It’s Never Too Late to Take Up Water Polo
It’s Never Too Late is a series about people who decide to pursue their dreams on their own terms.
At 86, Mark Braly may be the world’s oldest water polo player. And according to Mr. Braly, a Texas native who now lives in Davis, Calif., he’s “certainly the worst.” That may or may not be true, but playing the sport is still an impressive accomplishment for someone who came to the game at 76: Water polo, which is played with two seven-member teams, is a challenging one, requiring significant abilities, both aerobic (for endurance) and anaerobic (for sprints).
Mr. Braly says he loves the camaraderie as much as he does the sport. Currently, his coed teammates consist of 40 players. A few are in their 20s; most of the others range from their 30s through middle age. Sometimes the team can be found bonding, postgame, at a local pizza restaurant or gathering for a special occasion.
Mr. Braly walking from the locker room to the pool at the Schaal Aquatic Center at the University of California, Davis.Credit…Nicholas Albrecht for The New York Times
“I sometimes make goals, but there is always the suspicion they were the gift of a kind goalie,” Mr. Braly said. “Every player in the region knows my name because they have to shout constant directions.”
Mr. Braly compares water polo to basketball — but in the water. “You’re throwing the ball around and you have a goal cage,” he said. “I’m swimming hard when we’re defending, and when I have to guard people, I try to pick out other weak players. I have yet to block anyone.”
From his 20s through his 60s, when he retired from his position as a project manager for the U.S. Office of Economic Adjustment (now called the Department of Defense Office of Local Defense Community Cooperation), Mr. Braly held a number of jobs: reporter for The Houston Press, publicist at Capitol Records (“I thought the Beach Boys had no future”), director of the energy office for former Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles and a foreign service officer for the United States Information Agency (now defunct).
Despite all of that, Mr. Braly said, “of all the experiences I’ve had, water polo has been the greatest adventure.”
Regardless of his self-evaluation as a player, he inspires his teammates. “To start something as intimidating as water polo at 76 and to stay at it is impressive,” said Paul Olalde, 31, an IT consultant who lives in Sacramento, Calif., and has been playing with Mr. Braly since he was 19. “He’s a staple to the program.”
Mr. Braly keeps up by swimming 40 minutes, five times a week, on top of the twice-weekly, 90-minute water polo matches, which are usually played at the Schaal Aquatic Center on the campus of the University of California, Davis.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
How did you first get involved in water polo?
I wanted an alternative to swimming. We didn’t have water polo in Texas when I was in high school, and until my late, dear friend and swim coach, Ross Yancher, introduced me to it 10 years ago, I’m not sure I’d ever seen a game. He gave me a ball and showed me how to make a shot at the goal. I was hooked. When he moved to the West Sacramento swimming pool, he invited me to join a masters water polo club he was organizing.
Why water polo?
Growing up, I wanted to be athletic and wasn’t. Water polo gives me a feeling that I can do sports even though I’m not good at them. And I’ve made wonderful friends. It makes me feel appreciated and supported, two things I didn’t receive in my previous jobs.
What do you love about the game?
It’s an exciting, thrilling game. I love watching it as much as I love playing it. I love that it’s a rough game — you never know what’s going to happen next, and that encourages me to keep playing. And I love being in the water. I have a weak hip. I’ve had two knee replacements. All of my ailments are lessened in the water. It gives me a freedom I don’t otherwise have.
What is it like to be the oldest person on the team?
I’m shown respect. It makes me feel special. I wish I had started this game when I was younger. I’m grateful for the 10 years I’ve had. I know my time doing this is limited; I try not to think about that. When I look back, I will be remembered by the people who played with me, and that’s special as well.
What have you learned about yourself through the sport?
That I can accept praise and support and not feel diminished by it. That I can do almost anything if I don’t mind not being good it. Being forced to be good at something has excluded me from doing things all my life. I learned I’m more capable and have a greater stamina than I thought.
Where does your determination come from?
My dad. He was a good athlete and played semipro baseball for room and board in small towns in Texas in the 1920s. He was an electrician who served in World War I and World War II. I observed and internalized his determination. He was a young father in the Depression, and it was really hard to get work and support a young family, but he did. I admired that he could climb telephone poles or orange trees. He remained fit for so long in life because of all the exercise he got.
You said you’re considered an inspiration for younger players. How so?
Younger players doubt they can play much longer. Seeing me still at it, at my age, is reassuring to them. It also makes me feel I’m giving back and setting a good example for my teammates and others who haven’t discovered the game yet.
How have the friends you’ve made through this game affected your life?
It’s been wonderful to share this unique bond that we have in common and unites us. I felt like I didn’t belong much of my life. I don’t feel that way here with these people. They represent an acceptance I’ve been missing.
How else are you involved in the sport?
For the past 10 years I’ve been writing a monthly column for the Davis Enterprise, a local newspaper, about water polo and masters swimming. People stop me and tell me that they read my column and that’s been great. It makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile with my retirement. I like to reach other older people and let them know swimming is good expertise for them.
What advice do you have for those who want to try a new sport or athletic endeavor?
I’m a big believer in exercise. It extends and improves the quality of your life. Almost any city or neighborhood has a senior center which will offer different programs and classes. Look for something you might like. Don’t worry about being good at it, just think about the good you’re doing for yourself.