when it was still a varsity program in the fall of 1992. He was recruited for wrestling and competed for two years before switching to water polo. Benson says, “I played just two years, but the impact was so moving in my experience, that when I returned in 2003 as a faculty member, I sponsored several players and became the OIC for two years. When I returned for my second tour at USMA in 2011, I again picked up the reins to guide the team, where I have been since.”

As Benson is currently on sabbatical, Major Sam Greulich ’07 is acting as the team OIC. He was one of the cadets that Benson sponsored during his first assignment at the Academy. Greulich has swum since he was in second grade, but only started to play water polo as a freshman in high school. In comparison, he says, “Now we have cadets on the team who have played since fifth or sixth grade.” Greulich was All-Conference his last two years and All-American his firstie year.

Photo left: Coach Chris Judge and the Army team on the pool deck during a match at Crandall Pool

When Greulich played, there was no formal coach, so the team employed player coaches. One player coach was (now Major) Brian Chen ’05. Chen grew up in Southern California and played water polo in high school. He had no intention of playing at West Point, but after hearing about the team from a friend, he tried out and walked on in his plebe year. He made All-Conference all four years and was named an All-American his cow year. Even with such talent on the team, the program eventually returned to a model of having a coach for the team. The current coach, Chris Judge, says, “When I started slowing down I wanted to give back, so I started coaching. The opportunity at Army was perfect.”

Judge, from the Hudson Valley, has a long pedigree in the sport. His father, Francis X. Judge, was a standout at Fordham University and played in the 1952 Olympics. The younger Judge was the subject of a June 2018 Wall Street Journal article which makes it clear that he, too, is a fixture in the sport, with five decades of experience. He also played four years—and later coached—at Fordham University. He played on the U.S. National Team, was an alternate for the 1984 Olympics, and was inducted into Fordham’s Hall of Fame in 1996. Today he still plays the game, chairs the water polo program at NYAC, coaches at West Point and maintains his “day job” as a Certified Financial Planner.

Water polo is an intensely physical game Judge describes as “swimming and wrestling in a pool.” Players tread water in eightfoot- deep water the entire time and (except for the goalie) may only touch the ball with one hand. Simultaneously, players are trying to swim with someone trying to defend against them. Team Captain Cadet Jeffrey Stark ’19 says, “What I like most about water polo is the strategy behind the game. To most observers, it seems like a brutal sport, especially because of how physical it is.” Yet he sees the game as an art form. “Great water polo is hard to come by,” he says. “But when you see it, there’s not much else that comes close.”

Stark says that the culture of the Army team is all about hard work. Being a club program, there are many players that are new to the game. No prior experience is required to try out. He says, “Often, through sheer determination and hard work, our team out-swims and out-works other teams. We may never be the best team in the pool, but we are by far the most hardworking.” Judge concurs, “The cadets work very hard. Water polo is a very demanding sport; you can’t even practice without being in good shape. The game changes when fatigue sets in. That’s where our cadets have the advantage, being in superior shape.”

Although hard-working, the team does have a lighter side. Consider the awarding of “The Shoe Award.” It is based on the story of one team member who literally lost a shoe, and the trophy is the remaining shoe. Greulich tells the backstory: the team was on a trip section in California and went to the ocean.

One player was so excited, he ran into the water with his shoes on; one fell off and was carried out to sea. So each year players can nominate a teammate for something(s) done during the year, in the vein of losing a shoe in the ocean. The team gets to vote, and the winner gets to hold on to an old shoe for a year.

Army is a member of the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) which has about 15 divisions around the United States. West Point is a front-runner in the New York Division and, hovering at second or third place, has been the most consistent team in the division. Judge has led the team to win the New York Division and compete at Nationals each of his three years with West Point.

Cadets need to try out and make the team two times; after that they may remain on the team without going through another tryout. Part of the tryouts is a board with the firsties on the team. This is designed for the team leaders to assess whether potential teammates will be a good fit as the players are very close outside of the sport. Stark says that, in his overall cadet experience, the team has been his favorite part of West Point. “I honestly cannot imagine my time here without my teammates,” he says. “They are some of my best friends and, typically, water polo practice is the highlight of my day.” Benson believes the challenge of the sport naturally draws the cadet athletes into close relationships.

The program draws out the best in the cadets while they grow as leaders. The players’ academic, physical and military grades are all above average. Greulich calls them a “solid” group of cadets. Benson says, “Playing on the team requires a work ethic for success, making it an excellent team sport for the Academy.” Stark says his experience as the Team Captain has allowed him to develop his overall personal leadership style as well as his peer leadership. Chen claims his time on the team made him more self-aware as a leader. He says, “It gave me opportunities to see where I was lacking, both interpersonally and as a leader, which helped me later when I became a chief resident and now as a staff attending surgeon.”

The 1922 Howitzer report, in an account of the very first match played at West Point, said, “The enthusiasm of the spectators left no doubt but what [sic] water polo had come to stay.” This should hold true as the sport of water polo remains popular around the world. Plus, Benson—who may be partial—says, “It is always fun to watch Army compete in water polo.”

Printed in West Point magazine, Spring 2019, all rights reserved.