Three veterans of the war in Afghanistan are returning to the country later this month with the hopes of unifying Afghans around international competition.
While working as a civilian contractor in 2008, Jeremy Piasecki — who grew up playing water polo in Fallbrook, California — took on the nearly impossible task of establishing a men's national water polo team in Afghanistan. It wasn't easy, especially considering most Afghans don't know how to swim and there are just 12 pools in the entire country.
From The Military Times:
Water polo is a physically aggressive game. Teams work to throw a ball into their opponent's goal, while preventing their opponent from doing likewise. Piasecki first got the idea to teach locals about it while working near Kabul as a civilian about seven years ago.
While aboard a military base, he recalled seeing a swimming pool devoid of water and filled with trash. He convinced the Afghan base commander to clean it up, and began teaching Afghans how to swim and play the game.
"It was the first ever water polo team in Afghanistan," Piasecki told The Times.
Today, the team is officially sanctioned by the Afghanistan Olympic Committee and is currently training under American coaches. They continue to train and "will take their first steps toward representing their country — one deserving of more positive athlete role models — in international competition," according to its official website.
Afghanistan was banned from the Olympics in 1999 while under Taliban rule. It was reinstated in 2002, but has had only a few athletes make it onto the world stage since, where they have competed in sprinting and Taekwondo (Afghan Rohullah Nikpai won Bronze in 2008 and 2012).
In 2010, Piasecki met Dan Huvane and Lydia Davey while on joint duty in Stuttgart, Germany for U.S. Marine Corps Forces Europe, and bonded over a shared desire to help the Afghan people. Now all three are trying to bring together a new team — of Afghan women.
"I promised myself that someday we would launch a women's team," Piasecki said in a statement. "I'm glad to start delivering on that promise."
Joined by American Water Polo Coach Robbie Bova, the three Marine veterans will fly to Kabul next week and hold tryouts for 125 Afghan women, select and begin training a core group of 30 promising athletes, and — if all goes to plan — establish a network of teams throughout Afghanistan while building a team that can compete internationally by 2020.
The group faces a variety of challenges. Kabul only has one pool that women can use, and the country is still very dangerous, especially for women wanting to engage in any kind of sport.
"During my deployments in Afghanistan, I have witnessed sport played out on the international stage serve as a tremendous rally point for the people of all factions and ethnicities - a desperately needed sign of hope and pride," Dan Huvane, a U.S. Marine reserve lieutenant colonel and communications consultant who is participating in the project, said in a statement. "Alongside those stories, I have seen the women of Afghanistan defy systematic oppression and outright death threats in order to be bold pioneers."
To fund travel for coaches, provide uniforms and equipment, and help with weekly training sessions, the team established an IndieGoGo campaign. You can check it out here.