Water Polo in Chicago – Interview with Kyle Perry, Fenwick High School Head Coach

When considering the success of Chicago youth water polo, one need look no further than Oak Park’s Fenwick High School and it’s remarkable string of success in both girls’ and boys’ polo. And no family is more renown in Friar coaching lore than the Perry family.

Kyle and Dave Perry

Kyle Perry has been the head coach for Fenwick High School since 2011, posting a remarkable 181-28-1 record over six seasons. From March 2010 until April 2012, the Friars won 82 straight matches with two coaches: Dave Perry, one of the most beloved and successful coaches in Chicago water polo history, and Kyle, who assumed the head coaching reins following his father’s death in 2011. Perry not only coached with his father at Fenwick, he played for him as well, graduating in 2001.

After graduating in 2005 from Miami University, OH with B.A. in English, Perry attended Utica College where he earned an M.S. in Education. In 2008 he returned home to Oak Park, IL and began teaching and coaching at Fenwick.

In 2011 Perry extended the school’s dominance in the sport, leading the Friars to their eighth-straight Illinois High School Association title. Fenwick won states again in 2013 and has won 20 state titles overall including 10 of the 12 state championships since water polo became an Illinois High School Association sport in 2002.

Earlier this month Perry spoke with New York-based water polo writer Michael Randazzo about what distinguishes Chicago polo, the sport’s history in the Windy City, his father’s impact on the sport and why Fenwick is simply the best water polo program in Illinois.

What makes Chicago youth polo distinctive from other regions of the country?

There’s lots of commitment from the coaches here on a variety of levels. Our crown jewel in Illinois is the high school level. Our sport is sponsored by the Illinois High School Association. We have a state championship just like all the major sports—basketball, football, baseball. Coaches are very much drawn to that because that’s where the top level is.  But they’re aware that if you want to get to the top and stay there you have to get younger kids excited about water polo.

Our sport is still small enough that you could take a freshman who’s never played before and turn him into an all-state player or a kid who plays in college and does great things. But the ability to have age group players coming in as freshmen—making your varsity—forces you to remain in the top talking group at the high school level.

There’s a lot more coaches who are aware that if you invest time with younger players it’s going to pay off big dividends at the high school level.

What’s helping to grow polo in your area?

Water polo is such a fun sport…the big problem is that nobody knows about it. Once you show a kid: “Look what you can do!”—he doesn’t have to be a top-level player—he could be a brand-new kid who’s also learning how to swim at the same time he’s learning how to play water polo.

If he’s having fun, he’s telling his friends: “Hey you guys, you’ve got to come over to the pool. We’re having a blast!”

“I’m dunking guys and I’m scoring goals.”

Stuff like that really puts us in the forefront.

The Chicago Park District has a huge water polo program for all levels. They run things through their parks for 10 and under, 12 and under, 14 and under. CPD also has a “national level” program where they’ll send a team to Junior Olympics, they’ll have a team in our local Illinois league. They even host senior men’s and women’s events throughout the year

The parks have been doing that for as long as I can remember.

Who are some of the key individuals essential to the development of Chicago polo?

We’ve had an incredibly long string of coaches here at Fenwick that went on to do great things. I go as far back as Bob Groseth, who was a swimming and water polo coach and one of the early water polo coaches here. He went on to coach the men’s and women’s swim teams at Northwestern in the 60s.

More recently, aside from my dad, one of the coaches here at Fenwick was Mike Gruszeczki. He’s a lawyer now and one of the top officials in Illinois. He was an exceptional athlete when he was at Fenwick and just an absolutely incredible coach and person. When I look at the guys who influenced me in my coaching, my playing, and my life, he’s up there as someone I still look up to today.

On the South Side, you have to talk about Jim “Moose” Mulcrone. He was over at Brother Rice where his longest fame lasted though he was famous wherever he went. He was the coach when Brother Rice won nine Illinois titles in the 80’s. Then they split with Fenwick in the 90’s and we took over in the 90’s and 2000.

Rick Marsh is a former president of Illinois Water Polo:—I actually took his position. With him and my dad and several others, they were the heavy hitters trying to get the IHSA to sponsor water polo. One of the others was Ike Marshall, a Chicago public school guy. He was the guy that got all the Chicago public city schools to commit to water polo. Not all—there’s tons of them—but everyone that came in he was one of the driving forces behind that. He really saved the day because that first year they had maybe 15 Chicago city schools playing water polo and numbers-wise it was enough to go to the ISHSA and say: “Look, here’s what we have numbers-wise. Adding our sport would be a great help for our school but also would be great for the state of Illinois.”

There are many others—I could go on… I’m sure I’ll hear from one of those guys: “You forgot to mention me!”

Your father Dave Perry is a huge part of the story about why polo is so prominent in the Windy City.

Dave Perry

It’s easiest to start with his influence on the sport in Chicago. He’s got a great “rags to riches” story in that he never played water polo before. He came from a small town in Michigan where he grew up on a lake so he knew how to swim. He was a football, basketball, baseball player in high school and got into swim coaching.

When he got his first job teaching he knew he would be coaching swimming. [Then] the athletic director said: “The water polo season starts next week.”

At that point he dedicated himself to both swimming and water polo and, because he was already an accomplished swimming coach, went to every polo clinic he could go to and read every book he could find—the bookshelves in our house have hundreds of books on water polo, every book you can imagine about water polo.

He was a life-long learner of the game. He was always consuming water polo.

How did a couple of Catholic schools get the IHSA to hold a state tournament for boys and girls?

We wanted to grow our sport, we needed to team up with the IHSA. Dad was forward thinking in that before the IHSA we were a small sport and the coaches that had the best interest of water polo in mind they were making all the decisions. Which is important; you want to seed your state tournament so that your championship game is the best in the tournament—they could do that. Now that the IHSA [runs the tournament] they don’t do that. Their set-up is very different.

They realized that they were going to lose some power but in the end, it was going to make our sport a lot better. That’s not an easy thing to sell or to accept—“Hey we’re not in charge anymore.”—but Dad and others said: “Let’s do this. Let’s make our sport better even if our influence might diminish.”

Your dad’s influence is felt far and wide.

Kyle Perry and his Father

As it impacts on me he was just an incredibly caring and loving person. There are very few people who have anything negative to say about him.

I travel now in the same circles he did and there’s a lot of coaches who [tell me]: “You’re not gonna believe this but this one time.…” It’s almost always a story about how kind, compassionate, generous he was.

He was caring and loving to everybody—my mom, my sister, me. If you needed something he was going to help you in any way he could.

He instilled a love of water—swimming, water polo—in me. We laughed that the two of us could just sit and look at the lake for hours on end, not say anything, not doing anything, and both would agree: “That was a pretty good day!”

And he gave me a desire to compete; he was a very competitive guy, hated losing. My mom is always on me about that and reminds be that like my father I’ve got to take a breath and realize it’s gonna be okay.

A lot of the things I do as a coach are mirroring things that he did and hopefully having some of the same impacts he had.

He was just a tremendous guy and I miss him every day.

Jim Farmer, a Fenwick alumni whose son Matt played for you and your father, spoke about how important alumni connections have been to the success of Friar polo.

A lot of our alums fall in love with aquatics [at Fenwick]. And the beauty of aquatics is that you can do it forever. You can swim until you’re 100 years old. There’s a guy who just got inducted into our hall of fame for water polo and he still plays at Nationals in the 65+ level. And he’s going strong.

Matt Farmer and Coach Perry

That’s the biggest thing. These guys form a love of water polo and it creates these great connections with their coaches, their teammates who become their friends, some of them become college roommates.

We do something neat to stay connected with our alum; we call it the “Turkey Bowl” and we’ve been doing this since the late ‘60s. Every Thanksgiving morning all the alumni come [back to Fenwick] to play an alumni game. We’ve got alums from the ‘70s that come in; there’s one alumn from 1968—he comes almost every year. Then we’ve got all these 19-year-olds who just graduated. They’re seeing these guys with their families, some with their grandchildren.

It’s neat because Thanksgiving is a time for families and here these guys are carving time out of their day to spend an hour or two in the pool with their aquatic family.

We’re blessed because we’ve had several alumni that have continued to coach. Marcus Meyer, a 1999 grad, he was coaching with my dad. Oscar Calderon was a Mercyhurst graduate after Fenwick. Chris Parolin

went out to Santa Clara; he came back and coached. John Barrett went to Johns Hopkins. He came back and coached for a while.

[Their loyalty] has to do with the relationships they formed and the lessons they learned in our classroom and in our pool. We push ourselves—both academically in the classroom but also in the pool—to levels that we didn’t think we could do before we really tried.

It’s not easy and it’s not always fun, but when you have that breakthrough—especially when you’re 15 and with your best friend—it’s incredible. You have this sense of belonging and welcoming.

I love it when the alums come back. I may not know them, but they always say: “Hey we’re proud of you, Fenwick Friars. Good luck this season!”