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Apodaca: Water polo provides unlikely bridge between Newport, Afghanistan

October 22, 2011|By Patrice Apodaca

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.

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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.

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