LA’s Olympic hopefuls: Water polo player Max Irving on training in Greece, optimism for USA men’s team

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Christian Bordal

The summer Olympic Games will start this July if all goes according to plan. They were supposed to happen in Tokyo last year, but the coronavirus pandemic put them on hold. Now Greater LA plans to speak with local athletes who hope to compete in the Olympics this year. 

One of them is water polo player Max Irving, who’s from Long Beach and won three NCAA championships while playing at UCLA. He speaks with Greater LA from Greece, where he’s been competing professionally.

KCRW: Is there no professional water polo league here in the United States?

Max Irving: “Water polo is a bit of an interesting sport here in the U.S. I would say the highest level that we have is going to be the Division I NCAA championship. … If you want to continue playing, and if you have Olympic aspirations, the best way to take your game to the next level would probably be going overseas and playing professionally in leagues, maybe in Italy, Hungary, Greece where I'm at.” 

Can you make a living playing in pro leagues abroad?

“Yeah, I definitely think you can make some money. Initially, when you're a foreign player, especially from the U.S., most of these teams overseas, they're not going to be super familiar with who you are, unless you have already played in like a world championships or an Olympics. … It might take a year or two to kind of break into their domestic leagues. 

You can definitely make a living because the way that usually the contracts are set up, they're paying for the majority of everything. You're paying for housing and meals. And then on top of that, you're provided with like a monthly stipend. And then from there, you can definitely make a living, I would say.” 

The U.S. does very well when it comes to swimming. But the U.S. men’s team has never won a gold medal in the Olympics in water polo, right?

“The men's national team has not won an Olympic gold medal. The most recent medal won was 2008 in Beijing when the team took silver. … This year going into the games, I think we're going to be well equipped to do well. … The majority of our players now are playing professionally. So I think we're going to do well this summer.” 

Max Irving in a match against Montenegro at the 2019 FINA World Championship in Gwangju, South Korea, July 25, 2019. Courtesy of Orange Pictures/USA Water Polo

Water polo can be a pretty rough sport. Can you explain it to lay people? 

“Water polo, maybe one of the best ways to describe it, I would say it's very similar to ice hockey and a little bit of soccer in the fact that you have a goal. You're in the water, it's six on six [players]. Pretty much anything under the water is allowed. There's a ton of wrestling and grappling on the perimeter. You have 30 seconds to swim down the 30-meter course, going [on] offense attack, and try to essentially just throw the ball into the goal. … The defense is going to try to stop you. And then if you score, you go back to half, and line up, and do it again. 

… Without a goal, then you're just gonna go counter-attack, basically back the other way, swim another 30 meters, and then the other team is gonna have their opportunity.”

Water polo doesn’t seem to have particularly diverse players. Has that been an issue in your career?

“I'm African American, and I'm playing water polo, which is a predominantly white sport. But I've been very fortunate in my experiences with water polo. I mean, I started playing when I was like 10 and under. … For the most part, all my teammates and all my coaches were very inviting and very accepting of me and who I am personally. I’m from Long Beach, and Long Beach is a very diverse community, demographically and culturally. So I think just having that diversity within the community … that really helped, you know, just beginning to play water polo and kind of like my personal experiences playing.

… It really is special, being African American and playing a predominantly white sport because I'm able to represent a community. So if I can be an inspiration just to maybe one kid to try something new, or just to encourage them that they can do anything within or outside the realm of sports, then I think my playing career will have been an absolute success.”

How have you been training in the middle of the pandemic? 

“Being overseas, it actually provides … an opportunity … to train consistently, compared to in the U.S. … Almost a year ago from now, that was probably one of the toughest times that we had as a team just because we were constantly trying to find a pool. And this was back in the early stages of COVID. So it was really navigating the unknown. And there was a huge liability aspect of just like these pools, either high school pools or maybe college facilities, that they didn't necessarily know if they wanted to take on 20 to 25 athletes. 

… It's really actually been a blessing that we have been able to come overseas and play in a league that is for the most part open. I mean, we still have protocols. … We have testing two times a week, testing before every game. So I think there's a lot of due diligence that goes into it.

But I mean, for the most part, I think we're definitely managing. And being able to have the opportunity to play overseas has been great.”



  • Max Irving - Professional water polo player and Long Beach resident