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Petaluma girl on a crusade to bring water polo to high schools


Amaia Garay was the only kid at water polo practice wearing a swim cap. She had to leave town to get some work in, so why not arrive in style?

Garay, 12 years old and from Petaluma, was in a Novato pool. Her coach is from Novato High School.

“I would love to have 20 like her,” said Rod Crow, head water polo coach at Novato. He has coached young players at Marin Water Polo for 25 years. “She takes the challenge. She doesn’t back away from it.”

Garay’s challenge, in addition to improving her skills, is to start a high school team in Petaluma.

Currently, neither Casa Grande nor Petaluma high school has a pool. A lack of facilities is just one of the challenges that Garay faces, but she has a plan. Garay will be ready for high school in a year, and she knows her task won’t be easy.

Garay’s first love was swimming, according to her parents, Mikel Garay and Sheila Morrissey. But something about water polo appealed to her.

“I’m a swimmer so water polo really touched home for me because I love swimming and I just love being in the water,” Garay said. “But also, water polo brings a lot to the table. You have a team that you count on and a team that counts on you.”

Garay added, “Also, people say that I’m an aggressive person, and so I guess that’s part of the reason that I like it, it’s an aggressive sport.”

Garay’s father thinks water polo may have helped keep his daughter in the pool.

“She started to get a little bored and said hey, ‘Let’s try a little water polo,’” Mikel Garay said.

Garay believes that other swimmers will want to try water polo too, and she’s already contacted the swim coach at Casa Grande High School.

“I haven’t talked directly to my swimmers about it because it’s off-season,” said Mike Quinn, head swim coach at Casa Grande. “But, I did send everybody a message telling them that if they’re interested to contact her.”

Garay said she will continue to communicate with Quinn and Casa Grande athletic director Rick O’Brien once the school year starts.

But. it’s the school board that has the final say.

Quinn said Garay’s chances improve, “If she can show that she has 20 students that want to play water polo or even 10.”

Garay isn’t just recruiting swimmers. She’s targeting other athletes, starting with lacrosse players. Many water polo players in Marin County also play lacrosse, according to Crow.

Lacrosse players in Petaluma know about starting a new program. It took four years of local club play before lacrosse was approved as a high school sport at both Petaluma and Casa Grande high schools.

With that in mind, Garay is focused on water polo in all of Petaluma, not just at Casa Grande. She said starting a club team could be a good start.

Jeremy Engman of SOMA aquatics, which is based in Mill Valley, has a similar view. SOMA’s goal is to provide access to swimming, diving and water polo for youth in Sonoma and Marin counties.

Engman believes that a joint Casa Grande/Petaluma High School water polo team is possible. He said that a grant could pay for pool time, likely at the Petaluma Swim Center, and coaching.

“We’re going to need the OK from someone working within the district and a parent working on that to have that push coming from within,” said Engman, who lives in Petaluma.

Engman said SOMA has already asked for a grant from USA Water Polo for more youth programs in Petaluma.

“It’s a great game, it’s a great sport, and I’m amazed that we don’t have it offered right now in Petaluma,” Engman said.

School facilities are lacking, but the Petaluma Swim Center has the only full-sized pool in Sonoma County. The facility gets heavy use from every swim team and club in the area, but it’s in great shape, according to Quinn.

Crow said that an off-campus pool makes for erratic practice and game times.

“The biggest hurdle for the sport is facilities,” Crow said. “It’s not like basketball, where you have gyms everywhere.”

There have been discussions about repairing the pool at Petaluma High. The school district has bond money for the project, but it may be too costly for immediate repair and there is no time table for the work.

Garay is considering all options.

“Casa is a great school, all of my siblings went there, and I would like to go there, but I would also like to play water polo,” Garay said. “So its two things I have to look at. I have to look at the school that I want to go to and that has the academic needs that fit me, and also I need to look at what I want to do, what I want to play.”

There are a few schools north of Petaluma with water polo teams, and there are many programs in Marin County that Garay could potentially play for. Enrolling at Casa Grande without a new water polo team is another option, so long as a team is on the horizon.

Garay believes she can get the ball rolling in Petaluma, “with the help of the community and the athletics department, if they are willing to spend the time and effort to actually pursue this.”

Increasing the community’s knowledge of water polo could be another challenge for Garay. There have been some high-profile, negative stories about Bay Area water polo in recent years.

In late 2016, a high school water polo player was accused of sexual assault after a game between Berkeley and Encinal high schools. Details of the incident were not released because both boys are minors, according to the San Jose Mercury news.

Less than a year earlier, a player from Acalanes High in Lafayette was charged with felony assault and battery after breaking an opponent’s nose during a game.

“People don’t know a lot about water polo and the things they hear about is these cases of abuse in the pool,” Garay said. “There are risks to any sport. Football, soccer, team sports are aggressive sports because you’re striving to get the goal, you want the best for your team.”

Legal experts say criminal charges in high school sports are extremely rare, even though violence is fairly common, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

What those people did is bad and they need to realize that,” said Garay. “The coaches need to teach them better, but also, people on the outside; they don’t realize that’s not all that water polo is.”

For Garay, water polo is a passion. She credits her parents for her progress in the sport she loves. They’ve always found a team for their daughter, even if it meant traveling to Santa Rosa, where Garay first started playing, or to Novato, where she plays now.

“They told me that if I wanted to pursue this, then I had to continue and push through [the travel],” Garay said. “They wanted me to do this because it seemed like I liked it, and I did. And so I think that was good, that they saw that and they helped me.”

Garay still needs help from her family and the community to start a high school team in Petaluma. A local team would also help with other goals. Garay participates in the USA Water Polo Olympic Development Program when her schedule permits.

“What I’m looking at so far is just playing in college and seeing what I can do with that,” Garay said.

A high school team would also start a tradition of water polo in Petaluma. Crow said if anyone can do it, it’s Garay.

“She’s got the right mentality, right drive,” Crow said. “All the things that we see her apply in the water, you see out of the water, and that’s huge. She’s a leader.”

Young athletes across Petaluma benefit from playing sports in high school. For now, that’s all that Garay wants.

“When you get to the other side of the pool before everybody else, and you have that open shot and you take it, and it works,” Garay said. “That’s just a great feeling.”