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Water polo: What it’s like to play at the top level and why I love the sport

Olivia Henderson, 17, plays for London Otter, Mid Sussex Marlins and trains with Worthing Water Polo Club and Brighton Swimming Club.

I have gained international honours with the England Schools Squad at U17 level, England at U17 level, winning bronze at the EU Nations International Tournament in the Czech Republic, and have also represented Great Britain at the Junior Women’s European Water Polo Championships in Greece. I am currently part of the U19 and Senior Women’s England and Great Britain squads.

Discovering water polo

I didn’t ever purposefully start playing water polo. When I was 10 years old, I joined a swimming club. I found (quite quickly) that I didn’t enjoy the stress of galas or the solitude of swimming. I found going up and down the lanes for hours on end rather tedious, and I was on the verge of leaving aquatic sport altogether to concentrate on netball.

At age 12 I attended a water polo taster session run by Brighton Swimming Club. None of my friends wanted to go, but I thought I’d give it a go anyway. I absolutely loved it and I was immediately hooked.

Each water polo team consists of up to 13 players and, because of the physicality and exertion, there is a constant flow of substitutions throughout the match to allow the players a breather.

As I started getting more and more involved and increased my training hours, I quickly rose through the ranks, playing for Sussex and the South East Region. I debuted in the National League when I was 14 years old and was the second top scorer in the entire league two seasons later.

I was selected for national trials at age 14 and 15 but didn’t make the National Talent Pathway. It was really disappointing as I knew I was capable, but the players selected tended to be a lot bigger than me. I am only 5ft 4in, but am quite tenacious, have a good technical ability and am a quick swimmer, so I focused on my strengths.

I began working really hard to improve and, helped by my Marlins, Worthing and London Otter coaches, was put in for trials again when I was 16. This time, I was successful and edged into the English School Squad. Since that point, I’ve not really looked back!

What I love about the sport

There is a real camaraderie with water polo. It is a team sport, and the social aspect plays a huge part in why I enjoy it so much. Through water polo, I have travelled the country extensively with teammates who have become good friends. I have also become good friends with girls from teams in other parts of the UK.

I have trained in some of the best facilities in the country, I have attended numerous national and international camps and have had the privilege of representing my country, both at home and overseas.

What’s next

I am going to university soon. There are numerous scholarships available to water polo players, both in the UK and overseas. I have decided to apply for UK institutions, my first choice being Durham University.

I used to play lots of other sports, such as netball and hockey, however, water polo now takes up a lot of my time. As a member of the national squad, I am expected to train 16+ hours a week, so I do a lot of Open Water Swimming, pool swimming, plus land training eg, gym, classes in addition to four sessions of water polo.


Water polo is a physical sport that is a little like netball crossed with rugby but in water. One of the common misconceptions is that players can touch the floor, but they can’t. And it also doesn’t involve horses!!

Winning Nationals

Male-dominated sport

Water polo is historically very male-dominated. The sport was invented in the UK in the late 1800s and first appeared in the Olympics in 1900. The women’s sport did not make an appearance until the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

Women’s water polo is now on the rise. We have three divisions in the National League, but lots of teams waiting for a space (the men have five divisions). Girls have the same junior competitions as the boys, including local leagues and National Age Group competitions, as well as junior EU Nations and European Championships and male and female water polo is fully supported at UK universities.

Women are getting more involved in the coaching side of the sport, too, which is brilliant. The South East Region head coach, assistant coach at Women’s U19 and the assistant senior coach are all women, as are many of the team managers. I have also coached our girl’s U16 Sussex side to victory in the inter-county tournaments in 2018 and 2019.

If you want to try water polo…

The advice I would give to a young person wanting to get involved is to ask your parents to call the local water polo or swimming club and ask for a free taster session. Most, if not all, offer them. Most swim clubs, including Mid Sussex Marlins, Worthing, Hastings all have water polo sections and Drenched Water Polo School has several sites across Sussex offering bespoke water polo training.

Also, don’t worry if your friend can’t go along with you, as you will make lots of new friends in no time. It is a tough sport, but the players are really friendly and the scope for competition means that you’ll be off visiting pools (and the towns and cities where they are located) in no time at all.

Charlotte Harding
Charlotte Harding
Charlotte is a journalist and the co-founder of The Women's Work Collective.


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