by Jim Provenzano
Tsunami Polo has played an important part in San Francisco LGBT sports history. In the 1980s, a group called Homo Polo was formed by writer Mark Schoofs, who recruited other Tsunami swimmers to form a team. That lasted for a few years, but after the team disbanded, there wasn't a water polo team until the 1990s. The second incarnation lasted a few years.
But it wasn't until Jim Ruggiero founded Tsunami Polo in 2000 that the sport really took off. With the help of various coaches at Mills College, Tsunami Polo began to become a driving force at International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics tournaments.
Tsunami Polo and the Tsunami Swim Club had a banner year in 2003, when they hosted the annual IGLA tournament at Stanford University in Palo Alto. The world-class facility drew hundreds of swimmers, polo players, divers, and even synchronized swimmers.
Tsunami Polo won bronze at Sydney's 2002 Gay Games VI, and for the past several years, Tsunami Polo hosted an annual tournament the first weekend each May. Held in the East Bay's Moraga, it regularly draws local gay and straight teams of varying skill levels, and has increased playing opportunities for women polo players, who not only play on teams with men, but have often formed their own teams.
One of the pivotal positions for any water polo team is that of goalie, a slot that often falls to six-year polo veteran John Lum. A busy architect who, with his firm Pacific Laundry, designed the nightclub Asia SF, Haight and Vine Wine bar, and the Urban Eyes shop, Lum, 44, said his business has taken off this year. One of the homes he designed will be featured in an upcoming issue of Sunset magazine.
A graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Lum said he wanted to be an architect since he was 6 years old. Yet he still finds time to attend regular practices, and has competed in many tournaments since joining Tsunami Polo, as well as serving as its president for a few years.
Tsunami Polo scrimmages with several masters' teams around the Bay Area, including Burlingame and other South Bay teams, and the Mills College team, where they practice and have the advantage of scrimmaging with the women's Olympic Club team.
Lum has a Gay Games history that goes back to 1990, when he played volleyball at the third Games with the Snow Peas, winning silver. "It was fantastic," said Lum of Vancouver. "It was the first time I ever won a trophy or anything. We just kept winning our games." At New York's Gay Games IV, his team won gold in the B division.
With 26 players signed up for the Chicago-bound A and B teams, Tsunami is a bit smaller than in Sydney, where it sent three teams. The A team won bronze in 2002. "Sydney was fantastic," said Lum. "We got a real glimpse of how it would be like to be a professional athlete."
As for the split that led to two LGBT sporting events this summer â€“ Gay Games and Outgames â€“ Lum said, "I'm disappointed by the whole thing with Montreal. We decided as a team to go where our competition's going to go, and most American teams are going to Chicago."
Lum's earliest experience playing for one semester at his high school in Lakewood [near Long Beach, California] wasn't very pleasant. "I hated it. I only did it because my brothers played," he said. "I also wasn't a very good swimmer." His team was homophobic, and Lum was not out as gay, and not comfortable. "Jocks are not normally known for their sensitivity."
Fortunately, his attitude, and the environment in which he now plays, is vastly different.
Lum admits to "a certain level of perfectionism" in his goal work. "You can try to anticipate where the ball's going to go. You have to do educated guesses where to position yourself. Not only do you have to think about that, but direct your teammates. There are some basic things that you try to work on, lunging forward, not blinking when the ball's coming at your head. It's a position that really goes against the nature of animal instincts."
A sign of Tsunami's serious intent is the level of coaches it hires. Previous coaches have included Inna Federevaya, a former member of the San Jose State Women's team and a Ukrainian national team player; and Dave Myers, former Cal Berkeley goalie.
Lex Georgiou, Tsunami's current coach, started playing two and a half years ago and started coaching the team in October 2005. "Others became too busy with work, and I had coached at a few tournaments," said Georgiou, who played water polo in high school for five years in his hometown of St. Louis.
As a student at University of Southern California, Georgiou said, "The competition at tournaments was too intense, so I stopped playing." While later enrolled in law school at U.C. Hastings, Georgiou heard about Tsunami polo, and decided to return to the sport.
"At first I could barely swim," he said. But he soon re-acclimated himself to the sport's demands. As both a player and coach, Georgiou says coaching from mid-play is of course different than at poolside. "I'm usually a 2-meter man, which is sort of a middle man, comparable to a center in basketball." After the regular series of drills, he usually rests halfway through, then helps the team focus on specific tasks like pressure defense moves.
So, what about the competition in Chicago? Granted, West Hollywood's WH20 is definitely the team to beat. "We do have that rivalry," added Lum, who considers Tsunami to be the underdog of the gay and lesbian teams. "West Hollywood has always been the ones who've beaten us. But it's interesting to see how we've progressed through the different tournaments. We've worked our way up to second place."
Georgiou said New York and Atlanta are also top contenders. Teams change from year to year, and with both new and returning players, Tsunami has both fresh energy and experienced veterans.
Tsunami Polo also will be staffing a margarita booth this weekend at the Pride festival in Civic Center, which has been a popular fundraiser. Be sure to stop by to meet and support the players.