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An Athletic Experiment: What Is Inner Tube Water Polo?

Missouri S&T

7:36 PM: Phone buzzes with a text message. It reads: You’re playing!

Ten minutes later, the phone lights up with a follow up reminder.

8 PM: Inner Tube Water Polo at Nelson Fitness Center

I stuff my hefty poke bowl, banana and two power bars into my backpack and charge out of the dining hall. I run-walk to my room and pick up my swimsuit, goggles, swim cap, and a towel. I have 5 minutes to make the 15-minute walk from Perkins to the Nelson Fitness Center.

4 minutes later, I walk into the Nelson Fitness Center, throw on my swimsuit, then gather the courage to throw myself into the water.

Flash back to the 2:30 PM meeting with my professor, where I explained my idea for my final paper: to submerge myself in a new athletic activity and share the experience. I express an interest in exploring an unfamiliar sport, one that does not involve collegiate recruitment or varsity status. A sport pursued for the love of sport. I tell my professor about Inner Tube Water Polo. With a quizzical glance and half grin, he signs off on my adventure with, “Go investigate!”

7:50 PM. I notice my heart gently pounding with the subtle urgency of an impending activity. But on this occasion, pre-match visualization is not forthcoming because I have NO idea what this sport looks like! Aside from playing varsity tennis for Brown University, I have limited athletic skills on land and exactly zero when submerged in ten feet of chlorinated water. I am questioning my sanity in volunteering as an Inner Tube Water polo stand-in given the substantial anxiety I experience from submerging my head under water to wash my hair.

8:00 PM. I walk onto the pool deck and absorb every detail of the unfolding event. The opposing team is already in the water warming up and as I look at them, they glance up at me standing at the edge of the pool, dry and confused in my black one piece Nike competition suit. I shudder and quickly scan the bleachers, stunned by the size of the crowd. I briefly try to define the fans… friends, curiosity seekers, grandparents who live nearby?

“Alright, let’s do it!” I blurt out with fake enthusiasm and confidence.

My teammates hand me a round, inflatable tube and instruct me to sit inside. I look toward the 79 degree Fahrenheit aquatic pit and pop into the freeze, bobbing to the surface as my breath is emptied by stunned lungs. Trying to maintain good manners, despite my inner tube turmoil, I begin to introduce myself to my teammates.

"Hi, I’m Peri. I’m a sophomore concentrating in English and… "

They pay little notice to my ramblings and given my inability to stabilize the tube, I rotate in tight circles as I prattle on. I notice my comrades slowly paddling away and watch them huddle together at one end while steadying themselves by grabbing onto the edge of the pool. Apparently, I miss the obvious context clues that the contest is about to begin as I find myself floating into the middle of the pool as I continue chatting to no one at all at this point.

“I’m a little new at this, what are the rules? I just need an overview of the rules, no need to go into great detail… ”

Suddenly, the whistle blows and my teammates charge towards me… at least I think they are my teammates… with the splashing and lack of uniforms, who knows? I let out a slight yelp and try to move out of their way, but I literally cannot move in any purposeful manner. The inner tube squeezes my midsection with increased exertion and I am left bobbing in the wake of the raft of players that have passed me by. I am afraid that I look like a dying beetle flipped on its back as I thrash my arms and legs ineffectively in the middle of the pool. I see another drowning opportunity flash before my eyes as the opposing team barrels towards the aimless floater.

“Grab it, Peri!” With horror, I realize that I am the closest player to the ball. I make a spastic lunge at the ball, but am moments too late as an opposing player beats me to it with a cannon ball splash. Despite my usually avid desire to win, I am unwilling to engage in battle in this arena and I paddle as far away as possible from the ensuing chaos involved in contesting possession. Nevertheless, the wake floats me back into the scramble where I fend off hands and kicks with full focus as saving my nose and shins requires all my attention.

Some time later, I find myself in enemy territory at the opposing end of the pool, with the ball in my hand. I make a slow motion pass to a teammate and continue to advance toward the goal as I spot a too-good-to-be-true opening in the right hand corner of the goal. I enthusiastically wave my arms and legs to attract notice, and hopefully the ball, so I can take a shot. Strangely, nobody seems to notice my move. In my stealthfulness, I become invisible to both teammates and opponents as I continue to putter and lurk around the goal. Finally, I am spotted and a teammate quickly passes me the ball and with one continuous motion I catch and shoot… out of necessity, not Inner Tube Water Polo brilliance. Having attracted an aquatic stampede, I deeply regret my aggressive play and try my best to retreat. Despite my panic, I SCORED!

I wait for the referee to motion that a goal has been scored, but he does not move. In fact, no one moves. Instead, they stifle laughter and look at one another knowingly. My heart sinks as I realize that my moment of glory will be an asterisk. The referee cannot hold back his emotion and bursts out laughing. Out of pure embarrassment, I start laughing too. Laughing in an out of control, over-emotional almost-crying way that prevents inhalation or composure. I am going to drown myself with my frantic, gut-wrenching laughing. The ref climbs out of the pool, kneels in front of me on the pool deck and after regaining his posture, he speaks.

“You were in front of the orange cone. You must shoot from behind the cone.”

I look around at my teammates, expecting at least one newfound companion to come to my defense. However, their faces support the code violation and offer no condolence or camaraderie. I mumble a quick apology to the referee and deeply resent the complete abandonment by my team. I try to gracefully move back into the arena to continue play, but find that my inner tube is wedged into the corner under the lip of the pool. I close my eyes, push away from the wall as hard as I can and pray for liberation. With a loud SQUEAK that could double as amplified flatulence, I free myself from the clutches of the pool wall. My cheeks are burning with shame, effort and a chlorine rash as I paddle back to my comrades.

As the game nears completion, the referee blows the whistle, signalling that the opposing team has called a time-out. In our huddle, my teammates give me a few pointers which include the simple rules of Inner Tube Water Polo.

“So each game lasts 50 minutes. The objective of the game is to score as many goals as possible, from behind the orange cone.” At this detail, everyone laughs.

The last minutes of the game mirror the early and middle action, with us getting trounced and me floating ineffectively into the corner of the pool with my back to the action for much of the remaining time. As soon as the final whistle blows, I hoist myself out of the pool. I am exhausted from the effort and complete athletic ineffectiveness. I retreat to the locker room, peel out of my suit and re-dress, hoping that in civilian gear I will be unrecognizable to my teammates. I exit the pool deck delighted to be on solid ground and craving an opportunity to restore my athletic pride.

The next morning, I Google “Inner Tube Water Polo” to reflect on my aquatic humiliation. I see descriptions on websites for Yale Intramurals, The University of Iowa Recreation, and The University of California Santa Barbara Recreation. I conclude that the most prevalent Inner Tube locations are college campuses. Upon review of the universal rules that govern the sport… well, there aren’t any.

According to The National Intramural and Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA), “There is no standard set of rules governing Inner Tube Water Polo. Therefore, intramural programs have the liberty to design their own set of rules that cater to their individual needs and desires.”

Yes! I believe in my heart, that my goal was denied based on an archaic and widely rejected rule. In other words, my epic, stealthy goal deemed illegal inside the Brown pool would have been an allowed and celebrated achievement at another institution. Maybe I should transfer!