There's never a time when something remarkable doesn't catch my eye during a walk or run on the Lady Bird Lake Trail. The graceful rowers making their way across the lake on a quiet morning, local musician Woode Wood strumming away at his usual spot on Lou Neff point, or even tourists posing in front of the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue. I'm often caught off guard by the unique views of the trail. I mean, who can resist a “thong guy” sighting?
One of those ubiquitous “Keep Austin Weird” sightings happens twice a week, and if you happen to be crossing the MoPac bridge at certain times, it might stop you dead in your tracks.
When you watch the action from above, you notice how kayak polo is a combination of about 10 different sports—well, 11 if you consider “bumper cars” a sport. It’s a combination of basketball, soccer, water polo, kayaking, and hockey. Two opposing teams play against each other, and the object is to score more points than your opponent. Sounds simple enough, right? But throw in open water, narrow kayaks, long paddles, a water polo ball, helmets with facemasks, a game clock, and the imminent possibility of tipping over, and you have a glimpse of what the Austin Aquabats Kayak Polo team is all about.
The sport has actually been played in Austin since 1997. Team founder Ezio Ambrosetti moved from Rome to the U.S. in 1996. “I thought Texas would be like moving to the desert,” he joked. “So imagine my happiness when I saw the lakes around town.” It was perfect for the sport of kayak polo—an activity he discovered in Rome. He found the perfect spot to play right under the MoPac bridge near Austin High School—a popular site that often has people ending their runs early just to check out what’s going on down below.
In my never-ending quest to embrace the uniqueness of this town, I reached out to Ambrosetti to learn more. “Games, all gear, and informal instruction are free,” he said. Wait. Free? You're willing to loan me a kayak, gear, and a helmet for free so I can learn about your sport? I'm totally in.
In usual fashion, I drag my husband down to the bridge on a Wednesday night (they play on Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.) and we meet Ambrosetti and many of the Austin players in front of the Aquabats trailer.
While seasoned players head from the parking lot to the bridge with kayaks hoisted on their shoulders, Ambrosetti spends the next half hour helping us get suited in the proper gear. We adjust foot pads inside the boat to help gain as much leverage and balance as possible. Then we put on our kayak polo armor: padded life jackets, a spray skirt, paddles, and helmets. We walk our kayaks down to the lake. I am amazed and relieved that Ambrosetti is so patient, especially knowing he probably goes through this same routine every week with other, unknowing newbies wanting to try their hand at this underground sport.
We put our kayaks in the water, stretch the skirts over the opening of the boat, and paddle out five feet from the shore. “Awesome,” I think to myself. “This isn't so bad. We'll just paddle a bit, throw the ball around, get some pictures, and check it off the old Austin bucket list.” Wrong.
“The first lesson we're going to learn tonight is how to eject yourself out of the boat when you get tipped over,” Ambrosetti said with the calm demeanor of a seasoned pro who's done this weekly for the past two decades.
Now, I was never on the TV show Different Strokes, but I was absolutely having my own “Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” moment. We just spent the last 45 minutes getting in the boat and the first thing we're going to do is flip over and learn how to eject ourselves?
“Man up, Barrett,” I tell myself. This was my idea. We were in two-feet deep water, with people everywhere, but you would have thought I had been thrown into shark-infested waters. After some verbal instruction on what to do, Ambrosetti counted to three and I was soon upside down underwater. In a flash, I pulled the skirt cord, pushed my legs out, and popped back to the surface. My pulse was about 300, but I did it.
In between lessons, Ambrosetti gave us more information on the sport.
We were in the water working a little on ball handling when one of the other team leaders hollered, “Beginners time to play!” Before I knew it, we were on the pitch and were soon thrown into a full-fledged, 10-minute scrimmage with a mix of other beginners and members of the National team.
Talk about ripping off the Band-aid! The game started and players charged toward the ball. My entire body was tense. I was so nervous about tipping over, yet I found myself in the center of the action trying to take shots on goal, make passes, and get my boat turned around with some sense of grace to get back on defense. Throughout the scrimmage, coaches and players shouted out tips and advice from the sidelines. I wasn't expecting to be thrown right into the mix, but it was exhilarating to be completely out of my comfort zone.
Every now and again, I would look up at the bridge as the sun was setting and see people standing there, looking down at us. “I know what they're thinking,” I said to myself. “They're thinking this is one of the most unique things they've ever seen.”
And they're absolutely right. It was a blast. A blast of adrenaline, fear, excitement, tension, competition, and fun. I highly recommend giving it a try. (But only if you don't mind being flipped upside down first.)
Fun Facts about the Austin Aquabats
Austin Kayak Polo is a division of the Austin Paddling Club, a 501(c)-3 non-profit organization.
All lessons, scrimmaging, and equipment are free, although they do take donations.
They play twice a week under the Mopac Bridge on Wednesday nights at 6:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Games are co-ed and all levels are welcome.
For more information, visit austinkayakpolo.org