Interview with the Referee Val Vasilchikov

Russ Thompson
Water Polo Planet

Val VasilchikovVal and I met at Navy many years ago, we were working a tournament together.  He has become a good friend His story, like so many from the former Soviet Union is one of tenacity and grit and determination.   Val carries these traits quietly and humbly.  I loved hearing his story so many years ago and I hope you will also enjoy this interview with Val Vasilchikov.

1. You once told me a story about the challenges you faced coming to the USA.  Can you share your experiences and challenges with our readers? 

 I was born and raised in Baku, Azerbaijan which was formerly part of the USSR and now an independent republic which claimed its independence as soon as the Soviet Union fell apart. Baku is one of the most beautiful cities in the world partially because of its location next to the Caspian Sea. In 1996 fortune smiled at me and I found out that I was one of the lucky winners of the Green Card Lottery. Every year there is a drawing done by the US Department of State which allows for 55,000 new resident visas to be handed out to natives of countries deemed to have low rates of immigration to the United States. When everyone is trying to win the Mega Millions Jackpot, I always smile and say to myself that I already won the most important lottery of my life.

The entire process lasted more than a year and in July, 1997 my family and I were crossing the immigration services at JFK. The immigration process is not so simple, not even in a materialistic sense but more psychological. Arriving to a new country and dealing with new culture, new language and new rules is tough. One of the hardest parts was learning the language since during the Soviet era, there was no emphasis or push to teach students a new language and people just didn’t take it seriously because no one felt it was important at the time.

For my first job in the US, I got on the bus and took an 18 hour ride to North Carolina after finding out that there was a demand for construction workers, economy was booming and everybody was building so there was ton of work.  There was a Japanese guy on the bus with me who also didn’t speak English but we felt like we were brothers even though we couldn’t communicate with one another. After a month of work in North Carolina I finally returned back to New York.

Funny enough when you come to a new country without speaking the language, the only place you can really go is into your own native community and for me, of course it was Russian – which is how I ended up working in a Russian restaurant for the next 2 years while my wife was taking English classes and looking to find a job. This of course did not help me learn the language and instead made it more difficult since everyone spoke Russian.

After being there for 2 years, I made friends with a regular customer who eventually asked about my background. Before coming the US, I worked on a military compound on Russian aviation systems for their fighter jets and coincidentally he thought he can help so he asked for my resume. Two weeks later I joined Kulite Semiconductors as an electronic technician and after several years I was promoted to Supervisor and then as Production Manager. Company produces and tests high pressure sensors primarily for aviation, automotive and industrial applications so this job was right up my alley in terms of experience and comfort zone.

2. When did you get involved with water polo?  Tell us how you began.

 I started playing water polo in Baku at the age of 12. I can say that the sport runs in the family since my father swam and played water polo, uncle, cousin and now my son are and were all part of the sport. After moving to New York, I couldn’t find a pool that was closer than 2 hours driving distance so that hindered involvement in the sport. There was a guy at the restaurant I worked with who was always playing soccer and since both of us come from an athletic background, we spoke about sports very often. One day at the restaurant, he calls me over and says “Val, I have one of your water polo players here, come say hi!,” This was the day I met Irakli Sanadze. Through Irakli I managed to meet Mark Koganov who I have known back in Baku but lost touch so it was nice to reconnect and see a familiar face again. Of course at that point, Mark directed me to St. Francis College and told me that there was a decent pool and a kids program there – subsequently, I took my son to St. Francis College where he picked up playing water polo again. I would take my son to every possible tournament I could have taken him to that was a reasonable driving distance but it was again, a challenging task because youth water polo in 1999 was not as spread out throughout the East Coast as it is now.

3. Being chosen for the NCAA championships is a wonderful accomplishment and an honor.  Congratulations Val!    When did you start officiating?  Tell us about your career.

My interest in refereeing started after taking my son to one of these tournaments and seeing some of the officiating which was terrible in my eyes and thought that I can do a much better job than what I saw in front of me. I attended my very first CWPA clinic in 2002 and in September, I received my first assignment for some club games. I would drive 4-5 hours from NYC upstate New York just to make the games and the distance of driving was not important to me as I wanted to get as much exposure as I possibly can. Eventually Mark Koganov, introduced me to Alex Stankevich and Michael Goldenberg who were always very helpful and always provided positive feedback and constructive criticism. I am thankful to those three individuals for helping me along the path but of course, my biggest influence in that day was Loren Bertocci who always shared his knowledge and experience of the sport.

From this point on I would travel to California as often as I can just so I can gain higher quality experience since we know that California is the mecca of the sport. I received my first CWPA varsity assignment the following season in 2003 and in 2004, was invited to officiate Masters World Championships hosted by Stanford University which turned out to be a great experience. I think that if you take something seriously and genuinely care about it, you will eventually achieve the results that you want. 

In 2012 I was invited to officiate Men’s NCAA Championships held at USC, this was a first experience for me if it’s kind. It was very exciting and I felt accomplished to have earned my spot as one of the officials there. In 2013 I was subsequently invited to officiate Women’s NCAA Championships. I am grateful to all those people that were by my side and who helped me along the way.

4. Do you like the game of polo how it is currently played?  Is there anything you would change?

I distinctly remember several years ago the general mindset of officials, players and coaches that dictated “no ball no advantage.” This led to a more physical and dirty game that took the beauty of the sport out of it and what should be a fast game involving skill and finesse, turned out to be wrestling matches throughout the pool. I would love to see the game “speed up” where players are forced to do more drives, more passes, combinations and generally think more finesse rather than simple brute strength.

5. There are many that think a healthy club system where players are mentored from a very young age through the age a player retires. The Soviet Union had such a system.  Tell us a little about it.

Soviet water polo school has a long history where constantly there were championships and tournaments being held throughout the country. Soviet program was very strong but not solely because of the talented players but more so because of the strong coaches and trainers who made the sport, their life. This was not a hobby but a job, a career that they accomplished by going to sports oriented universities. Back in those days, individuals had a choice to actually go to school for sports and athletics. A coach is not just someone that will train his kids how to pass the ball or swim, a coach should know the psychology, physiology and sports medicine to be a full rounded “coach” which is why USSR’s athletics programs, no matter which sport were always very strong. There was an established and proven system in place that was supported by the government which subsequently, delivered results on a world class scale.

Val Vasilchikov