A Team Grows in Brooklyn

Doru Roll
Water Polo Planet
08/01/15

Brooklyn, New York, is a unique place. The fifth largest city in the United States, it is home to more different nationalities than any other place in the world. People from practically every country live in Brooklyn, each with its own customs and culture. If you sit on a park bench along Coney Island’s Boardwalk or in Borough Park on a summer evening, close your eyes and just listen to the people walking by, their voices will carry you from Africa to China, from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia, from Scandinavia to the Middle East, from Russia to New Zeeland. Practically every immigrant group that came to these shores has stopped in Brooklyn along the way, and some have stayed for generations.

 

Some ten years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, a new wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Republics came to Brooklyn in search of a new life. Brooklyn already had a large Russian-speaking community who came earlier, in the 1970’s, so it was only natural that the newcomers would settle in an area that already had a certain degree of familiarity. Amongst them were a number of former water polo players, some of whom knew each other and had even played together in their youth. It wasn’t long before a few of them got together and decided to start a water polo club.

 

It was in early summer 2007 that Yevgeniy (Eugene) Prokhin – originally from Kazakhstan – and Roman Agabs – who hails from Azerbaijan – got together a bunch of 8-year olds and started a team. Because the only pool available was that of the King’s Bay Y in Sheepshead Bay, they decided to name their team Y PRO. All of the original players were children of Russian immigrants, including Eugene and Roman’s own sons. Soon after they added 10U and 12U, and now Y PRO has about 90 players and fields competitive teams in every age group. Some of the original players from 2007 now form the core of Y PRO’s 18U team. Although the home of the club is still at King’s Bay Y with its tiny, 25yd X 8yd pool (yes, it’s smaller than Occidental’s), these days the team also uses the excellent facility at nearby’s Brooklyn College.

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Practice in the King's Bay Y pool

Y PRO first participated in the Junior Olympics two years later in 2009, and again in 2011 and 2013. They regularly compete in the Tri-State Water Polo League, the American Water Polo tournaments and the Miami International Water Polo Tournament which, coincidentally, was also started by a Russian immigrant, well-known international referee Michael Goldenberg.

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Y PRO 16U Team, winners of the Silver Medal at the Miami International Water Polo Tournament
(head coach Eugene Prokhin on right, assistant coach Roman Agabs on left)

Over time, many of the former players from the community have stopped by to lend a hand, whether coaching, handling equipment, serving as drivers and chaperones or simply to show support. Amongst them are FINA and USAWP referees Mark Koganov and Irakli Sanadze, whose sons – both named Jonathan – play together on the 16U team. Three years ago Irakli decided that he was going to stay, and took over coaching of the then 10U team. WPP caught up with Eugene and Irakli, who graciously agreed to share a few thoughts

 

WPP: Eugene, how did you get started in water polo?

EP: I started when I was 8, but I knew from the start that I wanted to play in the Olympic Games.

 

WPP: And did you?

EP: Yes, in 2000 in Sidney. I played for my country, Kazakhstan. We finished ninth. I scored five goals.

 

WPP: How did your player career develop?

EP: From age 15 I played for Dynamo Almaty (ed.: the premier club of Kazakhstan). We won many local and national competitions. I also played on the USSR Junior and Senior National Teams. With the Kazakhstan National Team I played in the Olympics and World Championships, and we won the Asia Games three times in a row. I played until 27.

 

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Eugene Prokhin (center) at the 1994 Asia Games

 

WPP: Did you have any personal hero, someone who inspired you?

EP: Those guys were all heroes to us, but I think Kotenko and Mshveniyeradze.

 

WPP: How did you get started with Y PRO?

EP: In 2007 Roman and I got together about 10 local kids and started a team. Roman has been with me from the start. My son Nick and Roman’s son Joseph played together all the way to 18U. We only had the Y pool which is very small.

 

WPP: Does Nick still play?

EP: Sure. This summer he’s playing in Canada, and in the fall he will be starting St. Francis College. He played in the World Youth Games for Kazakhstan. My younger son Max plays on our 10U team.

 

WPP: Roman was not available. Can you tell us a few things about him?

EP: Roman has been playing from age 10 in Baku. He played for KKF, the same club as Mark Koganov. (ed.: KKF was one of the premier Soviet water polo clubs, and is the top club in Baku these days. Baku also is the birthplace of referee Val Vasilchikov). Roman helped me start Y PRO in 2007 and has been with us ever since. His son Joseph is a key player on our 18U team.

 

***

 

WPP:  Irakli, how did you get started in water polo?

IS: I followed in my father’s footsteps. My father “Vaso” played and coached at the Dynamo club in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. In 1979 we won the silver medal at the Spartakiad. We defeated teams like Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania. (ed: the Spartakiad was the second largest sports competition after the Olympic Games. In the beginning it was limited only to teams from the USSR, but later included the entire Soviet Block).

 

WPP: Did you play in 1979?

IS: No, I was too young then. I started playing at three and continued until 25. I played for Dynamo Tbilisi like my father, and for the Georgian National Team. We competed in several USSR championships. One year we played against Mark Koganov’s team KKF.

 

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Georgia's Team at the 1979 Spartakiad. "Vaso" Sanadze is on the right in the back row

 

WPP: How did you get started in refereeing?

IS: I started right after I stopped playing, in Tbilisi. A year later I was refereeing in the Premier League of the USSR. From there I refereed in LEN and then FINA. Now I also referee for USAWP. This summer I was in the Netherlands for the European Championships qualifiers.

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Irakly at the European Championships Qualifiers

WPP: How did you get involved with Y PRO?

IS: Because of the kids. Three years ago I took over the 10U team. They are 12U now and we are preparing for the JOs next year. We took 3rd place in the Tri-State League. We also will be going to Miami next year. When I started we practiced twice a week. Now we have about 23 kids and we are starting to practice four days a week.

 

WPP: Your son Jonathan plays for Y PRO…

IS: And so does my younger son, Allan. Jonathan plays 16U and Allan plays 12U.

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Irakli and the Y PRO 12U team

WPP: Looks like you are building your own water polo dynasty here…

IS: We are three generations already: my father, me and now my sons. Maybe their kids too…

 

***

 

I have followed Y PRO over the past years, and watched them grow from a bunch of little kids who spoke mostly Russian into a competitive team. Although most of the players are still Russian-speaking from all over the former USSR, kids of other nationalities are slowly joining the team. Perhaps in time Y PRO will become as diverse as Brooklyn itself, and although this team is 100% Brooklyn grown, the seeds of its existence were planted a long, long time ago in a land far, far away. One thing is for sure: what brings and keeps this group together is the love of the sport.

 

As for Eugene, Roman and Irakli, who balance full-time jobs, family, travel and three to four practice sessions a week, one cannot help but ask if this is worth all the effort. Is water polo really that important to them, or is it all – as Irakli put it – just: “Because of the kids”?