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Water (Polo) World

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Written by
Lauren Hunsberger

Photography by
Michael Matti

Zack and AJ Rossman aren’t typical high school athletes. 

Opting to focus on water polo—a sport dominated by athletes from California and steeped in obscurity to many—instead of more mainstream sports like football or basketball, they decided to travel their own path. And their recent successes in the water prove it pays to be a little different. 

Pacific Northwest natives and longtime Bellevue Club members, the Rossmans started playing casual summer water polo at Mercerwoods Shore Club when they were just 6 and 8 years old. Growing up they also took swim lessons consistently at the Bellevue Club, swam competitively and were generally attracted to water sports. Eventually Zack, now 17, and AJ, 16, joined the Bellevue High School water polo team.

“It was during my junior year that I really bought into year-round polo,” Zack says. “We’ve always played high school water polo and took it seriously, but last year is when we did the whole Junior Olympics program with our club team.”

Their club team is called Rain City Water Polo, and the team competes in roughly two tournaments a month, with what they call the “holy grail of tournaments” taking place in Orange County, California mid-summer. To stay competitive, the Rossmans practice drills five or six times a week with the team, and then they supplement that training with additional weight lifting and lap sets on their own time. Taking these steps to pursue water polo at a higher level has since resulted in equal success for the boys.

After a grueling process that culminated in a five-day tryout in California, where he estimates about 80 percent of the athletes were from California, AJ made the 2015 United States Cadet National Team and traveled overseas to represent the country against the best water polo athletes his age in the world.

“Last summer I competed in Serbia and Croatia, playing against those countries,” AJ says. “National team is a lot of fun. I don’t know where it could take me, but I’m along for the ride and I’m hopeful to keep it up.” Athletes have to try out each year to make the team, and he says this year he hopes to repeat his performance.

Zack’s talent and dedication earned him attention from several college coaches. He will be attending Claremont McKenna in the fall, where he will compete for both the water polo and swim team. He says the experience he gained in the past few years has prepared him well for the future.

“Sometimes it was tough going through high school not being on the [lacrosse] team or football team, which around here is a big deal, but it’s interesting to see how it’s all paid off in the end for both of us, sticking to it, working hard, not wavering or wanting to fit in,” Zack says. “It’s taught me a life lesson that it’s alright to be different; it’s alright to pursue your own thing.”

Even if young athletes don’t take the sport as far as them, the boys encourage other students to get involved and list camaraderie between each other and their teammates as one of the many perks. Another positive quality they mention is the longevity factor.

“One thing I think is really cool about water polo is that it has the same physicality as sports like football, but it doesn’t have the same risk of injury,” AJ says. “You’re in the water so it’s easy on the joints. There’s a lot of physicality, but you don’t have concussions; you don’t have broken bones. You might have the occasional shoulder problem, but other than that it’s really injury-free. And that’s a great benefit.”

Interestingly, the advice they share with other athletes is that it doesn’t have to be all polo all the time. In fact, they say the years they spent playing baseball and other sports helped build coordination and ball-handling skills that serve them well. 

“I think that it’s important for kids to experience different sports and keep water polo more about fun at first, because it’s got a unique culture,” Zack says. “So instead of being forced to play it seriously at an early age, it’s something you can have fun with. I would say don’t dedicate your life to it until you know that’s what you want to really do.”  

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