WROCLAW, Poland – “Good ball movement!” shouts U.S. assistant Amy Bokker at the IWGA World Games in Poland, where lacrosse is participating for the first time.
But she wasn’t talking about lacrosse.
After Team USA defeated Great Britain 14-6 to go 2-0 and earn the top seed entering the semifinals on Saturday, the Americans went to Orbita swimming pool to support men’s and women’s canoe polo teams, starting with an afternoon match featuring the New Zealand men’s team with whom they had built a camaraderie since arriving in Wroclaw on Tuesday.
Canoe polo, also known as kayak polo, is described as a combination of canoeing and ball handling similar to water polo, starting the game with a race to the center of the pool to secure the ball, just like dodge ball, and scoring goals by shooting into a net like basketball.
While it was a new sport to lacrosse coaches and players in the stands, including Great Britain coach Nicky Budd, Bokker noticed similarities between canoe polo and lacrosse – the ball movement to allow open looks to net, the fast breaks after a turnover, picks to create open lanes, strategies when playing man-up or man-down, and the physicality of the defense underneath the net to battle for good positioning and protect the goal.
Just like lacrosse, canoe polo is one of 30-plus sports aiming to achieve Olympic recognition.
“It just goes to show when you find your niche and you’re passionate about it, you can be an Olympian some day,” said Bokker.
U.S. defender Megan Douty, who has canoed for fun and whose mom played intramural water polo in college, added, “They are putting on a show and I think it will be a very interesting sport to go into the Olympics. It’s very exciting. We’re doing the same thing with lacrosse. [This event] is great for all the sports here.”
Team USA has also built friendships with the Belgium floorball team and Puerto Rican powerlifters. The Americans have watched water skiing and wakeboarding as well, and so have the British.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” said Great Britain midfielder Emily Gray. “Everyone’s been so friendly and welcoming and really interested to watch other sports, which is great.”
That’s what The World Games is all about.
“It’s a stepping stone to the Olympics,” said U.S. coach Ricky Fried. “Everybody that’s here is hoping to get to the Olympics. … So it’s international competition from multiple sports and a vast number of countries. The exciting thing for our players is not only the number of countries that are here, but the different types of sports and the camaraderie. They get the same sense of an Olympic venue.”
“It just goes to show when you find your niche and you’re passionate about it, you can be an Olympian some day.” – Team USA Assistant Amy Bokker
Prior to Team USA watching canoe polo, the New Zealand team visited Olawka Stadium on Thursday to watch Canada play Australia in lacrosse. The next day, they sat down with the Americans in the dining hall to discuss the game they just saw.
“It was really cool to see other athletes come out, support lacrosse, get really invested in the game and love the game of lacrosse because that’s what we’re trying to do – promote the sport to everyone else,” said U.S. midfielder Marie McCool.
As New Zealand tried to explain canoe polo, Team USA also described lacrosse. According to Fried, the fastest sport on two feet is best described as a combination of soccer and field hockey with the ball in the air.
“’You need to come out and see it. That speaks for itself,’” he first told New Zealand. “But that’s probably the best analogy for a full field sport – a lot of activity, a lot of athleticism, a lot of scoring. We get strong feminine women that are playing the game at a really high level.”
Just like canoe polo is new to Team USA, The World Games as a whole is new to fans back home. Now that the Americans have experienced more of the event off the lacrosse field, they have a better understanding of what it is and what it means.
“I’ve never been to an Olympics, but I think this could be a little taste of what that is,” said McCool. “The fact that there are so many different sports I think that’s the best part about this. Just how excited everyone is to just be here, interact with other countries and how they really want to know about each other’s sports and each other’s countries is really cool.”
Added Budd about lacrosse: “The World Games is about promoting our sport and showing everybody what an incredible sport it is, and whatever country you’re playing the game in, it’s a passionate sport and everybody loves it. … It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we’re always going to remember forever.”
The United States enters The World Games semifinals undefeated with a 20-0 win over Poland and a 14-6 victory over Great Britain. Canada’s record is also untouched, topping Australia 15-10 and Japan 18-5.
Australia and Great Britain are both 1-1, earning the No. 3 and 4 seeds, respectively. The Aussies defeated Poland 23-0 and the British handled Japan 9-5.
The competition among the top four teams is stiff, with just a five-goal advantage for the Canadians over the Aussies. In today’s match against Great Britain, Team USA was challenged from the opening draw as the British scored first and held an early 2-1 lead five minutes into the game.
That tight competition is what’s desirable for the fans, as well as members of the Olympic committee when considering the Federation of International Lacrosse’s bid for provisional recognition.
“It’s all about the close competition and knowing we can build at the highest level,” Gray said.
While Poland is one of several recent countries that added lacrosse, growing the game is also about leveling the playing field.
“Closing the gap is going to be important for the game,” said Fried. “It’s important that we add countries, especially in the southern hemisphere for the Olympic piece from what I’ve been told. That piece is critical, but it’s just as critical that we get to where there are six to 10 teams that are playing at a really high level pretty quickly so that it’s more competitive across the board. Then it becomes more fan-friendly and more people want to watch it. There’s a snowball effect in that regard.”
While Team USA is currently at the top of the world, that parity is critical for the growth of the sport and hopefully an invitation to a future Olympic Games.
“We’re here because we want to show our best and we want to play our best,” said McCool. “Today was a great game. It was physical. It was close for a while. It’s important to show that other countries can compete with each other to keep things interesting and keep the fans engaged. That could be an important factor, but at the same time we want to put on our best showing. We want to play our best and show the world how cool and fun this sport can be to watch.”
Tune into the Olympic channel tomorrow morning to see if Team USA can reach its second gold medal game in one week.