John Baker wants to set the record straight about his sport, water polo.
It’s more violent than you think.
“If you look at it on the surface, it's calm. Underwater it’s constant ball changing over, you are hitting a guy as hard as you can, planting off,” said Baker, a Lake Forest High School senior. “If you step out for a ball you are going to throw a low blow.”
Understand, these athletes wear nothing but speedos and caps. No cups or padding.
How’s this for dedication: three, sometimes four days a week, Baker makes the drive from Lake Forest to Oak Park (34 miles to be exact) to practice with Windy City, an Elite 18 and under club team. On the other days, he’s up before dawn and in the pool at the Lake Bluff Park District or Lake Forest College by 6 a.m. for swimming workouts designed to maintain fitness and stamina.
You have to be a little crazy to put your body through all of this, and the 6-foot-3, 185-pound Baker wears the label proudly.
“It’s the only sport where you consistently have to wake up at ridiculous hours, get home from a second practice and it's dark out,” said Baker, who also swims for the Lake Forest High School varsity team. “Unless you are really going all out all the time with every opportunity you have, it's really hard to make strides. You really have to put the metal to the floor and go all out.”
Baker and his Windy City teammates will do just that in next week's USA Water Polo Junior Olympics in Stanford, Calif. The water polo equivalent of the baseball all-star game, Baker will not only be competing for a team national championship, but also for a college scholarship.
According to the NCAA, water polo is allotted just 4.5 scholarships per school at the Division 1 level. With just 52 colleges offering the sport in Division 1, the competition is as fierce as the individual battles in the pool, making showcase tournaments all the more important.
“There’s no varsity men’s water polo in the Midwest so if you are looking at a school in California or the east coast, you have to travel,” said Marcus Meyer, head coach of the Windy City team. “They all want to get into Brown, Bucknell or UCLA. It’s very easy for those coaches, they are all in one spot and it’s the highest competition.”
A bit of a fitness buff, Baker understands the relationship between food and health. Sure, swimmers burn a lot of calories, but you won’t see him chowing down on stacks of chocolate chip pancakes after a workout.
“A lot of people look at Michael Phelps when that (12,000) calorie diet came out and think swimmers can eat whatever they want. It’s not like that,” said Baker, who plans to study kinesiology, nutrition and environmental sciences. “Yeah, we eat a lot of food, we consume a lot of calories and it doesn't make much difference. But unless you are really focused on brown rices, lean meats and pastas and eating clean and a lot of it, you are going to die.”
Before Baker dedicates his life to educating us on non-fatal dieting and nutrition, he’s got plenty of work to do in the water. Water polo may not get a lot of attention, but there’s a lot more going on below the surface than us dry landers know.
Check your padding, and excuses, at the pool.
“One time the ball was turned over on a counterattack and I grabbed my guy and turned him and just planted off his gut and knocked the wind out of him,” said Baker. “So the next time, on the way back, I did the same thing, but he knew it was coming. He grabbed the back of my suit, came down and kneed me in the (groin) and planted off my throat. I got the wind knocked out of me.
"It was the most brutal thing ever.”