Photography by ChiChi Ubiña
In 2007, Greenwich Aquatics launched with only 20 players. Today, this water polo powerhouse –that calls the Greenwich YMCA home – boasts players on the USA National team, an Olympian, and more than 300 players from 5 years old up to the Men’s Master’s program. During this 12-year period of remarkable growth and impressive achievements, the trio of Bill Smith, Founder and Technical Advisor; Ulmis Iordache, Head Water Polo Coach; and Kim Tierney Wang, Director of the Club, have provided leadership that gets Greenwich Aquatics noticed far and wide. LOOK spoke with Kim for a peek inside this nationally acclaimed program.
All ages, all places
Arizona, Indiana, San Diego, San Francisco, Montreal, Hungary—Greenwich Aquatics gets around but that’s what happens when you are at the top of your game. Although Greenwich has become a hotbed for water polo, nearly 80% of water polo players in the U.S. are from California. “What that means is that we have very limited playing opportunities,” says Kim. “Greenwich Aquatics is in a league of its own on the East Coast. To get competitive games, we need to be creative and travel a lot.” As Club Director, it’s Kim’s job to make sure all teams get in plenty of top-tier competition.Coordinating just one team would be challenge enough, but Kim has travel teams in all age groups: 12U, 14U, 16U, 18U, and the summer 10U team. There are two rosters for boys and one for the girls in all groups. And, along with the renowned travel program, Greenwich Aquatics also hosts a house league for players ages 8-12 and a noodle league for kids from 5-7.
Results that Make a Splash
It’s a heady time at Greenwich Aquatics. The program is enjoying tremendous success, with a host of jaw-dropping stats:
- The only club outside CA that has teams in all age-groups and both genders (12U, 14U, 16U, 18U).
- The most players (10) ever selected from any club outside of CA to the 2019 USA National teams.
- Thomas Dunstan, 2016 USA Water Polo Olympian at age 18. At 9 years old, Dunstan started playing for the Greenwich Aquatics’ house league.
- Kayla Yelensky, one of 13 players on the USA Youth National Team, which won Gold at the 2019 USANA Youth Pam American Championships.
- Six age-groups currently in the top 13 in the country (out of 100s of teams):
- 10U Co-ed: 8th
- 12U Girls: 11th
- 12U Boys: 7th
- 14U Girls: 13th
- 14U Boys: 6th
- 16U Boys: 6th
- Boys team placed 3rd in the 2019 National Middle School Championships.
- On the East Coast, every single Greenwich Aquatics age-group is ranked #1.
Kim recalls that in 2007, when the YMCA Olympic pool was being built, “Greenwich had a long history of aquatics and water polo was growing thanks to the Fairfield County League and Greenwich High School. However, there was no year-round water polo. Bill Smith was on the YMCA aquatics committee during the pool construction and it was decided that the YMCA wanted to house three competitive aquatics programs (swimming, diving and water polo) – a unique proposition as there was no other YMCA that offered these three programs.”
One of Greenwich Aquatics biggest advantages is having a home pool, instead of renting a pool as most clubs do. As a YMCA program, Greenwich Aquatics is given full use of the pool and has total backing from the YMCA. Practices are run every day from 4pm until the pool closes at9:30pm and all weekend long. “Having the space in an all-deep pool, being able to offer all our age-groups enough practices throughout the week – this is huge reason why we are one of the top programs in the country,” says Kim.
“The YMCA of Greenwich is extremely proud of its water polo program. Our Greenwich Aquatics athletes and coaches represent excellence in their sport and symbolize what we expect from all programs and services at the Y,” says Shahryar Oveissi, Chairman of the Board. “The YMCA of Greenwich is committed to providing the premier aquatics facility in the area as a home for these extraordinary athletes and we will continue to grow and improve our facility and programs. Our 103-year commitment to the Greenwich community remains strong as we serve over 5,000 members including over 500 competitive athletes.”
Creating strength in and outside the pool
Greenwich Aquatics is unique in other ways. Usually, the head coach does all the administration. However, with Kim handling all communication with the parents and for the club, the coaches can focus on what they do best: coach. The holder of two master’s in psychology, Kim says her degrees “come in handy when working with both kids and parents. Team sports mimic so much of life: it teaches us about success, failure, dealing with social issues, unfairness, hard work, leadership, resilience, teamwork, friendships, discipline, independence.”
As the mother of three young children, Kim is well aware of the pull between athletics and academics. “School comes first. We tell the kids all the time,” says Kim, who had an illustrious water polo career at Greenwich High School, at the Division 1 collegiate level, and at the New York Athletic Club. “However, players need to learn how to manage their time and prioritize. Players are making a lot of sacrifices to play water polo while keeping up with their schoolwork. Our travel teams practice anywhere between 4 and 6 days a week, 2 hours a day. There is also dryland as well as extra swimming for some age-groups. Older age-groups practice more.”
For those who live in Greenwich and surrounding towns, the continuous travel to and from the YMCA may, at times, seem endless. But their local driving is nothing compared to the growing number of players that travel between 1 and 2 hours each way from Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey, and Long Island for the program. Kim speaks with great admiration for this contingent. “These kids rarely miss practice. They are doing their homework in the car and train. One of our alumni attended Bronx Science.
He would take the train up to Greenwich, walk from the train station to the YMCA, and do his homework until his 7pm practice. After practice at 9pm, he would take the train back into Manhattan. He is now the Captain of the Water Polo team at MIT.”
In fact, college recruitment is a big goal of many players –and their parents! Greenwich Aquatics currently has alumni playing at Princeton, Harvard, Brown, MIT, Villanova, Naval Academy, Bucknell, and Michigan, to name a few. Two current seniors have already committed to colleges — Kaila Carroll (GHS) to Princeton; Kyle Yelensky (Brunswick) to the Naval Academy.
Kim admits that being an East Coast program has its hurdles. “Because water polo is a California-centric sport, there is a bias that California players are better… We are paving the way for non-CA water polo players.” Then referring back to ‘school comes first’ she continues, “We do tell our players that water polo can help you get into college, but grades are top priority. You can be an amazing water polo player, but if you don’t have the grades, you still won’t get into an Ivy League.”
Bill, Ulmis and Kim have brought Greenwich Aquatics a long way in 12 years but feel they have only scratched the surface. “The club has a lot more to accomplish,” notes Kim. “But more than the successes, we are proud that we have created a real sense of community and family. We are making a positive impact on hundreds of children and instilling a love for a sport that they will hopefully carry throughout their lives.”