At least three times a week, Ahwatukee teen and 2017 Mountain Pointe High School grad Samantha “Sam” Camblin drives a half hour to Mesa for fun.
It’s not the drive that’s fun, but her drive to succeed in water polo – a traditionally male sport that in recent years has exploded in popularity among women.
That Mesa Water Polo, where she plays, is predominantly male doesn’t bother Camblin in the least. Nor does it apparently affect other women who are part of the club teams.
“The water polo guys I play with are really cool guys,” she said. “Most of them started together and have played together; I’m a late-bloomer.”
Camblin, who earned four varsity letters in swimming at Mountain Pointe despite two separate surgeries for tears in both shoulders, is enamored of water polo, and has already practiced with a club team in Tucson, where she’ll attend the University of Arizona come August.
“I’m pretty dedicated to water polo,” she laughed when being questioned about the seven hours or more of practice weekly, either at Kino Aquatic Center or Skyline Aquatic Center, both in Mesa.
“Most people are shocked I make that trip to Mesa, sometimes every day. I guess I’m a little bit obsessive about it, too,” she said. “I do look at water polo videos and see what I can learn.”
Swimming for Camblin began as it does for many southern Arizona youth – in the family pool.
But by first grade, she and her younger sister, Grace, were competing with a recreational diving team that was then at Pecos Park. She tries to trace the arc that led to the team water sport of water polo, but deduces it was another avenue for her love of the pool without further strain on her shoulders.
“I really don’t know what happened. I swam for eight years on club teams, played softball, but after my surgery in eighth grade, and then one on the other shoulder a year and a half later, my mom found the Mesa Water Polo,” said Camblin, who is a life guard and swim instructor at Chandler’s Nozomi Aquatic Center.
“It was rough coming back both times, but I knew I always wanted to go the Olympics, and now I’m definitely coming back strong,” she added. “Technically, throwing is hard on my shoulder but I’m gaining a lot of muscle.
Having aged out of the Mesa Water Polo’s high school senior group after graduation, Camblin has moved up to Masters, which is listed as 18 and up.
She turns 18 Aug. 18, the day after she moves into UofA dorms for her freshman year to major in pre-physiology with an eye on becoming a surgeon.
This Masters group is co-ed, though women are greatly outnumbered. She’s won two trophies in the water sport competitions, but some, like the National Jr. Olympics upcoming July 22-30 in Orange County, California, don’t accept co-ed teams.
One problem, Camblin said, is gathering enough girls or women to field a team which, like men’s teams, is comprised of six players and one goal keeper and often has an additional six subs.
“We do have the age group team that has some girls on it that are amazing, and we got to go to an all-girl tournament in Utah earlier this year. We mainly played against college students and older girls, and it was such a fun tournament,” she said.
“Actually, they had to combine two of the groups to barely form a women’s team,” she said. “They combined the girls from the age group and those of us from the high school group. It was the first team to come from Mesa that was all female. And we could only play at that tournament because the age bracket was more open.”
For Rachel Ray, a Red Mountain High School senior, water polo is a new sport as well, having been involved with Mesa Water Polo for merely eight months. She is currently the only 18-and-under girl competing, though there are others at the 15- and-under-level.
“Being one of the only girls does make it hard to compete in tournaments because I don’t always have a team to play with,” she said. “However, playing with guys pushes me harder and makes me tougher, and a more competitive athlete which I greatly appreciate."
Ray’s future plans include playing on a water polo team or club team at a California university currently under consideration.
Women and girls are a hugely growing demographic throughout the United States, said Mesa Water Polo head coach Grant Miller, who is in the vanguard of USA Water Polo’s efforts to increase their numbers.
“When I started here two years ago, I think we had three or four female players, now we’ve got about 13 involved,” he said. “Women’s water polo is one of the fastest growing sports in high school and college. At the college level, women’s participation has grown as much as 600 percent.”
“We’re hoping to garner enough interest next year to have a female team ready for other competitions,” he said.
Miller explained that at Mesa Water Polo, the girls are spread across the age groups used in competition: 12 and under, 14 and under, 16 and under and 18 and under.
“So, when we enter tournaments with an all-girls team, they’re entered in the 18-and-under division. We can have players as young as 11 and 12 playing against seniors in high school,” he said.
As head coach, he said he’s admired the girls’ drive to compete, often with boys who have played for many years. He noted Camblin’s passion for the sport, persevering after her two shoulder surgeries.
“Sam has a great passion for the game, and that passion has led her to be a student of the game both in the water during practice, and at home where she’ll watch videos online to learn more,” he said. “Her drive to learn the game and improve has helped her be a more competitive player.”
The Olympic Games have offered men’s water polo as an Olympic sport since the 1900 games in Paris, but women’s water polo wasn’t added until the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games after the Australian Women’s Water Polo Team applied political pressure.
Information on Mesa Water Polo Club: TeamUnify.com