Interview with the Referee Alex Stankevitch

Russ Thompson
Water Polo Planet

Alex Stankevitch

Alex Stankevitch has risen to the top levels of officiating in the USA. His skill on the deck is well known.  He is one of the most personable people I have had the pleasure of working with.  He is an excellent instructor and has an enormous amount of patience which benefits him as a referee and his students in his teaching profession. The greatest benefit of all, though, goes to those who have had the pleasure of his company.

I asked Alex if he would take time out of his busy, almost chaotic schedule, to allow me to interview him.  He answered right away with a positive answer and attitude that I have grown to love.  His story is fascinating and during the process of putting this together Alex confided in me that he had a lot of fun with this interview.  I enjoyed his answers thoroughly and I am certain you will too! 

Thank you Alex and to the benefactors on WPP, I hope you enjoy this incredible interview with my friend Alex Stankevitch!

1. Tell us a little about what you do vocationally.  It is very interesting to me and WPP readers will like it a lot.

I am a Social Studies and Special Education High School teacher in south New Jersey.  I have been involved with education for over 10 years during/after I’ve earned my MA from Wilmington University at Delaware.

2. When did you start playing?  At what age?

I got started in water polo at age 7.  It was kind of an interesting story.  The story that was pretty common during the Soviet Union.  For all the short comings and problems that the country had and caused around, there were some things that the USSR got right.  In my opinion the sports and sports development were unparalleled in its success to any other system or country in the world.  Children were encouraged to participate in athletics from the very young age.  The sports and travel (sometimes tremendous distances) were completely free for everybody.

So, I got picked up by my dad after the first grade, first day of school.  He informed me that before we go home, we will make one stop.  It was a time, he told me, to choose a sport that I would want to be a part of and enjoy.  It wasn’t a total surprise, as I have already though and discussed this with my dad beforehand.  He was and still is very big on sports and fitness.  

At the time I was all set to join the team handball section of the sports school.  In the 80’s USSR’s large part of the national team was from Minsk, my home city in Republic of Belarus and the sport was very popular.  However, after a brief meeting with the head coach he told us that I was about a year too young and if I didn’t know how to swim well I should go to the swimming pool in the same building and join the age group water polo team.  I went and never came back to handball.  Although, I still love to watch handball matches (World Championships just finished in Spain) on TV/internet when there is a chance.

3. Where did you play and what was it like?

Just like anyone else, I had to learn how to swim first, but I really enjoyed the competition aspect of water polo, it was more like rugby especially in the shallow end of the pool.  In Minsk, we won a number of Republic’s championships for juniors and once we won our team was the base for that age to represent our republic at the National level.  The unwritten rule was that the winning city/team gets at least 8 players out of 13.  The rest would be fielded by the number two and three placed teams.  The coaches were also selected on the basis of winning.  You win and suddenly now you are the head coach of republic’s team.  I remember being told by coaches on a number of occasions that, “the number one goal for the season is to be first in Belarus.  Everything else is gravy… “.

By that time’s standards we had very decent opportunities to practice in a very nice indoor/outdoor arena called the Palace of Aquatic Sports. Here you can see ihow it looked in the seventies Most of the players on my age group team studied in the same school and grade.  The school was about a 30 minute walk from the pool.  In the 5th grade we practiced twice a day with exception of Saturday when we rested, and Sunday was a scrimmage day against teams of other ages and/or other cities.  The practice started at 6:00 am and went to 8:00 am.  All of us had to take public transportation to the pool and after practice we all would change in to school uniform (sometimes copy or help from each other or make up any homework or missing assignments) and by 9:00 am we would start the school day.  The school was very accommodating to us and would let water polo guys start the day one period later than the rest.  It was a regular public city school that had a sports class (academically best in school) where we had students from water polo, swimming, diving, and underwater swimming.  As the time went on, most of the swimmers became water polo players. The second practice went from 3:00 to 5:00 pm.

Again, because of water polo competitions and training I have visited a diverse number of places all over the Soviet Union and these were not just weekend kind of visits.  Most of the tournaments were from 4 to 7 days long.  Every year preseason was held for the entire month of August in the city of Odessa, Ukraine.  Each single day we had a light run to the sea, where we had a choice of at least 100 pushups or a swim to the distant cone on the beach.  Most of the kids would choose push-ups, because the Black Sea’s water was always cold and I don’t’ think I had seen a wet suit until I came to California in 1993.

Morning exercise would be followed by breakfast and an hour and half later we had our main training.  It was always distance running, for about 40 – 45 min and coaches would constantly watch, because most of us, including yours truly, didn’t particularly enjoy it.  I will talk about punishments a bit later.  I always look back at running as a universal simple exercise that was done by ALL sports in the country.  For water polo, we had been told, running is particularly important because it increases your stamina and makes your legs much stronger.  The training would continue with strength and flexibility excesses individually and pairs.  I remember we often practiced with medicine balls, rubber cords and worked a lot on ball handling skills.

Second part of the day before dinner we would do mostly strength work with weights (something like weight lifting plates, I don’t remember ever being in the actual gym…there were not many of those that we could use as a team), push-ups, pull ups (they were the most popular) and anything else with the horizontal bar, jumping rope, abs…a few times a week we would play street soccer with coaches and sometimes even basketball or volleyball.

So, speaking of running, some of us did try to cheat, by hiding in the bushes or wheat fields that we had to lap a few times, and sometimes even taking a street car for one stop to take a break. Occasionally, we would get caught and then the punishment would follow in the form of extra practice right after lunch instead of a nap or going to the beach or if it didn’t work then - the ‘shoe’.  A ‘shoe’ we would get, if we were extra bad or got caught a few too many times. Coach would take his plastic massage sandal (they were particularly popular in the 80’s) and hit you on your bottom (as hard as he could) a few times depending on severity of transgression.  These transgressions normally were not connected to the game itself, but these would add up through travel time. The main thing is not to get a ‘shoe’ while still at the pool wearing wet speedo, for obvious reasons. It was much preferable to get your punishment at the hotel before bed time, when I had a chance to slide a thin towel in my pants to protect my behind.  One time four of us got a total of 10 each, we were screaming, crying, and eventually laughing at each other’s reactions to the punishment.  We deserved every single one of them, and yes, parents were all aware of this, and ALL were in favor of it during the parent meetings.  Eventually, ‘shoe’ punishment vanished as we got into our mid teenage years.

Another interesting point that I remember, that the players were always responsible for safe keeping of balls during trips.  It accomplished two things: responsibility – you didn’t want to lose the ball entrusted to you. They were very difficult to come by (the team would get may be 3 or 4 new balls for the season).  So, if you lost one, you better find it or replace (use your imagination here) it before getting home.  In fact, we use to practice with some (not all) ‘bald’ Mikasas and Arenas, to the point where it wasn’t slippery, but some of the fibers were exposed.  Now, to get an old Mikasa in somewhat decent use, we would soap the ball and wash it and if it didn’t help we would rub it with sand paper and use permanent markers to touch up the pattern on the ball.  I think the coaches were making us feel better by saying that if you practice with ‘bald’ Mikasas you will have less bad habits like putting your hand on top of the ball and try to grip it all the time.  Second thing it accomplished is ball handling.  It encouraged us to hold, touch, throw, pass the ball between us in our hotel rooms and during warm ups before games or training. 

Ultimately, right before I left for the USA I was called up to train with our professional club and play with the newly formed National B team of my republic.

4. Tell me about your past and how you came to the USA?  People are interested in this as I am.

My dad was a pilot with the national airline that is still called Aeroflot.  By age 42 he already had 23 years of flight experience.  My mother basically raised my sister and I with her grandmother, because my dad was often away on working trips or trainings.  I remember a few years after Chernobyl disaster occurred in the northern Ukraine while most of the winds blew North East, hence radiation damage was done to the southern and south eastern part of Belarus.  My dad was assigned for a few weeks to fly disaster relief personnel and clean-up crews to the region.  He did this just like other senior pilots were assigned to participate with their flight crews.  However, after assigned few weeks (I think it was almost a month), he was ordered to go again instead of someone else.  He had refused emphasizing that he had done his part and now it was time for other commander to do the same.  When his bosses made it clear that it is an order that can’t be refused, my father quit and left the Aeroflot all together. 

Consequently, after Gorbachev’s Perestroika, travel restrictions were loosened and people could travel more freely.  Some of our family on my dad’s side was separated since the end of the World War II.  They were taken to the Nazi labor camps in Germany during the war and after the end of it Stalin refused to take many of these laborers back, so my relatives had to choose the country where they would be allowed to immigrate.  They choose the United States.  Eventually, 50 years later, some of my father’s relatives took part in the tourist trip to the Soviet Union with the stop in Minsk.  This is where the first face-to-face contact was made which eventually (in addition to my dad’s job situation) led to my parent’s decision to move.

5. Your college career – tell us about that.

While in Atlanta Spring 1993, I had opened the yellow pages and began calling university’s aquatic programs/pools to see if anyone is playing water polo. Eventually I got a hold of the Georgia Tech water polo club and one of its players at the time (Robert Nutcher) helped me to get in contact with Bob Pollitt (Merced College Head Water Polo and Swimming coach).  I decided to take a chance and left Atlanta in August for Merced the place where I had played for two years.  My last year I have earned an All American honor while setting a school record for assists in the season.

More importantly I have met a lot of great people during my time in Merced.  Coach Pollitt and his family became very close and I could always count on their support.  When I did not have enough funds to pay for my second semester at the school and my parents were also struggling, the entire aquatic community stepped up and donated as much as they could to my education account created by the coach.  Eventually, the account was over $1000 and I could pay most of my dues. 

Two and half years later I have ended up at UC Santa Barbara.  I want to say especial thanks to Joe O’Brian and Bob Nutcher (his assistant at the time) for recruiting me and believing that I could contribute not only in the pool but in the classroom, as well.  My playing carrier at UCSB was abruptly over during my first year.  During the NCAA clearing house they have found out that my eligibility clock had ran out.  The thing is I have studied for year in University in Minsk before my departure and that did start my playing clock.  However, I did stay involved with water polo. Joe entrusted me with running a club at the campus pool and for one season I was his undergrad assistant.

6. When did you decide to referee polo? 

During my time at Merced College, Coach Pollitt told me there was a need for referees for an age group tournament in Modesto, CA.  I told him that I was interested, but have never done it before.  So, during a scrimmage he pulled me out of the water and asked me to referee the rest of the scrimmage. 

I took a few years’ hiatus when I had moved on to UCSB, but began to ref again during the last year in college.

7. What obstacles to success were there and how did you overcome them to become one of the most respected officials in the USA?

I don’t think I had any different obstacles than any other official would face.  I do this job (can’t call a hobby after all these years) because I love it and have been around water polo for a very long time.  So, taking all of those’ red eye’ flight , sometimes a few weeks in a row and going directly to work from the airport in the morning is a small price to pay for the great experiences I have had through the years.

8. Are you happy with the game you most often see?  What would you change?  What do you like about today’s game?

If you would have asked me about 12 or so years ago, I would definitely say NO.  It means the game is changing into the right direction.  New rules are been implemented with an idea to speed up the game and make it possible for smaller sized players to compete against a ‘larger’ competition.  I hope the driving will be back so we can see the lost art of “wet shots”.

9. This past season, 3 of the 4 NCAA final officials were from the East Coast and from the former Soviet Union.  This is a remarkable achievement.  To what do you attribute this success?  What can other officials learn from it.

Being part of the Soviet sport machine probably did play a role in our success, but it in my personal opinion other things were even more important.  First, the guidance and influence of Loren Bertocci was instrumental.  He saw potential in me and provided me with opportunities and feedback.  Second, on the East Coast we see each other a lot and our families became good friends, as well.  What is crucial, here is that we discuss and debate what we see in the game from the referee stand point.  If we saw something interesting during our international assignments we would bring it back and share it and not only with each other, but with other referees who are willing to listen. 

10. When you’re not reffing polo, what do you like to do in your spare time?

Well, I referee in my spare time.  When a rare opportunity for a free weekend arrives I like to visit and hang out with friends.  In this busy life style, family understanding and support is essential.  I am lucky enough to have that in my life.