Does the city have room to accommodate water polo players at Arlington Park?
The leaders of the Sarasota United Water Polo Club think the aquatic sport can be a hit among locals. First, though, they need to secure some space.
That’s why, on Monday, Michael Bergquist sat through a lengthy discussion of development regulations as he waited for the open-to-the-public segment of a City Commission meeting. When he finally got his opportunity to speak, he had a request for city officials: let the water polo group use the pool at Arlington Park for two hours a day, six days a week.
Bergquist is the coach of the 18-and-over masters group of the Sarasota United Water Polo Club, which is under the umbrella of the nonprofit Southwest Florida Water Polo Foundation. Although nothing has been secured, foundation board president Beth Bailey is optimistic the group can work collaboratively with the city to find a permanent practice space.
“We don’t need any capital projects to happen,” Bailey said. “We just need their support to make some space and to say water polo is going to be a program in our city.”
Bailey helped found the water polo foundation with her husband, Jeff, when they moved from Santa Barbara, Calif. to Sarasota. They had two kids who both played, and they were surprised to learn the sport didn’t have a bigger presence in the area.
“Quite frankly, don’t you want to be in the pool if you’re going to be doing sports?” Bailey said. “It’s hot!”
The foundation worked with Sarasota County Schools to establish water polo as a recognized varsity sport in the district, which led to the creation of a team at Venice High School. The group began to hear from Sarasota residents who wanted a place to play closer to home.
The Sarasota United Water Polo Club has been able to secure some practice time at Arlington Park’s pool and is working on finalizing an agreement with New College, but a more stable long-term agreement is a primary goal.
For now, the city says it cannot meet the group’s needs at Arlington Park. In an email, city spokeswoman Jan Thornburg said the popularity of the pool means there’s no room to add the water polo players to the existing schedule.
“Their request to use the pool six days a week cannot be accommodated at this time due to previous calendar commitments,” Thornburg said in the email. “Pool hours cannot be extended due to safety concerns and a lack of staff.”
However, Thornburg said the city intends to revisit the request once the summer is over to see if it might be possible to find a workable arrangement.
“The Parks and Recreation Department is committed to doing its best to accommodate all who wish to use the city’s parks and recreational facilities,” Thornburg said.
As the water polo club continues lobbying the city to make space at Arlington Park, the group also has other priorities for establishing itself. Bergquist wants to be able to put together a full team to enter a tournament, ideally before the end of the year. Bailey said the foundation’s mission is to grow the sport, and she’s hopeful the organization can establish a second high-school team in the area.
Both Bergquist and Bailey were confident the sport would be a hit among Sarasota residents if the group had the adequate space and messaging. Leaders of the water polo club were willing to give passionate testimonials about the sport’s benefits.
“In my case, it’s provided a focus in my life,” Bergquist said. “I’ve been active in the sport now for 25 years. I’ve traveled to three countries outside the U.S. and 10 states within the U.S. (because of) water polo. To me, it’s just enriched and enhanced my life, and I hope it could do that for anyone else.”