Apodaca: Afghanistan water polo dreams delayed, not defeated

Turning a dream into reality is seldom a smooth course. That's what members of the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team are learning in their quixotic quest to come to the United States to train and prepare for their unlikely bid to compete in the Olympics.

When I wrote about the team last fall, plans were underway for a visit to Southern California so players could learn from the deep reservoir of water polo talent in the region. Their itinerary was to include a lengthy stopover in Newport Beach, where they planned to practice at the Corona del Mar High School pool, and learn from local players and coaches.

The trip was also viewed as a means of outreach and bridge building between two nations linked by war but divided by deep cultural differences.

The team, the brainchild of former CdM High and Orange Coast College student Jeremy Piasecki, a Marine reservist, had originally hoped to travel to the U.S. early last month. Lacking the necessary approvals, the visit was pushed back to late December.

But about a week before the new travel date, the plan fell apart when the consulate officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul denied the visa requests by the 10 male athletes because of concerns that the players wouldn't return to Afghanistan after the visas expired.

A visa for the lone female water polo player was approved, and she is expected to visit the Unites States soon to begin training with college teams, after which she'll return home and try to jump start a national women's team.

The consulate's decision was a blow to the team, and to its many American supporters, both civilian and military, who have volunteered their time and effort to seeing this against-the-odds story through to a happy conclusion.

For now, the team's backers are taking a sanguine approach, stating in a press release that the setback "is just one more obstruction that this program must navigate around." They're adopting a longer and perhaps more realistic view, and are working on a new plan to visit another country in September in order to establish a track record of reliability that might satisfy the U.S. consulate's concerns.

They also announced last week that they'd be sending coaches from the United States to Afghanistan this spring and summer to lend their expertise, and perhaps help launch another team.

I wouldn't bet against them. From the start, this little team-that-could has defied expectations.

The story began in 2008 when Piasecki, then a civilian contractor stationed in landlocked, war-torn Afghanistan, began teaching Afghan soldiers how to swim and play water polo. The pool on the base where he worked — one of only about a dozen pools in the entire country — had to be cleared of weeds and trash and filled with water for the lessons; language difficulties had to be overcome; suitable swimsuits found.

On one occasion, Piasecki had to jump in and rescue a struggling swimmer.

Piasecki's work led to the idea of creating an Afghan national water polo team, an idea inspired in part by the country's first-ever Olympic win, a bronze medal in the taekwondo competition in 2008.

The team is hoping to qualify for competition at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It's a dream that, if realized, would give the war-ravaged country a source of pride and some sorely needed positive role models.

Perhaps the players — young men from all over Afghanistan and ranging in age from 16 to mid-30s — are choosing to remain optimistic in the face of the visa denials because they've already endured more hardship than most of us could imagine. Three of the team's original members were killed fighting the Taliban. Others have seen their homes destroyed; they've lost family and friends, and suffered a dearth of educational and economic opportunities.

Fortunately, the team has the backing of a cadre of motivated supporters here in the U.S. They include Piasecki, who lives in Fallbrook when not stationed overseas, and other water polo enthusiasts across the country, from a marine scientist in San Diego who heads research and development for the team, to a Hollywood television producer and a New York advertising executive. The team manager is a former marine now living in Chicago.

The now-canceled training trip also had the blessing of the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Water Polo.

Team backers have put together an impressively professional-looking website, http://www.afghanistanwaterpolo.com. The home page carries the tagline, "Supporting the world's toughest sport in the world's toughest country."

The group is hosting a fundraising dinner and auction Feb. 16 in Irvine, with proceeds from the event slated to help pay for the travel expenses of the American coaches and additional Afghan water polo costs.

While I'm hardly in a place to second guess the U.S. consulate's visa denials, I know I'm not alone in continuing to root for the Afghan water polo players, and hope that they'll soon be allowed to visit. The team members wouldn't be the only ones who would benefit from such a meeting of disparate cultures and backgrounds.

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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