Three Bruins on the men’s water polo team traded in their blue and gold caps for ones with red, white and blue this summer as they represented the United States at the FINA Junior Water Polo Championships in Greece.
Junior utility player Josh Samuels, redshirt sophomore utility player Chris Wendt and redshirt freshman attacker Alex Wherry all made the trip overseas to compete against some of the world’s best young talent.
Water polo is considerably more popular in Europe than in the United States, so these players were able to immerse themselves in an entirely different sports culture while abroad.
“Going to Greece was a lot of fun. For me, I aspire to play overseas and it gave me a chance to see what kind of player I need to become if I want to be able to play over there,” Samuels said.
“It’s always a high competition level when you’re playing other countries’ national teams,” Wendt added. “The level of play is higher especially because they’re playing year-round and with professional teams.”
Other adjustments in terms of playing style had to be made as well because of the high level of international play.
“The trainings weren’t too different, but the style of play was different in the sense that there’s not as much movement and we had to deal with guys overseas with a lot of experience because these guys have been playing for a really long time and are all fundamentally sound,” Samuels said.
Coach Adam Wright continues to represent the United States as a member of the national team and has also played overseas.
Wright understands the importance of being exposed to international levels of competition.
“Over the last couple years, we’ve been able to bring in good recruiting classes. You’re always looking for athletes with ambition to go as far as they can in their sport,” Wright said. “If you put in the work, and you work hard enough, you can have opportunities like this. And of course, as a coach I’m happy that they have this opportunity to compete in the Junior World Championships and down the road it will help us here at UCLA so I’m a big supporter of it.”
However, just as adjustments were made to be able to successfully compete internationally, the players had to adapt back to the collegiate style.
“These players have only been back for a few days. We knew going into this season that we were going to have to put things together quickly before our first game,” Wright said. “They even missed our first two games. We’re still trying to mix them back in.
“It also takes times for the players to know each other with freshmen and transfers arriving. But I do believe the Junior World Championships is a pretty good level that will translate to the college level. I believe that these opportunities can only help our program,” he added.
Not only did UCLA provide players for the United States, but also for Italy with sophomore utility players Cristiano Mirarchi and Aimone Barabino.
While in Greece, the tournament became very time consuming, and the five Bruins competing there tried to stay in contact with each other as much as they could.
“We saw each other a little bit. When you get over there you’re pretty much on lockdown,” Samuels said. “I saw them in passing in trainings and I was able to talk to them over the phone. I mean those guys, just over the last year, they became brothers of ours so I was really happy to see them at the tournament when I could.”
The United States didn’t fare as well as they had hoped in the tournament, falling to the eventual champion Serbia in the early rounds.
However, the Bruins competing abroad were able to grasp the true intensity and pride of representing an entire country.
“If we beat a team, for instance, 20 to one, they’re still fighting. That one goal they scored they fought for it. Everyone is fighting every minute of every game and it’s a new sense of pride you feel when you play for your country,” Samuels said. “It’s pretty neat to see and it’s a unique experience. You definitely have pride for your colors.”
“You’ve got USA across the cap and you realize you’re representing a lot of people at home. You understand there are a lot of people that want to be in your spot so you have to represent your country well,” Wendt added.