In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Lucy discovers the magical world of Narnia while she’s poking around in a wardrobe. After chancing upon this unknown Narnia she becomes obsessed; there is a similar mindset when it comes to kayak polo. When chatting with Ezio Ambrosetti, who started Austin, Texas’ very own kayak polo team The Austin Aquabats, his love and passion for the obscure sport is contagious. We spoke for about an hour and after our conversation I found myself making plans for the following weekend so I could give it a try (keep your eyes out for a post about that experience!). I didn’t know kayak polo existed until encountering one of their practice sessions on Town Lake. When I reached out to learn more, Ezio was more than happy to provide an overview of the exciting sport.
Kayak vs. Canoe Polo and a Brief History
A quick disambiguation, in the U.S., it’s called kayak polo, however the rest of the world knows it as canoe polo. This is because in the States we use the Inuit Eskimo derived word “kayak” to mean a canoe that one sits inside. The origin of kayak polo is tricky to trace, however researchers say the modern version as we know it today originated in Germany during the 1920’s. It took off in Europe, and became more standardized in 1988 when the International Canoe Federation uniformed the rules.
Austin Aquabats founder, Ezio grew up in Rome, Italy where he started playing kayak polo in high school. He stumbled upon a group practicing and thought it looked fun and effortless (which he clarifies is a total illusion – there’s a quite a lot of effort involved!) and was immediately intrigued. While the sport is pretty popular in Europe, especially so in the U.K., Italy, and Germany, there is an underwhelming representation here in the States.
In 1996 Ezio moved to Austin, Texas and was desperate to find others to play with. The internet was still pretty new, so finding people familiar with kayak polo was a struggle. When he saw an announcement for a Texas paddling squad event in north Houston featuring a kayak polo class he jumped at the opportunity to meet fellow Texans who knew his sport. He was baffled to see a group in whitewater gear tossing around a soccer ball and was quickly deemed “more legit” than the people in charge because of his proper kayak polo equipment so Ezio found himself teaching the clinic.
In these early days of kayak polo in the U.S., Ezio also came across a Canadian message board (keep in mind, these were also the early days of internet!) with a post from another expat living in the U.S. looking for other Americans who knew the sport so they could form a team and represent the United States in the North American Championship Cup. Ezio and a few other brave kayak polo-ers made the trip up to Canada where they met for the first time and ended up coming home winning second place.
Moving forward to today, Ezio has had a lot of success recruiting Austinites to try the sport via their Meetup page. There is a core group who have been playing since Ezio started the team twenty years ago and many others have joined in the fun whether through word of mouth or a love of all things kayak related. The Aquabats make it very easy to try kayak polo by providing newcomers with all the gear. The kayaks used are most similar to whitewater slalom kayaks, but with the ends dropped off and a protective foam layer around the bumpers. People wear typical kayaking apparel and a face mask to protect against all the swinging paddles. The PFD acts as a padding to protect against any impacts from the boat, but overall, it’s a pretty safe sport. Ezio joked, “the most dangerous part of a practice is going down Mopac to get there!”
Kayak Polo is gaining a lot of international traction and hopes to become an official Olympic sport. There are already national and international tournaments, and our own Austin Aquabats have won both Men’s and Women’s National Championship titles. With its fast pace and “easy to follow” rules, it has all the fixings to be an extremely popular spectator sport. I encourage you to go down to Town Lake and watch a practice – if you’re feeling adventurous, and looking for a fun free activity, you can even give it a try yourself!
Devyn Stewart, ACK Blogger and Newly Minted Kayak Polo Enthusiast