Those who think swim team is just about doing laps and practicing strokes haven’t met Kristen Powers.
At 25, the Charles River YMCA’s aquatics director and head swim coach has transformed the program by introducing water polo, a game more often found in preparatory schools and the Olympics than public fitness centers in New England.
To break up the mundane routine of swimming laps, Powers had the idea to hold introductory water polo sessions last spring and summer at the YMCA pool on Chestnut Street in Needham. The game became so popular — partially thanks to its exposure at the Olympic Games in London — that for its first official season, which started Nov. 4, there are almost 30 kids on the team and 10 more on the waiting list.
Most of the water polo team members are also on the swim team, but a few came to the YMCA just for the game.
Powers and her sister, Meghan, started playing water polo in middle school in California, and both went on to receive Division 1 scholarships to play the sport in college.
But when Powers moved to the Northeast after graduating from college, she said, she quickly recognized a gap.
“There’s no water polo anywhere” in the region, she said, and noted that water polo is only big in about six states, with its strongest bases on the West Coast.
Ted Minnis, the head coach of the men’s and women’s water polo teams at Harvard, said he found similar results in an Internet search he did when he applied for the position in 2010. But they both have plans to fill the void.
“My vision is to make Harvard and Boston a very hot spot for water polo,” said Minnis, who started the Crimson Water Polo Club for ages 11 to 16, which is in its first season. “You have to do it at the age-group level.”
Powers and Minnis hope to spread the Needham water polo program to the other YMCAs in the area, building a league with eight teams, and eventually producing a championship team that could compete in national tournaments.
Right now, the YMCA team practices water polo once a week, while the Crimson club’s 12 players practice twice a week at the Blodgett Pool, on the Cambridge university’s campus.
Minnis said the Y league would give kids the opportunity to learn the game while competing against other local teams, similar to a youth soccer or baseball league. Powers said that the Ys are a great resource to grow the sport, since the organization aims to allow all children and families to participate in its programs through financial aid and scholarships.
“I have no doubt in my mind that we’ll have close to 60 kids when we do the in-house league,” Powers said. The league will start in March and will be open to ages 9 and up. Powers said the oldest players on the team now are 15.
Swim team member Alyssa Ram, 10, of Needham, tried one of Powers’ first water polo sessions over the summer.
‘I have no doubt in my mind that we’ll have close to 60 kids when we do the in-house league.’
“She loved it,” Alyssa’s mother, Cathy Ram, said. “It’s more fun than just doing laps.”
Ram said that many of the swim team’s parents are finding that their kids are thrilled to attend water polo practice, and the sport builds on the physical workout of swimming practice with added emotional benefits.
“Sure, you’re a member of the swim team, but it’s different,” she said. “When you’re part of a water polo team, it’s a real team sport and you’re sharing with them. When you win, [you win] as a team.”
Despite the sport’s innate likability, parents and team members say, Powers is the real draw.
“Kristen has a way of accommodating all the kids,” said Marian Slavin, whose 9-year-old son, Jared, is on the swim team and now plays water polo. “She really identifies each child by what their needs are,” Slavin said, by offering workshops and clinics to help kids work on skills they find challenging.
The YMCA and the Crimson programs also offer participants the chance to take on leadership positions. Both Powers and Minnis have encouraged their older students to serve as coaches and role models.
“All the older kids have one younger kid that they’re supposed to help train during the game,” Powers said of her program. “It’s great to see them step up.”
Scott Tambascio, 12, has been on the Charles River swim team for four years, and says he spends about 5½ hours a week practicing at the Y, but that doesn’t include the hours he spends coaching and helping out at other practices.
Though the Pollard Middle School student wasn’t sure he was going to like water polo at first, he said, Powers convinced him to try it.
“I think I really joined [because of] the attitude coming from Kristen,” Scott said. He said water polo allows him to combine skills he has learned from swimming and as a baseball pitcher, and he is really looking forward to playing in the YMCA league.
“I think it’s a great expansion and it’ll bring even more to the table,” he said, adding that the kids on the Charles River water polo team are ready for some competition.
The only downfalls to the sport are the required headgear — the kids are “humiliated,” Powers said — and the Needham facility’s tight space, which forced the coach to limit the number of swimmers able to participate this season.
Powers said the Charles River YMCA’s goal for the next five years is to build a world-class fitness and pool facility. All they need to do is find land for the project.
So chances are Greater Boston and New England will be hearing a lot more about water polo in the future.Laura Franzini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.