Ghana water polo grows as sport looks for more diversity
By JAY COHEN
Growing up in Coronado, California, former water polo pro Asante Prince was often the only Black face in the pool. Today, he's training young players in Ghana, a country where swimming pools are rare …
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Ghana water polo grows as sport looks for more diversity
Asante Prince, the founder of Ghana's Awatu Winton Water Polo Club, oversees a training session in a swimming pool at the University of Ghana ahead of a competition in Accra, Ghana, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023. Former water polo pro Asante Prince is training young players in the sport in his father's homeland of Ghana, where swimming pools are rare and the ocean is seen as dangerous. (AP Photo/Misper Apawu)
By JAY COHEN
Back at the very beginning, right when the idea of water polo in Ghana started swimming into reality, Asante Prince got out a couple of balls and caps in front of a handful of curious kids.
He decided to try a scrimmage, but he had no nets. So they put a soccer bench on each side of the pool.
It was “enthusiastic confusion,” he said. And the caps — which have protective cups that go over a player’s ears — well, they were particularly amusing.
“Somebody said, ‘Oh, water brassiere, thank you very much,’ a water bra,” a chuckling Prince said.
That was one of the first meetings of the Awutu Winton Water Polo Club, a budding league in a tough part of the world for the Olympics’ oldest team sport — and a true passion project for the energetic Prince.
Growing up in Coronado, California, he was often the only Black face in the pool or his classes. He went in search of a water polo that looked more like him, and found it in the waters of his father's homeland.
“This is like my baby, and it’s cute because, you know, it cries and it’s growing up, but it needs all of your attention, 24-7,” the 31-year-old Prince said. “Whenever I talk about it, it’s great, because it’s something that I would have loved to see as a kid.”
In Ghana, dangerous rip tides off the country's coast have caused countless drownings over the years. That's led to trepidation about deep waters in a nation where low- and middle-income families already have limited access to swimming pools.
When Prince first started swimming in African communities, he saw looks of fear and panic on faces because “they all have stories of someone going out and not coming back,” he said.
The Awutu Winton club has seven teams representing three regions of Ghana. Players range in age from 7 to 25, and the league includes a group of about 20 women. It had 85 athletes and 10 coaches when it opened its new season last month in Ghana's capital, Accra.
Prince said most of his Ghana players had some knowledge of swimming when they joined the program, but not in deep water, where the sport is played.
“Treading water and how to handle the water polo ball was very difficult when I started playing," said Ishmael Adjei, 20. “But as time goes on, I could see I am improving personally.”
Adjei's club is part of San Diego-based Black Star Polo, an organization founded by Prince that also works on creating aquatic opportunities for African and African-American communities in the United States.
“When I started playing, (my family) thought it was just a waste of time,” Adjei said, “because you had to help them do the family chores and you would take a timeout to go and have training ... but as time goes on, they are getting interested.”
Any significant growth in Africa would be a welcome development for a sport that has wrestled with a lack of diversity for decades, much like aquatics in general. Even in the places where water polo is most popular — such as California, and parts of southern Europe — there are very few players of color.
Egypt and South Africa are the only African countries that have played men's water polo at the Olympics. South Africa became the first women's team from the continent to make it to the Games when it finished 10th in Tokyo in 2021. World Aquatics said it doesn’t have player participation figures broken down by ethnicity.
“I think it’s vital for the growth of our sport to break out of the normalcy that it’s been the last century, of traditional water polo nations,” said former U.S. player Genai Kerr, who serves on the board of the Alliance for Diversity in Water Polo.
The second of three brothers, Prince got into swimming and water polo after his family became good friends with the family of five-time U.S. Olympian Jesse Smith.
Prince played college water polo at California Lutheran University and got his degree in psychology. He competed professionally in Brazil and trained in Europe.
He often felt he stood out as a Black man.
“Just being used to everybody being able to see me and standing out,” he said, “and I’m the one everybody notices first, on every class, every team.”
It was different in Ghana, the birthplace of his father, Dr. Kofi Sefa-Boakye. Prince’s mother, Elizabeth, is from Los Angeles, and she met Kofi when they were students at the University of Southern California.
Prince started going to Ghana with his father after he graduated from high school. He often brought balls and caps on trips to visit family. In 2018, he reached out to the country’s swimming federation, and it held an event at Awutu Winton Senior High School — one of the only schools in the country with a pool — where it made a donation and promoted the program.
“What he’s doing is awesome, because it’s so difficult to start something from scratch,” Smith said.
A relatively small geographic footprint can put a sport at risk of losing its place at the Olympics, according to Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and clinical assistant professor of history at Arizona State University. But, Jackson said, decisions about what sports to include are hard to predict and reflect politics, relationships and subjectivity.
Jackson said an all-Black water polo team at the Olympics could have a profound effect on the sport.
“I mean, it's that quote, right? ‘You can’t be what you can't see,'” she said. “It's immediately horizon expanding.”
That's why Prince's effort in Ghana has attracted attention in some prominent corners of the sport.
KAP7, a company that sells swimsuits and other water polo gear, has shipped over goals and other equipment. Kerr and five-time U.S. Olympian Tony Azevedo also have donated equipment, and former USA Water Polo high performance director John Abdou did a Zoom training session for referees.
“This is something where everyone can see, hey look, this is happening,” said Wolf Wigo, a three-time U.S. Olympian, one of the co-founders of KAP7 and the men's coach at UC Santa Barbara. "It's not just one Black person in a pool with 12 white teammates, or two. It's a whole pool full of all Black athletes, all playing water polo, having a great experience.”
Prince — whose full name is Prince Kofi Asante Sefa-Boakye — hustles to keep the project afloat, making the most of his connections in the sport and a GoFundMe page. But the way Prince sees it, he has already won.
He is helping promote water safety in Ghana and his native Southern California, a major issue for Black communities. He helped teach swimming lessons to children of Somali refugees at a San Diego YMCA last year.
“I just wanted to play the game,” he said, “but now, I'm realizing this is an even bigger and important mission than just before.”
He also dreams of Ghana competing at the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. The most plausible route would run through the Africa continental qualification tournament, but the next step is likely some of Ghana's players joining American college programs. Prince also said he plans to field an under-12 team at a water polo festival in Italy in June.
Los Angeles looks like a long shot, but Prince has a plan — and he already has traveled a long way.
“My face is in front of a portrait, so I don't see the full picture, so I'm able to compose myself,” he said. “But that would be literally bringing my two homelands together in LA, bringing Ghana to LA.”
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