A bicyclist riding by Shoreline Lake on Saturday, June 26, saw several men in kayaks wearing blue and white uniforms, stationed between two nets suspended above the water, and he couldn't help but say aloud, "What the hell are they playing?"
He had stumbled upon the practice of the United States Men's Kayak Polo team. The team is practicing at Shoreline in preparation for the world championships in Milan this September. The biker's surprise was not uncommon, as most people in the United States have likely never heard of the sport. Coach Sergey Finkelstein says the sport is more popular in Europe and the Pacific than in the U.S.
"This sport is played on every continent," says Finkelstein, who is originally from Latvia. "In the United States, we are trying to develop it."
The U.S. team is made up of men of ages 19 to 49 from around the country. Finkelstein says this can be detrimental to the team's development.
"It's hard to get together because of the distance between players," he says.
The team is currently training for the world championship in Milan, Italy in September, where they'll face teams which have a lot more experience.
"It will be extremely hard to get in the top 10 teams because those teams are together for many years and are extremely good," Finkelstein says. He knows that the competitive play will be good for the team regardless of their success.
"What we lack, we lack in experience," he says. "The main goal for these world championships is to get more experience."
Finkelstein has participated in two world championships and is a three-time U.S. national champion. He was introduced to the sport, which is also called canoe polo, when it came over from Europe. He says he loved it right away.
"It's a high-contact sport," Finkelstein says. "You have to be a good kayak paddler, be good with the ball. It makes the game very interesting and very fascinating."
Finkelstein explains that a canoe polo game consists of two 10-minute halves. Five players are on the pitch for each team, with one serving as a goalkeeper. Players use their hands to shoot the ball -- which resembles a water polo ball -- into the goals, which are two meters above the water.
"It's kind of like playing hockey in kayaks," says Robert Logan, an 11-year team member and a Mountain View resident. "It's very physical, very demanding."
But Logan explains that no sport is quite like this one, which requires a unique skill set. One crucial move for kayak polo players is the hand roll, where a player rolls over in the kayak while holding the ball with both hands.
"At first it was really scary because I didn't know how to get upright and people were getting pushed over all the time," Logan says. But that was 15 years ago, when he first started kayaking.
Since, Logan has competed in polo matches all over the world with the national team, but is looking forward to bringing this young team to Italy's tournament this year.
"I'm excited about it because we have the youngest team we've ever fielded," he says. "The level is so much higher at worlds, we need young, strong players to be able to compete."
Logan says he won't be on the national team for too much longer, but will continue playing polo and kayaking in other venues.
"I'll play until I can't paddle," he says.
In the meantime, Logan wants to coach and get kids involved in kayaking.
"I'd love kayak polo to grow in the U.S." Logan says. "I'd love to be able to talk to people and have them know what it is."