OAKES: Local water polo team sees big surge from Olympic spotlight


Water polo at the Summer Olympics is having a ripple effect, all the way to Aurora.

The popularity of many sports surges in conjunction with exposure during the Olympics and water polo is no exception, especially given the American women’s team claimed its first ever gold medal at the recently completed London Games.

Colorado Water Polo — a local youth team that regularly uses Aurora pools at Hinkley and Smoky Hill high schools — is reaping some of the benefits, as veteran coach Mark Isenburg has received a huge wave of new, interested young players in his program for boys and girls ages 8-18. It’s provided a significant boost to a program that took root in the pool at Grandview High School and is now celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Jessica Steffens, left with her sister Maggie Steffens of the United States pose for the cameras after winning their women’s water polo gold medal match against Spain at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

“They showed more Olympic water polo on TV than ever before and it’s making a difference,” said Isenburg, who came on board when the program was founded by the late Grier Laughlin.

“We hoped it would have an effect at the last Olympics four years ago (in Beijing), but we didn’t get any inquiries. Now, we get them every day and the hits on our website every day are more than triple what we used to get.”

The Pirates have been growing and improving year by year since the program was started by Laughlin, a former Cherry Creek High School swimming star and Dartmouth water polo standout who was tragically killed in a car accident on Feb. 20, 2011, at the age of 37. He was able to turn many local youth onto water polo, which combines the attributes of a wide range of sports — swimming, soccer, lacrosse, basketball and in some physical cases, wrestling — in a team-oriented environment.

Isenburg took over and has continued to nurture the growth of the Pirates, who sent five teams to the Mountain Zone Championships in July in Utah and had a 14-under team play in USA’s Water Polo’s Junior Olympics for the first time.

The Olympic popularity boost was evident at the team’s practice on Aug. 11 at Hinkley High School, as a whopping 70 players — 30 in the 12-under age range and 40 more in the older group — showed up.

Isenburg and his staff used the day to get the kids used to the sport and competition, with the hope for a series of regular league games to come throughout the fall, something the program has never had the numbers to do in a significant way.

Players from all over the metro area play with the club, including many from Aurora. Team captain Sam Buchholz, a student at Rangeview High School who swims on the Aurora Public Schools’ boys team in the spring, has qualified as an Academic All-American from USA Water Polo and Cherokee Trail student Mitchell Steig is likely to earn that distinction this year.

Isenburg doesn’t want the increase to stop and he’s hoping even more kids come out, especially given hardly any equipment is needed to play.

“All you need is a swimsuit and a towel,” he said. “And being water able helps, of course.”

Colorado Water Polo practices on Tuesday evenings at Smoky Hill (6-8 p.m.) and Saturday mornings at Hinkley beginning at 10 a.m.

For more information, visit coloradowaterpolo.com.

Reach Sports Editor Courtney Oakes at [email protected] or 303-750-7555