Making a Big Splash
John Abdou M’09 aims to make USA Water Polo a real player
by Benjamin Gleisser

John Abdou M’09, chief high performance officer at USA Water Polo, describes the sport as a combination of basketball and swimming — except you can’t dribble in a pool.

For the uninitiated, water polo is a game where players try to throw a ball into the opposing team’s floating goal, passing the ball back and forth and jockeying for position in the water as they go. USA Water Polo, the nation’s governing body for the sport, prepares teams for international competitions, including the Olympics.

Abdou, a member of his high school’s basketball and swim teams, played water polo one summer, and “I was forever hooked,” he says. “The sport combined lots of things I loved — being outside, being in a pool, being on a team and playing something similar to basketball.”

John Abdou M’09
Photo: Courtesy of USA Water Polo
The postponement of this summer’s Olympics will allow more time for his team to prepare, says John Abdou M’09.

After receiving a bachelor’s in sociology at the University of California, Irvine, Abdou coached Bucknell’s water polo team from 2005 to 2012 while earning his master’s degree in education. “The opportunity to coach the sport I loved was a wonderful experience,” he says. “It was my first step in my water polo career.”

He later coached at the University of California, Santa Barbara, then joined USA Water Polo in 2013. In addition to directorial and coaching duties, he visits high schools with pools around the country, speaking with athletics directors about adding the sport to their lineup.

“We have to create a pipeline that will feed college and Olympic teams so we can compete on an international scale,” he says, adding that the International Olympic Committee made the right choice to postpone the games for a year, due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

On the bright side, the delay will give athletes more time to prepare for the Tokyo Olympics, but catching up to Eastern European squads will be no slam-dunk. Says Abdou, “All the gold medal winners of the last 20 years have been from Croatia, Serbia, Hungary and Montenegro. Water polo is their national pastime; it’s bigger than baseball is here.”