Kim Tierney Wang, Senior Manager of Water Polo Operations at Greenwich Aquatics, has been involved with water polo in her hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut for more than two decades. She was the first and only female to play for legendary coach Terry Lowe on the boys' Greenwich High School water polo team. A graduate of Bucknell—where she was an All-American, team captain (1996-97) and totaled over 500 career goals—and Columbia, where she was the leading scorer and an assistant coach in her two years with the Lions, Tierney Wang has also competed for the New York Athletic Club.
In 2007 Tierney Wang helped launch the Greenwich YMCA’s water polo program, growing it into the strongest youth program in the Northeast. She recently spoke with New York City-based water polo journalist Michael Randazzo about her youth club, the challenges of growing water polo in New York City and the sport’s future on the East Coast.
The following interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Michael Randazzo: You’ve been involved with water polo your whole life.
Kim Tierney Wang: I grew up in Greenwich and played water polo in high school for Terry Lowe. He retired last year but was the high school coach back then. [I joined] an all-boys team my brother played on. I continued with water polo in college, in graduate school and then played for the New York AC when that women’s program started in 2002.
Randazzo: How has the Greenwich Aquatics program changed since 2007?
Tierney Wang: We’re rapidly growing. It took time and momentum to get the word out [but] we now have over 200 kids in our program.
We have every age group so there are times when we get beaten out in one group but we pretty much dominate in most age groups. We have both female and male teams; we have [U]12 girls, [U]12 boys and all the way up: 14, 16, 18.
Randazzo: Water polo may be insignificant in the East but it’s huge in California.
Tierney Wang: On the East Coast water polo is a niche sport. It’s not the “in” sport like it is in California. Around here [Greenwich] parents [say] “I want my kids to play soccer, football or lacrosse.” They’re pushing those sports… water polo’s not even on their radar.
We’re limited because most of the kids who are coming, at least for us, are swimmers, so they come from swim programs after they get bored with it or they like the team aspect and that they can jump over [into water polo]. We get a lot of kids just from exposure at the “Y”. They’re watching the water polo team practice, and are like “Ooh that looks more fun!”
If we’re not practicing at the same time, if we came into our facility at nighttime I don’t think our program would have been as big.
Randazzo: What is it about Brooklyn youth water polo that’s encouraging for the sport’s growth in the East?
Tierney Wang: What the Northeast needs—and it’s great that Brooklyn has gotten more teams—we need more teams playing. The more teams, the better it is for all of water polo. The three components for having successful water polo are to have coaches, pools and competition. If you don’t have those three things you’re lacking.
In regards to East Coast vs. West Coast [in] California they have high-level games all the time. That’s something that we don’t have and where we’re struggling the most. I don’t think they have better athletes or better coaches than us. They just have better competition.
The reason why Brooklyn teams have impact is because they have coaches that are backing up the program. There are so many swim programs around here and in general swim coaches do not like water polo. In some aspects they own their pools so if they offer water polo that means they’re going to have to give up pool space. That’s going to take away from their swim team, which is not what they want to do.
There’s a couple of teams that started—you know that pool in Flushing Meadows—they started [a team] when we started and we were really trying to help them. Then the coach left and the whole program fell down. He had a hard time because [NYC Department of Parks] was charging him so much money for the pool. He was doing it as a volunteer and he just couldn’t afford to pay the pool [costs].
St. Francis [youth water polo club]… I assume they’re not paying to rent St. Francis [College] pool. Y Pro—Eugene [Prokhin, head coach] has an [extensive] background and was really motivated to start that program. They struggled in the beginning but kept going and then they have [accomplished] water polo coaching there, like Irakli [Sanadze], Mark Koganov. [There’s a] big water polo community supporting these clubs.
Randazzo: You’ve played in New York City. What are the specific challenges for youth water polo in Manhattan?
Tierney Wang: There are just no programs. We have kids coming from the city to our program because there’s no place to play. That’s a major problem. In New York City, think about all those people who live there—I’m sure there’s a good amount of swimmers—there’s no water polo.
The New York AC, it’s not an age group program, it’s an adult program. Asphalt Green, why haven’t they started a program?
Randazzo: It’s surprising that Asphalt Green doesn’t have youth water polo.
Tierney Wang: They have a masters team—our high school team just went there to play them. Even when I lived in the city they had a program there for a long period of time but I believe it’s a rental.
A friend of mine [Daniella Joseph] started a program there to coach once a week on the weekends. She was given very little pool space. I don’t think Asphalt Green has embraced age-group programs. I assume that has to do with the swim team.
Could they start one? Sure, but they’re not going to get the backing of the club because it’s not of interest to them. Little kids are not going to bring Olympic gold.
Randazzo: What about the New York AC? It would be transformational if NYAC members were to put their time and treasure towards supporting New York City youth water polo.
Tierney Wang: As I said, they’re not interested in youth. They’re interested in winning gold medals at the Olympics and youth is not going to get [that]. They’ll take all the top players— they’ll take Thomas Dunstan now that he’s good. They’ll take players but they’re not interested in developing [them]. How much time and effort is that going to be? And is that going to give results they want?
Chris Judge started something in Pelham under the [New York AC] name. They’re trying to do a summer league like they do in Connecticut, but otherwise they don’t have age-group in the city and no desire to have an age group because that’s not what their focus [is]; their focus is on elite athletes.
Randazzo: It’s not just pool access that makes the difference. Coaching matters too.
Tierney Wang: That’s the thing, you have to have someone supporting [the program]. Typically if you see who’s running the program—even out in California—it’s either high school coaches that have an umbrella of a club team because they have access [to] coaches [or] because they’re a coach and have a staff and have access to pool [time]. Realistically, that should feed over to here; all the universities around that have water polo should [also] have a club program. Princeton has a club program run by Derrick [Ellingson] who is the assistant coach. The same with Navy; [their] program has been around longer. I played for Navy when I was in high school because it was the only female team out there. They have the facility and they have the coaching staff.
Yale is finally starting their club team. Harvard—I know they’ve been trying to but their coaching staff [but] the assistants have been flipped every year and they have a hard time [getting a club going] because no one’s invested in it.
Why doesn’t Brown have an age group?
Randazzo: What about Columbia? They don’t have a youth program or a varsity water polo team.
Tierney Wang: The same as with NYU, which has a club team as well. They just don’t have the backing of the school. UPenn—I know Bill Smith has been really active trying to get them to go varsity [and] and get more of the Ivy Leagues to go varsity. It makes sense. But then you’re dealing with some issues with Title IX.
Out of all of them I think U Penn will be the next one to go varsity. Yale has big supporters wanting to go varsity [but] they didn’t get the school to back it up.
If you look at some [programs], like St. Francis, they’re varsity but they’re not paying their coaches a salary that you can live off of and that becomes really difficult. How are you able to have a program if you’re not willing to pay the coaches what you’re supposed to?
Randazzo: Carl Quigley was the Terrier coach for 34 years (1979 – 2009); since then St. Francis has had three coaches in six years.
Tierney Wang: St. Francis is doing a great thing bringing [European] athletes over and giving them scholarships. There was that guy who was a coach at the AC for a bit on the women’s side—[Peter Felvegi]—he’s a Hungarian and he has a really great story about going through the St. Francis program. He was on the national team in Hungary and he came over and… he’s made it. He went to St. Francis, got four years of education, great playing time, got introduced to the New York Athletic Club. Those people helped him get a job in finance and now he’s doing [amazingly well]. He came from nothing and he’s so grateful for water polo.
Randazzo: Your Tri-State youth league has had a huge impact on local water polo.
Tierney Wang: A lot of clubs—including St. Francis and [Imagine Swimming] Makos—say Tri-State has really helped them get more kids because there’s more structure. You’re playing every Saturday and this is a league and you buy into that whole thing. In water polo before Tri-State, at least on the East Coast, there was nothing. You play a game here, you play a game there, and then—[you have] a thirteen and under team then they’ll play our U15 [team]—it was all kind of a hodge-podge. Then the big one was to go out to Junior Olympics, but for those newer clubs there was not even a thought to go out to California.
At Tri-State what we’re trying to do is to keep [it] local and get more kids involved, have that structure—and to [offer] something the kids like. Something that’s upfront a month in advance so parents can schedule [it] rather than last minute.
There needs to be more programs and more people knowledgeable about the sport. Having this kind of league really helps.