A successful inaugural varsity match for Glasgow University’s water polo team as the team focuses on the development of the sport at university level and inclusivity within the club.
Varsity competitions hold a prominent space in university sporting calendars across the UK, with rival universities competing in a variety of sports in the hope of winning the title and earning bragging rights for the next year. Amid all the discussion around the upcoming rugby varsity match (Glasgow v Strathclyde), Glasgow University Swimming and Waterpolo Club (GUSWPC) have taken a different approach to varsity with the introduction of the Kelpies Cup in January 2024. The men’s and women’s water polo captains Alexander Harris and Lynsey Blair hope the recent success will help form social connections and promote the sport.
Inspired by varsity water polo competitions in Sheffield, Manchester and Nottingham, Alex, who has been involved in the sport for almost a decade, took the initiative to create the Kelpies Cup. The second-year medicine student explained that while a typical Glasgow University varsity match would involve GU and Strathclyde University battling against each other, the Kelpies Cup transforms enemies into teammates as the united team compete against Edinburgh University, one of the top water polo teams in the UK: “Glasgow already play against Strathclyde in the league twice a year so I thought it would be best to combine both teams together and play against or closest geographical rival instead.
“I wanted to strengthen the relationship between the two teams since water polo is a small world. The Kelpies Cup helped players form connections both in and out of the pool. You build up trust when you play in the same team and gain shared experiences. We play up the rivalry against Strathclyde to give an edge to our matches and add some more excitement but the truth is, we always socialise before and after… some of us are even related…”
Despite a tough loss against a team which included Scotland International players, the introduction of varsity and the Kelpies Cup holds a high significance for not only both Glasgow universities as the team filled the seating area at Strathclyde University’s swimming pool and went goal for goal at some points against last year’s BUCS finalists, but also for Alex himself, to which varsity had additional personal meaning for him: “I felt immensely proud to play alongside my two brothers,” emphasised the men’s water polo captain. “We have always been in different age groups or different teams, but this game gave us an opportunity to join together as a family. Plus, two out of three of us scored – not so bad!”
Now that it has been kickstarted, the next focus is on how the idea of water polo varsity and the Kelpies Cup can continue to grow and develop to raise the profile of and continue to build the reputation of the sport in Glasgow. Alex stated: “Growth in water polo must start at the grassroots level. The key to its success is presenting the sport as fun, engaging and challenging to a wide audience and in my opinion, we were able to build a foundation to be able to achieve this. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive from the other teams but there is still room for improvement.
“It was a desperate shame to not have a women’s varsity match alongside the men’s, not due to a lack of trying. Hopefully, after the success this year, there’ll be twice as many matches next year! Organising another event next year will take a lot of willpower and motivation, but I’m optimistic.”
Women’s captain Lynsey Blair echoed both the disappointment from this year and positivity for the future as she highlighted how important teamwork and cooperation are in the sport, having only played water polo for 18 months.
“Last year’s water polo captain Ruth Somers made a great effort to make me feel welcome within the sport and the club and as a result, I was allowed to play matches without much experience, which helped me to progress,” she said. “At the end of the year, I was awarded the Most Improved Player and decided to take on the leadership role with the goal of recruiting more beginners and creating an inclusive environment where everyone has access to minutes in the matches and are able to develop at their own pace. I want to ensure that there is not a divide between the different abilities and ranges of experience.
“Spending time together at training forces everyone to speak to each other but it is social events, nights out, bus trips to away matches, and tournaments such as March Madness and Western Baths Outdoor tournament that truly brings us closer as a team.
“We have rituals before each match, such as a dance circle and shakes so that we can all come together and feel like one team. One of my most memorable moments was last year when we played Strathclyde away. We didn’t have many players nor were we expecting to win, but we all played the best that we had ever played before and walked away with a win in the end. Afterwards, we did a pub crawl to Bank Street.”
Alex agreed that both water polo teams place inclusivity at the heart of everything, reemphasising the desire to continue the success of the previous captain and the sense of community that is created through social events. He also mentioned the idea of “peer learning” through mixed training sessions and bouncing back off of each other after suffering tough losses. From tiger-striped trunks to GUSWPC chants, both captains want to use their role to encourage anyone wanting to try water polo to get involved in the club and stuck in at training.
Water polo in Glasgow is on the rise with an exciting season well underway and an influx of new players into the team. Both teams are sitting high up in the league in Scotland and there is no doubt that both Lynsey and Alex have made a positive impact on the university water polo community thanks to the success of the inaugural Kelpies Cup and the emphasis on inclusion and team spirit within the club. As Lynsey said about her co-captain: “It has very much been a team effort.”
The GB women’s water polo team is currently competing in the World Aquatics Championships in Doha for the first time in 12 years, after finishing in seventh place at the European Championships beating teams with a roster of professional players. There is the hope that this success will inspire more people to play the sport and convince the governing body to provide more funding to water polo in Scotland. With this in mind, the future of water polo in Glasgow is set to be bright.