History and Fun Facts

Water Polo History and Fun Facts

  1. The first organized Water Polo games were played in 1877 in Scotland after swimming teacher William Wilson created rules for the “aquatic football” game.  Today Wilson is generally credited as the founder of this sport.
  2. In the early years, the game had similarities to rugby but it was played in the water.  In order to score a goal, a player had to successfully place the ball onto the deck of the pool which was being defended by the opponent team
  3. In 1885 Great Britain expanded Wilson’s rules and renamed the sport “Water Polo”.
  4. The first documented Water Polo games played in the United States took place in 1888 in Boston.  The American version of the sport had slightly different rules which permitted holding, sinking and dunking at the time!
  5. In the 1890’s the sport evolved.  In order to score a point, a player had to throw the ball between 2 flags or into a 10 foot wide by 3 foot high goal net which were set up at each end of the playing area.
  6. In England and Scotland most Water Polo games were played in swimming pools, but in other European countries games were also played in natural bodies of water such as rivers & lakes.  These games utilized small boats to establish the borders of the playing field.
  7. In 1900 Men’s Water Polo became the first Olympic team sport when the Summer Games were held in Paris, France.
  8. Between 1890 and 1920 Great Britain dominated the sport of Water Polo.
  9. In 1928 a Hungarian coach developed the Dry Pass and implemented a skilled fast paced game.  As a result, Hungary became the most dominant team in the world for the next 60 years.
  10. The rules of Water Polo continued to evolve over throughout the twentieth century.  During that period several governing bodies were established which monitor the rules. 
    1. FINA was created in 1911 as the sport’s governing body outside of the USA.  It is noted that FINA’s Water Polo rules are used in all Olympic Water Polo games. 
    2. In the United States there are two primary governing bodies.   
      1. USA Water Polo {USWP} was founded in 1978 to establish rules and govern the sport in the USA.. 
      2. NCAA Water Polo has been monitoring collegiate games since 1969 and it has its own set of rules.
  11. Since 1969 the University of California has been the most successful college Water Polo program by winning 13 varsity national championships.
  12. One of the USA’s greatest water polo players is Terry Schroeder who won silver medals as part of the US Olympic Teams in 1984 and 1988.  He later coached Team USA’s Water Polo team at the 2012 London Olympic Games.  
  13. Even though Women’s Water Polo had been popular since the 1970’s, it did not become an Olympic team sport until the 2000 Summer Games held in Sydney, Australia.
  14. The most decorated US female water polo athlete is Brenda Villa who has won medals at 4 different Olympic Games in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012.
  15. The youngest person to ever play Water Polo in an Olympics was 14 years old.
  16. The oldest person to ever play Water Polo in the Olympics was 45 years old.
  17. England’s Prince William played Water Polo at St. Andrews University.  He represented the Scottish National Universities team at the Celtic Nations Water Polo tournament in 2004.


Did you know that the following notable “U.S. Swimmers” also played Water Polo?

  • Duke Kahanamoku

This native Hawaiian was the United States first swimming star.  He was a 3 time Olympian who won 3 gold medals and 2 silver medals for swimming events between 1912 and 1924.  Additionally, at the age of 34 he won a bronze medal as a member of the US Water Polo team at the 1932 Summer Olympics.

  • Johnny Weissmuller

He was a 5-time gold medalist at the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games.  He also was a star of the 1924 US Olympic Water Polo team that won the Bronze medal.  Johnny later became Hollywood actor who starred in 6 very popular “Tarzan” movies.

  • Mark Spitz

This US swimming legend won 11 Olympic medals at the 1968 and 1972 games including 9 gold medals, 1 silver medal and 1 bronze medal.  He also played on his high school water polo team in Santa Clara, California between 1964 and 1968.  Additionally, early in his career he was coached by one of the sports legends, Irvin Zador, who won a gold medal while staring on the 1956 Hungarian Olympic Water Polo team.

  • Tim Shaw

He earned an Olympic silver medal for the US while swimming at the Montreal games in 1976. Eight years later he earned another Olympic silver medal as a member of the US Water Polo team at the 1984 games in Los Angeles, California.

  • Matt Biondi

Matt swam for Team USA at the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games where he won 11 Olympic medals.  He also played Water Polo while in college at the University of California where his team won 3 NCAA National Water Polo Championships.

  • Brad Schumacher

Brad is one of only a few elite aquatic Olympians who have represented the United States in both Swimming and Water Polo.   He won two gold medals as a member of the US Men’s Swim Team at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia and he also was a member of the US Men’s Water Polo Team that placed sixth at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.  Brad is a co-founder of KAP7, Inc., a company which specializes in providing quality products for the Water Polo community.

  • Kate Mills

Kate is a current member of Team USA who won a silver medal in Butterfly at the 2015 Pan Am Games.  She was a very successful collegiate swimmer at Harvard and a Junior Olympian Water Polo player.

The Most Successful Olympic Men’s Water Polo Teams:

  • Great Britain:  
    • Between 1900 through 1920 Great Britain was regarded as having the best Water Polo players in the world.  Great Britain won gold medals at each of the Olympic Games with the exception of the 1904 Olympics.  
      • Gold = 4
  • Hungary:
    •  Since 1932, Hungary has won 15 overall medals, more than any other country!
      • Gold = 9
      • Silver = 3
      • Bronze = 3
    • The last medal won by the Hungary team was gold at the 2008 Beijing games.
  • United States:
    • The US Men’s Water Polo Team has won 9 {*} Olympic medals since 1904:
  • Gold = 1
  • Silver = 4
  • Bronze = 4
  • The last medal won by the US team was silver at the 2008 Beijing games.

{*}  This count includes the 3 medals won at the 1904 games in St. Louis, Missouri.   That year the sport was played under the American rules which permitted much more physical contact than the more disciplined Scottish-International rules.  As such, the Water Polo teams from Great Britain and other countries chose not compete.  Regardless, Water Polo remained a featured sport at the St. Louis Olympic Games.  The New York Athletic Club won the gold medal, the Chicago Athletic Club took silver, and the Missouri Athletic Club was awarded bronze.   The matches were played in a 2-acre man-made lake that was constructed for both the Olympics and the World’s Fair, which was taking place at the same time.  Unfortunately the water quality of the lake was very poor and definitely was not as clean as today’s filtered swimming pools.  The lake was used not only for swimming, diving and water polo, but it was also used by many types of animals from the World’s Fair!  Needless to say, many of the athletes became sick at the games due to the unsanitary conditions.  Of further interest, the International Olympic Committee {IOC} later removed the 1904 Water Polo medals from its official medal database.

The Most Successful Olympic Women’s Water Polo Teams:

  • United States -
    • Since 2000 the United States has earned medals in all 4 Olympics
      • Gold – 1
      • Silver – 2
      • Bronze – 1
    • The last medal won by the US team was gold at the 2012 London games.
  • Australia
    • The Australian team has earned medals in 3 of the 4 Olympics.
      • Gold – 1
      • Bronze - 2
    • The last medal won by the Australian team was bronze at the 2012 London games.