Editor’s Note: this post is going to be a bit different than what I normally do. Just bear with me and let me know if it was alright. Worlds is kinda huge, and I am going at talking about it a few ways. This is one of them.
The woman who drives the white van is named Joelle, and she is as full of laughs as she is spritey. She smiles whenever conversation comes up between the four of us (Machine, Lomax, herself, and me), which makes me feel like we aren’t inconveniencing her though I’m sure driving polo players back and forth across Weston isn’t anyone’s idea of fun.
This is the first time I’ve met Machine in person, and he’s exactly what I expect him to be: full of quick stories, turns of phrase and songs that are never without customization. Lomax, my room-mate and brother in second-breakfast arms, busts his chops the whole way to the court.
We get to the court sometime around 9am and the Sun (which deserves that capital S) is already making sure that we know just where we are. I can feel it digging past my clothing and taking root in my bones. I remember to put on sunscreen. I remember to take my heart pill. I remember how much I was looking forward to the colder weather of PA and how horribly far I am from that in Florida. My pith helmet, which was more or less a joke up to this point, begins to become a necessity. I am thankful it exists and that I have it.
The rounds begin in earnest a bit late, which is expected. Chandel seems stressed but who wouldn’t be? She has just enough time to shake my hand before bolting off to see about refs and judges, which will become a running theme throughout the first day of the tourney.
The games in the morning are about what one would expect to see, with all the little tells that each team gives: Call Me Daddy serving up smooth, clean passes and not so clean body on body contact; Nasty Boys tuning their game to match competitors, Wooly Bullies setting the pace of games as much as they can. It’s there if you can see it, if you’re actually looking for how teams are shaking off the dust of travel and remembering the muscles of their hands. It’s entertaining to watch the competitiveness spring back inside of them after the initial loss or win.
By noon I am completely shot, having not played a single game. The sun has drained out any sort of energy I had and instead fills me with the want of water and food, which I under satisfy with the watering stations the organizers have established and an occasionally offered cookie. I have not planned for eating while at the courts, and the forgetfulness makes me feel lonely and foolish.
I make it a point to interview players–I tuck myself away to begin writing the article for Urban Velo that I’ve been sent down here to complete. I try to get away from the heat and the tiredness it grows, but in the end I shamble back to Fixcraft’s tent to grab my camera, thanking Sean once again for the use of his under-table space.
I find that people here know me. They recognize the name and the dumb headware. They give me their hand and perhaps enough time to interview before they excuse themselves away. I don’t put up much of a fight, as I don’t know how it feels to play at Worlds, and I’m hesitant to have them believe I am so egotistical to take them away from meeting with team-mates.
Still, I do pull a few aside and get some words from them. Occasionally they come up to me with an idea or suggestion for an article, so I listen, because I’m not sure if the Florida sun is planning to bake away my intelligence or not. I smile and take notes and appreciate how excited they are to tell me what they’d like to write about. Truly I am. It’s less work for me, after all.
The games over all feel like any other tournament I’ve been too, which is remarkably disappointing. Sure, there are more languages being spoken than English and Bad English, but overall there is the same lethargic camaraderie, the same we’ve-been-here-before-edness. Maybe that’s just how polo feels in general: some sort of class reunion where everyone is happy to see each other, but doesn’t want to admit to being too excited by it.
I meet Sweet Jenn (Mr. Do is a bit busy with figuring out set-up), and she hugs me like a longtime friend. She has a smile that makes me feel like there is nothing else in the world but what we are talking about, and I kind-of forget to be clever. Instead I just say “thanks” a bunch of times and then excuse myself to find a way back to the hotel.
Eventually I meet up with Evan, Neil and Brett, who not only make it a point to share everything they have with me, but also to act as old friends though I’ve only met them at Masters earlier in the year. Still, the kindness does a lot to quell the lingering feeling that I’m out of place, and the beer and tacos we share after we leave the courts (point in fact, after they take me back to the hotel in their truck) sets me on a good path to sleeping. When I get back to the room, it is still empty, and I do some more writing before Megan and Lomax arrive and we talk a bit before falling asleep fitfully.
I wake up and slip out of the hotel room without waking up my fellow room mates (in honesty, I may have woken them up, but they didn’t act like it, which is good enough for me). I eat breakfast surrounded by other players and wait for the shuttle van to the courts, which is again helmed by Joelle. I join her in the front and we talk about her line of work (teaching kids about the environment, if memory serves) and I make sure to thank her repeatedly for driving all of us back and forth. She still has an easy smile, but it’s not nearly as frequent, and I can’t blame her for that.
What I didn’t realize about Florida is how hot it is during the morning. The humidity is disastrous until 1 or so, and then it dies down and becomes, honestly, rather pleasant. I write this as someone who is not charging up and down a court on a bicycle, so take that with as much salt as you can stomach. I think myself prepared for this, but in truth I am sweating and winded within an hour and a half of walking back and forth between courts. I realize only then that my right shoe has completely blown out, leaving my socked heel showing whenever I take a step. I don’t let it bother me.
The first match I see is a hold-over from the day before: the championship was shut down on Thursday night, as it went too long and the police were not terribly happy to find alcohol on the premises. As such, there were games that needed to be continued from a certain time with a certain score. In this case, it’s the Pilgrims versus Miguel Reyes (who’s team wasn’t yet at the court). He lost, naturally, and soon after his team mates arrived with fire in their eyes and venom on their tongues. Chandel didn’t understand why the game started, and I left before finding out the resolution to that particular situation.
After that, I was called down to the Republic court (which stood on it’s own, a amalgam of a larger court which was then built down to a more reasonable size), where a goal judge was lacking. Wanting to be helpful, I volunteer.
In the end, I goal judged for 6 hours. It truly was not as bad as it seemed, as I was joined occasionally by various friends or soon-to-be friends. Furthermore I got to watch some terrific games. My Pith helmet provided the perfect shade for my neck and face, and people were willing to relieve me so I could fetch myself some more water (uncharacteristic of a bike polo goal judge, I actually returned within the time I said I would to take back my post). I also get the opportunity to act as quasi-EMT when Shitty of The Control gets a mallet to the face, leaving an inch long (and perhaps inch deep as well) cut on his chin. We (an ex-military man trained in trauma treatment and I) clean him up, close him up with super glue, and I give him a few quick tests to check for a concussion or nerve damage. He plays the rest of the day, and in fact the tournament, perfectly well.
After being relieved from my post, I watched a few of the evening games before visiting a few more people to interview. I began feeling more comfortable with pushing questions and demanding just a few moments of time. Being a writer generally means you can avoid contact with people, so I reminded myself to smile and to be thankful for even a tiny interview. I reminded myself how unimportant I will become as soon as I step foot back into an office, and that makes each exchanged smile a bit more sweet, really.
I take the time to look over some of the merchant tables clustered along the main walkway of the courts. In particular I notice that Northern Standard has a prototype of their v2 Enforcer gloves. With a deep set love of the first Enforcer glove, I quickly snatch up the small prototype and try it on. It feels perfect, and I not-so-subtly ask if there is a mate to the glove I’m wearing, and how much it would take to get them both. Max is kind but resolute that these aren’t for sale, and I’ll need to wait until early next year like everyone else. Still, the prototypes on the table now feature an XL size, and I know that there are quite a few players in my club alone who have been waiting for just such a thing.
St. Cago is next door, selling their tried-and-true black and white mallet heads, along with their coupler system. They also have a puppy on their table, which leads to almost everyone stopping for at least a few minutes. It’s a clever unintentional strategy, and I appreciate the salesmanship of it.
Fixcraft has all of their hits, as well as the V2 of the polo bike that I currently ride which has some minor tweaks and some major weight reduction. I discuss a few more upcoming ideas that Sean has, but that’s all for a later post, I think.
Finally I look at what Magic has to offer, and they are standing strong with their mallet heads, shafts, and golf grips. Kyle has been testing a good range of their heads for the past few months, so I don’t feel the need to ask too many questions. Still, John strikes me as a friendly sort, so I discuss bike polo generally and wish him all the best in the tourney.
I approach the Chunk sponsored court and realize that Joelle was already standing next to me. I try to make small talk and offer her water (which seems to be something nobody can get enough of), and she declines and takes a few steps away. I realize quickly that she doesn’t really know me, and that she likely is dealing with plenty of polo players who are, well, being polo players. Add this to my decision to sit in the front passenger seat and ask about her, and it’s understandable why my face goes red with embarrassment and I walk away to another court as quickly as I can. Calling my wife, I ask if what I did was forward, and she tells me that she’d be creeped out, too, if some stranger she’d just met offered her water and seemed too interested in her life. My face goes red a second time and I resolve to never talk to Joelle again, as to save myself the embarrassment of becoming a fool yet again.
Yup. that aught to fix it.
By the end of the night, it’s Avril who drives us to a grocery store and then home. I buy Camembert cheese, Gatorade, turkey slices, bread, mayonnaise, and a homestyle Mac n’ Cheese microwave meal. I don’t even give a fuck–I’m not going to be hungry again.
Lomax, Megan, Kruse and I share our dinners while drinking beer and discussing whatever pops into our heads. It’s wonderful and non-pretentious, which is wonderful.
It feels like a championship now. From the moment we get to the courts I feel like a veteran, like I’m older and somehow supposed to be there. It must translate in my face, because more people are coming up to me to talk about the blog. It makes me feel even bolder, and that makes me more happy to be where I’m at. The atmosphere is more tense, filled with something between expectation and final realization of what all of this is. Teams stick together a bit more, they are still openly friendly with everyone there, but there is now an underlying phrase in between every pleasantry: Let’s see who wins. It’s everywhere and it’s thrilling. Every game carries more than just a loss.
Most notably was an upset win by Getting Wild over the Means after Alexis gets a 30 second penalty for an aggressive mallet swing after being checked from behind. He is in front of me during the penalty (which only lasts a few seconds, as Becoming Animals score to win), and I can feel the heat coming off of his body. Afterwards Nick Vaughan talks to the ref and it seems that he is satisfied with the explanation, as the ref doesn’t seem to have a black eye and Nick Vaughan hasn’t been disqualified from the tournament (I’m exaggerating here: the two walked off to the middle of the court, spoke calmly, and Nick nodded and walked back with the ref. It was remarkably civil).
On that same court I meet the photographer that Urban Velo sent down to cover the visual side of the report. He seems remarkably confident, which makes me feel less confident about what I’m doing. He asks me what my hook is, and I realize that I haven’t necessarily come up with one, though it’s obvious what it could be, given how I’ve been gathering information. I explain possible pictures he could take if he hasn’t already, and feel supremely confident in his ability. Later I see him ducking in and out of people to get good shots, which makes me happy and less worried about any pictures I might be taking.
After a few more games, I find myself in the Bikepolo.tv stream team area, where Mr. Do asks that I try my hand at commentating. Machine hands me a mic and I try to do what so many other commentators make look easy.
Let’s be honest with ourselves here: if you heard me for that 2-3 minute span of time, you realized that I’m better off sticking to the keyboard and staying away from a microphone. It wasn’t entertaining, and Machine was quick (and rightfully so) to take away the mic and resume his duty. I wait for the game to be completed before sneaking away from the stream team control room and finding some small corner of people to hide my shame in. Fortunately, it began raining, giving me a good excuse to cower underneath the Fixcraft Tent and listen to Malakai Edison discuss bike polo, which both reveals to me his reputation for being bombastic as well as his love of the sport.
When the rain dies down, I find Evan, Brett and Neil under a large umbrella. I join them in just enough time to watch an Aussie streak across a wet court. He seems happy about it, so who am I to put a damper on his frivolity?
By the time the rain has stopped, the Chunk sponsored court reminds me of a great grey whale’s flank, striped black from a life deep in the dark sea. It’s with this romanticism that I watch the altogether amazing performance of Nick, Joe, and Koyo as the Assassins. Each player is performing a role to absolute effect: Nick is the muscle and the driving force behind long shots, Koyo is working as a trickster–pulling players along with him until he has a chance to shift the ball and strike. Joe is working his lefty brilliance, saving shots on goal that I don’t even see occurring. They win match after match, and by the end of their series (just before facing down Call Me Daddy), I am sure that they are my favorite team to date. Even now, I’m positive they are.
We move to the Origin 8 court beside the Chunk court to watch the final series of games. In between I witness a French photographer use a large pool of rainwater to wash her bare legs. If anything, I know this image will be one that I carry with me long after others fade away. Yes, I know it’s melodramatic and yes, I know it seems out of place, but there are simply some things that happen in the human experience that need to be mentioned no matter the subject matter, and this counts as one of them. It’s the perfect intermission between the excitement of the Assassin’s previous games to the anxiousness of their upcoming game with Call Me Daddy.
Shut-up. it is.
The game is too quick: Call Me Daddy soundly beats The Assassins, which is a disappointment to much of the crowd. Our loyalties soon shift, of course, between Call Me Daddy and The Beavers, who are now in the running for first and second place. Part of me wants Call Me Daddy to win, if only because they are not The Beavers. However, the majority of my mind wants The Beavers to take home the victory, as they are both our American Boys, outstanding players, and simply because the Call Me Daddy fans have great chants, which makes me hate them a little.
The game between Call Me Daddy and The Beavers goes 5-1 in favor of The Beavers, and strikes me as even faster than the match between Call Me Daddy and The Assassins. It’s not altogether unexpected, and smacks of anti-climax. Still, the Beavers have won the World Championship, which means that America again has the best bike polo players in the world for at least another year. That’s something to be proud of, really.
This leads to the awards ceremony, where Nick Kruse and Koyo win MVP #1 and #2, respectively. It’s clear that both are not expecting this, and both respond graciously.
For my part, I’m happy to get on a bus heading back for the hotel, as I need to be awake in a few hours to catch my flight back to BWI.
The mood on the bus is not somber, but exhausted and happy. Kruse is pretty much falling asleep just before Ollie sits on him and shouts about how great he is. Afterwards, Nick Kruse asks if I’m alright, and I explain that I’m just tired.
“It’s important to me that you’re okay,” he says back. It strikes me as both sincere and the measure of the man to phrase it quite that way, and it hits me harder than I would expect it to.
When we get back to the hotel, I take the stairs and eat a turkey sandwich while Lomax and Meg get showered. I then take my turn, dress in what I plan to wear home, and go to bed. I wake up two hours later, pack up my things, and head out to wait for K to arrive.
I’ll leave you with two things: a gloating of sorts and a realization:
1. Just before we left, we got a few more passengers: Kremin and Joey of The Beavers. Kremin, perhaps answering some question posed to him just before we opened the doors to let him in, said “only the most important bike polo blogger in the world!” and shook my hand. I’m not easily star-struck, but having a world champion who knew me by sight did more to wake me up than a two hour power nap.
2. Kremin and Joey, for all their posturing on the court, were remarkably kind and normal the entire trip to the airport (they weren’t going–they were heading to another place a few miles north of the airport, I believe), and of course they were. Bike polo may be many things, but it isn’t a sport for the elitist. The way we conduct ourselves on the court may be one thing, but at the end of the day (or, in this case, the beginning of the day) we are still all just enthusiasts of the sport.
That was a pleasant thing to dwell on during my flight northward.
(Wanna see 350 or so pictures of the event? Click on over to my Flickr Acct)