Marine Warrant Officer Jeremy Piasecki is walking amid the war chaos of Helmand province: bullet-riddled buildings, a terrified populace, a junked economy, a government shot through with incompetence and corruption.
Naturally, Piasecki’s thoughts turn to water polo.
Never mind that Afghanistan is a landlocked country, or that most Afghans have never seen a swimming pool. Or that Piasecki’s sport is so unknown here that there’s no word for it in Pashto or Dari.
Those are but trifles to the 31-year-old Marine reservist, who played and coached water polo in Southern California. Whenever he leaves the security of Camp Leatherneck, he scans Afghan soldiers and farmers for potential players for a national team.
The military brass and the politicians in Kabul, the capital, and Washington have ideas about what Afghans need to buck up their spirits during the struggle with the Taliban. Piasecki has his own view.
“They need heroes,” he said while on security patrol in Marja, guarding a couple of Marine generals after the recent offensive that wrested control of the area from the Taliban.
For two years Piasecki has pursued his quixotic dream. He knows that his zeal for the notion of nation-building through athleticism seems strange to many. Especially nation-building through water polo.
“They just don’t understand,” he said.
In 2008, while working on a civilian contract job with the Afghan army, he held tryouts after finding an abandoned swimming pool at a base east of Kabul. The pool was dry and clogged with weeds. Piasecki had it cleaned and filled with water.
True, during the tryouts, he had to jump into the pool to keep some of his candidates from going under. And finding Speedo-style swimsuits, the traditional uniform of water polo players, was not easy in the bazaars of Kabul.
But now he has lined up several dozen players, mostly Afghan soldiers. The rub is finding the money to bring the team to the U.S. for training and people-to-people diplomacy.
Popular in Australia, Canada and some European countries, water polo is also big in the United States, particularly in Southern California, and Piasecki wants to recruit some of the many coaches he knows. And he’s eager for the Afghans to meet Americans.
Scott McCook remembers the early-morning call he got from Piasecki, who had coached his daughter in Fallbrook, Calif. Piasecki was asking for help raising money.
“It was kind of surreal,” McCook said. “I was groggy and it took me a few minutes to catch on. Finally, I asked him, ‘Water polo in Afghanistan? Are you kidding?’ ”
Piasecki and McCook have come to expect that reaction when they ask people to donate. Comparisons with the Jamaican bobsled team, the improbable darlings of the 1988 Olympic Games, are common.
“Everybody is interested, but everybody wants to see the team here first before they jump on the bandwagon,” said McCook, a logistics manager for the Walgreens pharmacy chain.
Along with slow fundraising, there have been setbacks. Three players have been killed in skirmishes with the Taliban.
Still, Piasecki pushes on with his dream, which came to him when he was working as a civilian contractor for the Afghan army, based at the Pul-e-Charkhi garrison east of Kabul.
Water polo, he says, is the purest of sports, requiring grace, speed, strength, endurance and teamwork, the kind of attributes that will boost the self-confidence of the Afghan players and bring the admiration of the Afghan public for their athletic countrymen.
Informal estimates say there are fewer than two dozen swimming pools in the country of 28 million people. Soccer, rugby, weightlifting, buzkashi (horse riders tussling over a headless goat) and even cricket are enjoyed in Afghanistan, but not swimming, and certainly not water polo.
Even so, more than 70 would-be players showed up for tryouts in April 2008.
Some were adequate swimmers, having learned in lakes and rivers. Others could dog-paddle. Some could barely swim but were brimming with the kind of aggressiveness that makes the underwater portion of water polo so demanding and, often, bruising.
Piasecki was a water polo player at Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach and later Orange Coast College. Although never a star, he fell in love with the rough and tumble of the game. He later coached for Temescal Canyon High School in Lake Elsinore and the Fallbrook Associated Swim Team.
In late 2008, with his job with the Afghan army ended, he returned home to Fallbrook and jumped into organizing and fundraising, along with running the family’s ice cream store (which has since closed) in Bonsall, in northern San Diego County. Then he was called to active duty with the Marines and shipped back to Afghanistan.
As a long-term goal, Piasecki hopes to see the team compete in the 2016 Olympics. He’s gotten the go-ahead from the Afghanistan Olympic Committee.
“It’s a very good idea, but I told Jeremy that it will take lots of money and time,” said Fahim Yusufzai, a member of the committee who now lives in Orange County and acts as a cultural advisor to Marines bound for Afghanistan. “Everything in Afghanistan takes time.”
Undaunted, Piasecki went to Newport Beach to meet with Peter Ueberroth, former head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, architect of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and known as a fundraiser extraordinaire. He came away encouraged but without the commitment of money or assistance that he had hoped for.
The project has registered for nonprofit status, which makes donations to it tax-deductible, and has a website, afghanistanwaterpolo.com.
While he is deployed, much of the work of keeping the website fresh has fallen to his wife, Leilani, who juggles those chores along with raising the couple’s children, Westy, 5, and Isabella, 8.
Leilani said she’s doing her best but that it was impossible to replicate her husband’s passion for the project.
“A lot of people think it’s a joke,” she said. “But if they knew Jeremy, they’d know it was real. He’s always looking for something out of the ordinary, something impossible, and then making it work.”
Leilani and Jeremy estimate that it will take about $1 million for travel, coaching and other expenses for the team’s first year. Donations of housing and pool time may whittle that figure, but only about $5,000 has been raised.
Bahram Hojreh, who manages the Los Alamitos Water Polo Club and was on the team at UC Irvine, is ready to be an assistant coach. He knows Piasecki from their competitive swimming days in college and, as an Iranian American, feels a regional kinship with the Afghans.
“It’s three steps forward and two steps back,” Hojreh said. “There aren’t a lot of Afghan millionaires in the U.S. ready to step forward with money.”
One of those steps backward might be Piasecki’s recent reassignment by the military. This year he’ll join Marine forces based in Stuttgart, Germany.
He’ll continue fundraising efforts via e-mail and long-distance phone calls. In the meantime, some of the Afghan players are practicing their swimming strokes and water polo shots in a pool at Camp Shorabak, next to Camp Leatherneck.
Even with dirty water and with some athletes missing practice because they were on missions, Piasecki said in an e-mail that the team recently had a great workout because the players were in the pool, and it offered an escape from war.
“If anybody can do it, Jeremy can,” Hojreh said. “He’s always been a crazy guy, in a good way.”