Apodaca: Water polo provides unlikely bridge between Newport, Afghanistan

Cue the heart-stirring music, and imagine the following set-up:

An adversity-stricken group of young people from an impoverished, war-ravaged nation yearns for a source of meaning and accomplishment for themselves, and a point of pride for their countrymen.

An idealistic military man from a far-off land dedicates himself to bringing the group together and giving wing to its unlikely dream.

Half a world away, another military man hears of the intrepid group, and rallies a community to lend support.

So far, so movie-of-the-week good.

But the story grows even more compelling when considering that the group in question is the fledgling national water polo team of Afghanistan, a landlocked country with fewer swimming pools than a typical street in Newport Beach, and that the young athletes have had to cope with unimaginable hardship and loss.

Now the team is coming to Southern California — with a stay in Newport Beach on the agenda — to practice and learn from some of the area's coaches and players.

This truth-surpasses-fiction tale started in 2008. That's when Jeremy Piasecki, who previously attended Corona del Mar High School and Orange Coast College, was a civilian contractor stationed at a sprawling garrison in Afghanistan. A Marine reservist who lives with his wife and two children in Fallbrook when he's not deployed overseas, Piasecki began teaching Afghan soldiers how to swim and play water polo.

There were many physical and cultural hurdles to overcome. The pool on the base had to be cleared of weeds and trash, and filled with water. The vast majority of Afghans can't swim; even many who signed up to play water polo had to be taught rudimentary skills.

Piasecki resorted to a combination of his limited knowledge of the Afghan language, Dari, and hand signals to communicate, and he once had to jump in the pool to rescue a struggling swimmer. Even finding appropriate swimwear was problematic; spandex bicycle shorts proved a suitable substitute.

Despite initial skepticism that the sport would catch on, Piasecki's work with the soldiers led to the idea of creating an Afghan national water polo team. The inspiration came in part from the country's first-ever Olympic medal win, a bronze finish by an Afghan national in the taekwondo competition at the 2008 summer games, a feat that provoked an outpouring of national pride.

Afghanistan could use a few more heroes like that, Piasecki figured.

Players on the nascent Afghan water polo team include some of the soldiers that Piasecki initially taught, and other recruits from around the country. They range from college graduates to farmers and goat herders with little formal education. Improbable as it sounds, the team is hoping to qualify for competition at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

But Piasecki — Coach Jeremy, as he's known to the players — has stressed that the Olympic dreams are secondary to the most important goals of the team: creating positive role models for Afghanistan, and building cultural bridges and educational opportunities.

Members of the team "have endured hardships that most Americans and those in the western world cannot fathom," Piasecki states in the team's press materials.

"They have had their homes destroyed, family members killed, have had to live in exile in other countries, little or no education, but they still find ways to smile, laugh, enjoy camaraderie with their friends, and be able to get excited about new things," the statement continues.

"These athletes give 100% at all times at practice and we are always happy to be at practice, despite 30 years of war that surrounds them."

Now 11 team members — 10 men and one woman — are headed to Southern California to learn from the region's deep reservoir of water polo talent. They plan to arrive in early December, and stay through most of the winter, a time when the Afghan weather is harsh and the few pools available in the country are closed.

Piasecki, who has been called to active duty and is now stationed in Germany, has been accumulating leave time and plans to join them. Missing will be three of the team's original players, who were killed while fighting the Taliban.

For the team members able to make the training trip, it will be their first journey outside Afghanistan and their first plane ride.

When Gary Mathieson, a teacher at CdM High School and an Air Force reservist, heard about the team's travel plans, he contacted Piasecki to offer help.

Mathieson, the subject of a previous Daily Pilot column, figured that many people in the Newport Beach community would be interested in supporting the team. He's been working to secure practice time and coaching at local high schools, and assistance with lodging and transportation.

The team now plans to make Newport Beach its first stop, and will spend a few weeks here. In addition to practice sessions, its agenda will include community outreach activities, exchanges with students, and visits to tourist sites.

All of which provides a unique opportunity — not only for this extraordinary group of athletes, but for the rest of us as well.

Piasecki and his band of young heroes-in-the-making are providing those of us fortunate enough to live in a land of freedom and opportunity an object lesson in courage and determination. Let's welcome them with open arms.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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