After exciting college careers, the possibilities to continue to playing competitive water polo for most women in the US can seem limited. In Europe the system is usually the other way around – few (if no) teams exist in universities, but women are able to continue playing on thriving club teams for much longer. In recent years, France has been working towards developing its women's water polo program. With only 2 Federal-level leagues, National 1 and National 2, women's water polo in France is still far behind the development of the French men's leagues (which include Elite, N1, N2A, N2B, N3 and many regional leagues). In the 2009/2010 season, there were 17 teams from 13 clubs in the N1 and N2 women’s leagues. French women's water polo is preparing for a bright future, and now is a great time to play here!
HOW TO GET RECRUITED
France is still a small nation in the world of water polo. Only the top teams in the N1 league each year (usually 3 to 4 teams) which compete in the LEN Trophy (a European championship) actively recruit international players. Up to 3 international players are allowed per team to aid them in this tournament, which pits them against high level teams from other countries. These are the only French clubs at this time which will compensate players, usually paying for return flights, housing, French classes and a small monthly allowance.
While some French teams have recently created websites which facilitate recruitment, the most common method of international recruitment in France is actually for the potential player to contact a club directly, at which point they can correspond with the trainer and see if the team would be a good fit for them. This year, 3 Americans played in the women’s N1 league. A list of French water polo clubs by region is available on the Federation’s website, www.ffnatation.fr (although not all clubs have a women’s team).
Kim Hockett, a graduate from University of California-San Diego joined the ASPTT Nancy team in the N1 league by luck this season, "I'd really wanted to play professionally after I finished college, and I had always loved France and had a desire to live there, but I didn't know how to get a hold of any teams there. So I ended up just going to France anyways to be an au pair for a family in Lyon. When I got there I was just enjoying playing for fun on a co-ed team, when a referee told the coach for ASPTT Nancy about me. I tried out for the team, and was offered a spot on it for the following season."
Often major clubs recruit during the international competitions; Kim advises "word of mouth is the best way to find teams, or even going to the LEN Trophy or FINA World League games and talking to the coaches there."
Today's players are lucky to have the world of water polo at their fingertips thanks to the Internet. Take advantage of Facebook where you can contact girls directly via team groups to find out what their team is like and if they are looking for players. Kim adds, "More and more players are starting to go abroad and talking to them and picking their brains about the best teams to play for and where the best opportunities are is a great way to do it. You just have to start looking and start asking around. The coaches would probably love to have you, they just don't know how to get a hold of you, so you have to go to them."
All other clubs will usually happily accept international players. Often international students will join the local team, bringing fresh new styles of play to the pool. The best way to play on these teams is to go to France on a visa to teach English or be an au pair, or to enroll in classes and get a student visa (which will allow you to work part time). Attending a language school will also help you to communicate more effectively in your new home. Kim shared "I didn't speak French at all before… Honestly though, the team was really helpful about that. And playing in French isn't too difficult. You just follow along at first and it doesn't take very long to learn the necessary water polo vocab."
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
Making the decision to move to France for a season is not one to take lightly. Beyond the language issues, players can be confronted with loneliness – Kim advises girls to “plan ahead and make sure you have family or friends to celebrate all the American holidays with” and to expect to spend a lot of time on Skype. Cultural differences can also cause frustration, Kim warns “try not to get offended if they don't smile at you for instance, it’s nothing personal, just their culture, and the quicker you accept and understand that, the more you will be able to enjoy yourself.”
Kim reflected on her season playing in France, "I did enjoy the season, though I must say a low was how long it was. I found it weird how the season is structured in France- a game every one to two weeks over an 8 month period - it got a bit boring in the middle. The level of water polo in France is very steep, and is still getting established, so there's not a lot of competition for the best teams. But the LEN Trophy and the games against Nice were what kept us going and motivated, as they were guaranteed to be a battle, which is what we live for as players."
While French girls are notoriously hard to make friends with, being on a team here gives you a tight knit group of girls, with whom you will spend many evenings practicing and weekends traveling around France. Kim advises girls interested in playing abroad to jump in, "It was a great experience, and a great way to go abroad and see and live in a different culture. I loved it, and learned so much about myself and the world because of it. And besides, it’s just a great way to keep playing."
Hélène Tournier is the player on the right. She is a 2MD from Colorado and has been playing water polo in France for 3 seasons. She currently plays for Saint-Denis Union Sport (http://www.saintdenis-waterpolo.fr/) and would be happy to answer any questions you have about playing abroad – or welcome you to her team!