Veteran Gamecock Water Polo Club players Nate Windham and Ben Kistler were struggling to build the program up since its resurgence in 2020.
Semester after semester, the team faced turnout, commitment and funding issues, making it even more frustrating for Windham and Kistler, who felt the club was like their "baby."
“Seeing what we could be and seeing other clubs around us just be at exponential numbers, and we have maybe five people on the team that were committed, it was tough,” said Windham, a third-year finance and entrepreneurship student. “There was definitely a lot of just emotional distraught and just times where I've thought about my commitment to the club.”
But things may be looking up for the organization this semester after the club saw an increased number of new players and landed a spot in a competitive league.
The water polo club is competing in a league for the first time since its revival and will have a shot at winning a Southeast Division Championship on Oct. 22 in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“It's super exciting. I mean, it's just everything we could dream for,” Windham said. “There's still stuff to look forward to. We're still working towards getting that natty, working towards winning the Southeastern Conference.”
The Gamecocks are one of seven teams in the league. It joins fellow SEC schools Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee, plus two teams from Georgia Tech — an A team and a B team — to form the Southeastern club division of the Collegiate Water Polo Association.
South Carolina sent a team of new and returning players to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for its first tournament on Sept. 30. The Gamecocks struggled in the pool, going 1-3 with a forfeit win over Kentucky. Kistler said he was impressed with the team’s performance, despite the unfavorable results.
“A lot of our new players took a lot — learned a lot from these games and were able to kind of adapt on the fly,” said Kistler, a fourth-year marine science student and the team's goalie. “They were able to adapt to playing these games without doing too much scrimmaging.”
Third-year marketing and management student Maria Elena Smith is one of the team's newer players, having joined the club in the spring. She said the games in Tuscaloosa gave her a better understanding of the rules and flow of the sport.
“I was unaware of the majority of the rules of water polo. I basically just know how to swim,” Smith said. “I always like to say 'adversity equals success,' and we have a lot going against us and our small little squad. But I feel like if we all put 100% effort into it and really show our love for each other and the task at hand in the sport, we could really do some damage.”
Smith has become a regular member of the team, attending any practices and events she can. She discovered water polo after injuries forced her to give up other sports competitively.
“I had two surgeries on my knee,” Smith said. “It was really upsetting because I wanted to be the one that was on club soccer, on club swim, and I did not have that opportunity freshman year. And I was kind of isolated.”
Smith said the team has become a group she can depend on. Joining the club has also provided her with a way to stay fit and competitive — two things Smith said she loves about sports.
“Being in the water and swimming and having this, it gives me something to do that isn't so hard on my joints,” Smith said. “It's great for my overall fitness, and it has been an incredible experience learning from, obviously, Nate and the other leaders, but also from my other teammates, and it's something that I actually attend practice. I enjoy going there every day.”
Devoted players such as Smith give Windham hope that the club will continue to grow beyond his time at South Carolina. Kistler said the commitment shown by younger members has improved from previous years, with them being more willing to come to practice and learn.
“A year from now, I'm not going to be here, and I don't want this club to just dissolve once I'm gone,” Kistler said. “I wanted to see a little more initiative from the newer guys. I think we're seeing that for the most part.”
Even with the commitment from new members, Kistler said he still worries about the club’s future beyond next semester because of the lack of commitment from some of the veteran members.
“Hopefully, some other people's semesters are clearing up, so we can finally have some of our veterans back. I know it's a very case-by-case basis, but I'd say there's been some pretty crummy semesters with attendance and stuff," Kistler said. "It's not perfect at all by any means.”
Windham said he is optimistic about the club's future and believes it is just getting started. He said the club doubled its social following in less than a year, and he has noticed an increase in general interest from students on campus.
“We started out pretty rough. I mean, it was two to three people on average at the practice, but we're at a point now where we can safely say or expect to have at least 10 people at practice, which is obviously — to most clubs, that's a silly number. But for us, in two years time, that's pretty exponential growth,” Windham said.
The Gamecocks participated in its second tournament this past weekend in Auburn, Alabama, and will take next week off before heading to Knoxville, Tennessee, for the Southeastern Division Championship.