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.