by Sumiko Rudisky
photography by Litsy Tellez
Coming off a high from winning our game Wednesday night, March 11, 2020, and well on our way toward getting a ring if we won our SCIAC Conference, our Women’s Water Polo world came crashing down on a Thursday morning. It was a gloomy day, cold and raining outside. Our whole team huddled in one little room on the pool deck, waiting for the athletic director to tell us what the rest of our season would look like.
Earlier that morning, my University of La Verne water polo team received a text from head coach Pat Beemer, telling us we wouldn’t be getting in the pool for practice but instead would hold this meeting. “You better not be telling us our season is over,” texted back teammate Ashley Garcia.
Nevertheless, in our hearts, we feared that the rumors surrounding Wednesday’s game against Chapman might foreshadow what was to come. A friend playing for Chapman told us this was her last game. I, on the other hand, felt like we at the University of La Verne were untouchable; that we would get to continue to have a season. At the time, people were thinking COVID-19 would go one of two ways. It was all being blown out of proportion, or this was going to be extremely serious. I hoped for the first outcome to be true. It wasn’t.
As we all huddled together on the pool deck, we still held great anticipation waiting for ULV Athletic Director Scott Winterburn. We all held out hope to play. On the flip side, we all were worried about what was going to happen. As a team, we had been playing really well together and were 10-5 in conference as we held high hopes of winning our SCIAC division.
With dread, I remembered we collectively had already received a ULV email saying school was closing down, but we figured we would still continue playing our season since we were already halfway through our schedule.
Then the athletic director was in front of us. The light rain sprinkled outside as we all huddled together in the pool deck office. Winterburn sadly told all of us our season would be postponed until further notice. Then reality hit. Seniors on deck had tears in their eyes, knowing that they were never going to be able to finish their final season. There was this sense of overwhelming sadness, felt only when things are at their worst. In an instant, all our hopes of getting a ring had disappeared.
COVID-19 was like some of the real nightmares I’ve had about water polo, where I would try to pick up the ball in the water, but I couldn’t. However, this nightmare was a reality.
The news about COVID-19 seemed like every time something felt under control, it always shifted. Little did I know how bad it would get. We left that 10:30 a.m. meeting and attended our Thursday classes. Then our on-campus experience ended. Spring break was in front of us, with an entirely different college experience waiting for me on the other side.
I have been playing water polo for 12 years now and have never taken longer than a few weeks off from the sport. So, when we went into lock down, I went from competing and practicing six to seven days a week to jarringly absolutely nothing. My family doesn’t own a home pool, so I had nowhere to go to continue to swim. My old club and practice pool is at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center, which also shut down. I was now captured by the walls of my own home as if I were on house arrest and not allowed to leave.
I knew I’d be a water polo player from the moment my cousins started playing. It is the family sport. I have three older cousins who played water polo in high school. So, my mom decided to have me start playing when I was 9 years old. I fell in love with the sport so much I dropped all the other sports I was playing at the time, which included soccer and softball.
I was recruited to the University of La Verne to play water polo. Coach Beemer coincidentally was my club coach when I was 13 years old. I transferred to ULV from Los Angeles Valley College with an associates of arts degree in the spring of 2020, just in time to play half the ULV season. I had already played a full season Fall 2019 at L.A. Valley.
Following lockdown, my ULV team would spend many Zoom meetings throughout the quarantine period with our head coach and assistants, hearing weekly updates on what the future would bring. Unfortunately, our getting back together in person wouldn’t happen for another year. Every once in a while, we would even get on a Zoom call to do team dry land workouts to try to keep in shape or just to hang out. One night, a few of us gathered on Zoom to do a paint night and followed a Bob Ross painting video. As much fun as it was to be able to talk to one another, it was hard to not be able to get in the pool and see each other face-to-face.
Unlike other sports, like soccer and baseball where you can find fields to hit a ball or to go on runs, water polo is a hard sport to stay in shape for if you don’t have a pool. There aren’t a lot of dry land workouts that prepare you for when you start swimming again. Most pools were closed because of COVID-19; those that were open, I didn’t feel comfortable going to. With me and my mom both struggling with asthma, we are at high risk of catching COVID-19, which could put us in the hospital.
In quarantine, I had to learn to find a new hobby and ways to keep busy. As someone who has been swimming and has loved the water my whole life, sports on land have never been my favorite thing—especially running. But during COVID, I enjoyed walking my Husky/German Shepherd dog Alaska more often and started going on hikes over to Occidental College.
From there, I eventually started to give running a chance and began with short distances. I even got my dad to join me, and we were able to bond through this experience. We would talk about sports, mostly baseball and basketball, and we were so excited when the Dodgers won the World Series, and the Lakers won their championship.
I also spent much time at home and at my grandmother’s house in Eagle Rock. We live a mile away from each other, and we enjoyed being in each other’s company. We spent much time watching Russian soap operas, which I never knew what was going on. She would willingly explain them to me. We also cooked together as she shared family recipes. I learned to make “blini,” a Russian crepe. All the while, I did many YouTube workouts and fell into the addiction of online shopping, like so many people I followed on social media did.
Now, a year and a half later, my La Verne Water Polo team is back at school, and we’re able to get back in the water with one another. Even though our season didn’t start until the spring of 2022, there were a good number of us who decided to get back in shape, and who voluntarily showed up to the men’s water polo practices before their season ended. Some days, those practices started as early as 6 a.m.
Even though I consider myself an accomplished player, the first day I got back into the water, my arms felt like jello, and my body was so tired. I immediately knew it was going to take a long time to get back in shape for my season. However, I am extremely grateful that I will be getting a season in this school year, starting Jan. 10, 2022, and my team is off to a great start.
Before COVID, I was doubting whether I should continue playing. At the time, I had been playing for 10 years. I felt burnt out and tired of not being able to have time to myself on weekends because of tournament commitments. I felt like I was ready to quit and start a new chapter in my life. The pandemic, however, made me realize how much I love the sport, and that there was a reason I stuck with it for so long. I am now feeling more committed than ever to getting back in shape and dominating my upcoming season. COVID has left me appreciating the things I take for granted every day, and I’m more focused and determined than I’ve ever been. ■