Afghanistan Water Polo T-Shirts

Help the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team raise funds for their US training trip by picking up one of these bad boys. Red only for now but we're open to suggestions for other colors and styles etc - email contactus@afghanistanwaterpolo.com if you have a specific request and we'll see what's most popular.
Show your support for the toughest sport in the world in the toughest part of the world! Your $20 donation helps create athlete heroes in a country in desperate need of them. Click here to buy your shirt now!

Friday, February 3, 2012

A look back...

My time in Afghanistan has certainly been a valuable personal experience. I feel like I arrived a diplomat, but left a friend. While the overall objective of bringing athletes back with me hasn't panned out, this trip has been productive. Before arriving I really wasn't sure what to expect and in many ways was pleasantly surprised. While Kabul still has security issues, I at no point felt unsafe, its people were genuinely happy to see me, and I was impressed by the Afghan's determination for progress. I'd like to thank my host, Engr. Abdul Tawab Ahmadi, the Chairman of the Afghan Swim Federation, who's commitment, generosity, and efforts couldn't be more appreciated. We of course share great disappointment with the denial of the athlete's visas preventing this trip to the United States, but are hopeful for future efforts and are developing plans for the future.
We knew this process was not going to be easy, as pioneering efforts and progress never is, but it will only be with a collective and enduring support that our shared goals will be achieved. I for one am proud to be associated with these efforts.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Afghan Olympic Committee President

Meeting the President of the Afghan Olympic Committee was quite an honor for me. He was very interested in what the Afghanistan Water Polo organization has done and is doing to further develop the dreams of Afghan Olympic hopefuls. He wanted to emphatically thank everyone involved in the organization and all that support it. He has expressed his sincere personal commitment in whatever he can do to help from the Afghan government side of operations.

Afghanistan Swimming Federation Offices


Today I visited the Afghanistan Swimming Federation offices in the Afghan Olympic compound in Kabul. The office is still under construction and not yet open, but I was pleasantly surprised at the football stadium. It's a regular sized artificial turf surrounded by concrete tiered seating for thousands. Overlooking the field are several large billboards with pictures of President Karzai, past kings and of course the Great Massoud.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Fundraiser Items


The athletes as well as the Afghanistan Swimming Federation representives and even the President of the Afghanistan Olympic Committee signing two official Afghanistan Water Polo t-shirts.

Meeting the Team

Today the majority of the team assembled here in Kabul including our first female member, Laila. I introduced myself, expressed our disappointment for the recent setbacks and explained our plans for the approaching new year. We all got to know each other better and I got to hear their hopes for the future first hand. It was a very positive day for building the relationship between all parties involved sharing the dream of Afghanistan Water Polo.

Kabul


After a comfortable night in my hotel room I awoke to a much brighter and less dusty day in Kabul. I headed to Mr. Tawab Ahamdi's (Chairman of the Afghan Swimming Federation) company office where he conducts his construction business with his fellow engineers. We spoke at length about what's in-store for the future of the team and how we can accomplish our shared goals. He wanted me to extend his sincere thanks to everyone involved with Afghanistan Water Polo and all its supporters. We had lunch then after more discussion he decided we should go do something fun. He assembled his employees and we went bowling. This was certainly unexpected.... Who knew Afghanistan even had a bowling alley? But yes, not only is there a bowling alley, but it's a very large and modern one (built only a few months ago). We bowled and joked and had a good time, which really loosened everyone up. Everyone here has been extremely accommodating and I know they wanted to show me not only that they appreciate the work that the volunteers of Afghanistan Water Polo is doing, but also that Kabul is a "normal" city. And I've found this to be true, while of course there are security concerns, I truly do feel safe here. I know many people would disagree simply from the sight of armed guards and police everywhere, but to me that's just a sign that they have a vested interest in keeping the peace.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Made it!!!!

It was a brisk 9368 miles (15075 Km) trip, but I am finally here. It's cold in Kabul, maybe high 30's or low 40's, but no snow on the ground although you can see it up in the surrounding mountains. Immigration was a breeze, they didn't speak English and they saw my visa so just waived me through. I was promptly met by Omaidi, one of the athletes and employee of the Afghan Swim Federation. He was cheerful and genuinely happy I had arrived. As we drove to the hotel I was surprised by the traffic, which is a major issue now in Kabul. Also by the darkness, which makes sense seeing how there really isn't any electricity, unless you are rich and own a generator. Omaidi's SUV is equipped with a siren that he didn't hesitate to use, I got a kick out of that. We ate dinner together at the hotel and were later joined by the Afghan Swimming Federation delegation. We meet and chatted, but decided to save the business for tomorrow and I called it a night.

Christmas morning

As I leave Dubai for my flight over Iran to Kabul I am thinking a great deal of things. While some people, including my family, think I should be nervous for safety issues that is the furthest thing from my mind. I'm much more concerned that I'll be effective in conveying everything I made this trip for to my Afghan counterparts. This has been such a long journey already, and I'm not even there yet, but I'm finally only a few hours away!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Getting to Dubai

I took one of the shortest flights I've ever been on from Tel Aviv to Amman, Jordan (about 35 minutes). I had a 8 hours lay-over so I found a bar in the terminal and had a great conversation with the bar tender that culminated with me putting my head down on the bar and falling asleep for an hour. He didn't wake me up until I started snoring.....But finally I got on my flight and made it to Dubai. I was impressed by how modern and well planned the city is. Since my flight wasn't until the next morning I decided to walk around a little. In this picture at a public park in the Jumeriah neighborhood you can see the Burj Khalifa (tallest building in the world) on the left.

Israeli lay-over


Since I had the day to kill I decided to make the most of it and take a 45minute bus ride to Jerusalem. It was only a few dollars and was time and money well spent. While I myself am not very religious I have to say it was moving to see a place that meant so much to so many people of three separate faiths that all converge on this ancient square mile of land. Tomorrow it's off to Jordan!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Hooray! I'm on my way!


The new plan worked! Today I flew from Atlanta to New York then on to Tel Aviv, Israel. It was a 11 hour flight, but seemed much shorter since I guess I was just so happy to be getting on my way. I learned several things today, one of which is Israeli defense forces do NOT care for US passport holders with an Afghan visa! (or maybe it was the beard) They held me for quite a while asking me over and over what my business is in Israel and then Afghanistan. Of course I politely explained that I am going to conduct Afghan Water Polo business to which they didn't believe for a second...... In their defense it really does sound a little far fetched, but we all knew that right? I've booked my onward flight to Dubai and since its literally half the price two days from now, I now have two days to kill in Israel.

New strategy


Well it's day five here in Atlanta, I'm back at the Motel 6 next to the Airport. The receptionist (April) feels bad and has been really nice to me. She said she likes my beard. On the bright side we have a new strategy, flying to the next closest place to Dubai that Delta goes AND I don't need a visa..... Israel. So, I am hoping this will work out, it can't get much worse.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

81 Hours Later...

Just checking in again here in Atlanta. An airport at night is a funny thing, for the last 24 hours or so I've been getting disapproving looks from TSA, and pity from the terminal bartenders (who I now all know by name), save one jolly, overly-enthusiastic custodian named Destiny who keeps calling me "Sugar". She keeps asking me if there is anything she can do for me (while winking).....It was funny the first time, now I'm afraid to fall asleep.... Getting on this flight tonight is not looking good, it doesn't leave for three more hours and there is a large crowd gathered. This whole place stinks of B.O. and desperation. (Oh wait, that's just me) I thought people wanted to get out of Afghanistan, why is this proving so hard to go there? On the bright side, my fantasy football team is destroying my first round playoff match-up, be excited!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Still in Atlanta...

I have to admit I'm getting less optimistic by the hour here. I've now been in Atlanta's airport waiting for a standby seat to Dubai for over 48 hours now. Although last night I opted to sleep in a bed so I gave in and left the airport for the comfort of a nearby Motel 6 and a meal at Waffle House (You know you're in the South when there is a Waffle House on every corner). I knew it wouldn't be easy to fly standby internationally, but I wasn't expecting every flight to not only be full, but overbooked, leaving little room for the remaining crowds of fellow standby passengers like myself. I've become familiar with some of these people, as we've been forming a sullen community of disappointed travelers. Most of these are young men who are trying to head to Dubai for holiday while on their University winter break. At least we have become accustom to things like sharing toothpaste and watching each others bags while making trips to the restroom and whatnot.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ready or not here I come!




Well, I've embarked on the first leg of my journey this morning, and while this entire process has had what sometimes seems like setback after setback, I couldn't be more excited and maybe even a little anxious as I boarded my first flight to Atlanta. As I checked in, armed only with a reservation code and my cell phone (the Swiss army knife of life), I had to explain myself several times, but ended up on a flight and am currently sitting at Atlanta’s Intl. airport on the standby list for a flight this evening to Dubai. Some people have said I probably won’t get on, but others said I should have no problem getting a seat, so time will tell. I'm glad I could be of service by providing humor to the many airport security employees that all have commented on my beard after looking at my passport and then up at me saying, "Mr. Caruso, you look MUCH older in person than this picture...." Little do they know that picture is only a few months old! This all contributes to confirming my theory; beards are for old people. Especially when there's more gray in it than you care to admit.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Less than one month to go!


For those of you who don't know me I am Scott Caruso, the Afghanistan Water Polo volunteer with the distinct honor of escorting the athletes to California next month. While so much effort is coming together there is still much to be done to prepare for a trip of this nature. With knowing just how excited I am for this, I can't even imagine what the athletes are thinking. I’ve had the good fortune of being exposed to many other cultures spanning the world, and have been very fortunate in my life thus far to have visited places many Americans have not had the opportunity. Visiting Afghanistan, especially as a civilian and under such positive circumstances, is an opportunity of a lifetime for me. Even as the realities of the challenges ahead present themselves I can't help but to be continually inspired by the work of the dedicated volunteers that are making these athletes’ dream become reality. If you are reading this I urge you to get involved in this effort in whatever way you can contribute, but especially by assisting in our financial needs. I will be continuing to provide updates as we approach the athlete’s arrival and our journey to America.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

T-Shirts Available!

Help the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team raise funds for their US training trip by picking up one of these bad boys. Red only for now but we're open to suggestions for other colors and styles etc - email contactus@afghanistanwaterpolo.com if you have a specific request and we'll see what's most popular.

Show your support for the toughest sport in the world in the toughest part of the world! Your $20 donation helps create athlete heroes in a country in desperate need of them. Click here to buy your shirt now!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Finally In the Pool!

Imagine my excitement when I arrived on Shorabak and saw a crowd of over 200 people surrounding the pool. Normally the spectators did not arrive until after practice started. This meant only one thing, the pool was filled to a level of water where people could actually swim in it. As I walked up the stairs leading to the pool, I saw water trickling from the pipe into the pool.

All of the athletes of the Shorabak Garrison Swim and Water Polo Team were at the pool ready to swim in the pool with about six feet of clear water in it. Getting the athletes focused in stretching and dryland exercises proved a little difficult and comedic at the same time. All of their focus was on the pool that was filling with water. It was like putting chocolate chip cookies straight out of the oven in front of my son Westy. I was the mean parent who would not let his child touch the piping hot cookies so he would not burn his hands when he touched them. I would get questions from the athletes every minute asking why (I was so mean and) I was not allowing them into the pool. They were explaining their case that the clear blue water was calling out to them. Why would I prohibit them from entering the beautiful water?

My answer was the same each time. I told them (That I was mean and) that we would keep the same schedule every practice so everyone knows what to expect at practice. Begrudgingly, the team continued with their stretching and dryland exercises while sneaking peaks at the water. After almost an hour (Of me torturing them) of dryland, which is way longer than the team normally takes, we were ready for the pool.

Once the athletes had the chance to enter the water, it actually became quite serious. The athletes became very competitive and wanted to sprint every single length of the pool. I was glad about their seriousness but knew what the end result would be for them. As the athletes started to tire from swimming lengths of the pool, some of them started complaining of ailments to include earaches, stomach aches, shoulder injuries, cramping, or leg/foot problems. Knowing that this was from the athletes being out of energy, not wanting to lose the “race” and look bad, and because I am the meanest coach in the world, I told them that practice was almost over and to continue.

Eventually realizing that not every lap is a race, the athletes started focusing on things I was telling them about stroke technique, breathing, and for some of the athletes, how not to drown and how to be safe in the water.

In the last four minutes of practice, I broke out the water polo balls and had the team pass in groups of five, just like we practiced on the ground. Despite their tiredness, the team was focused on their drill and did exceptionally well.

The spectators of the practice continuously cheered and spoke with each other during the practice. There were many who wanted to join as well. The athletes did a great job at the beginning of practice telling the spectators to not interrupt the practice. The spectators also filled up their water bottles and chai pots with the water from the pool, which is something I am still not yet used to seeing. But I have learned that this is something to expect while coaching in Afghanistan, no matter what part of the country I am in.

The only downside to the practice was that there was another ball broken by barbed wire. This was the third ball in two weeks. This is normally something that would not be too concerning, but I only have five balls left for the team. With mail taking over a month to arrive from the United States and no such thing as water polo balls in Afghanistan, I could be out of balls with nothing to replace them with. The athletes said that they would speak with Colonel Safi about removing the barbed wire and having a guard at the pool. There would be a guard positioned at the pool 24 hours a day to ensure that the pool is not used during non-practice hours. That means that the pool will stay semi clean and that nobody drowns. This would be the same setup as we had at the Pol-e-Charki pool.

Having water in the pool was quite refreshing. I cannot wait until practice tomorrow.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Fish are Still Out of the Water

We are now complete with our second week of practice. But I am uncertain what sport we are practicing. I am trying to coach the athletes in swimming and water polo. Both of these sports require water but there has not been any in the pool. We are now reaching the limits of how I can train the athletes on dry land.

Colonel Safi has repeatedly reaffirmed that the pipe is being fixed. He said that the contracting office is working the issue. Progress was made one day and the pool was actually being filled with water. To my dismay, the pipe just wanted to tease me and only fill it a few feet high before it broke again.

Frustrated, I went to the contacting office to see what I could do to help fix the pool. I explained the situation and how important it was to fill the pool with water to a very well dressed man who indicated he could help. After listening to my plight, he told me that the pipe to the pool was fine and it was not a contracting problem, it was the problem of whoever built the pool. There was no contract for the pool and therefore it could not be worked on. Very frustrated but not yet defeated, I asked if there was anyone else I could speak with at a higher level. He hesitatingly said yes and brought me to his boss’ office. Come to find out, the nicely dressed man was just a laborer who was on his way to a wedding party.

I explained to manager about our situation with the pool and how I needed his expert assistance. He told me the same story and said that he has already done more than he was supposed to and that his hands were tied. The issue was with the connection from their pipe to the pipe (Which was really a rubber hose) for the pool. Not content with his answer, I asked him what the solution would be to get it fixed. The gentleman in a very nice tone told me that the pipe would be fixed in a few weeks at the earliest.

Very frustrated, I asked him why it would take a few weeks. The nice gentleman could not provide me an answer. With this in hand, I spent the next 10 minutes convincing him to fix the pipe as a personal favor to me (Even though he had only known me for about 20 minutes of his life). He agreed and said that he will be very happy once the pool is filled with water.

Happy with his answer but worried about the pool actually being filled with water, I walked back to work. I look forward to Saturday’s practice, which will hopefully be in the pool.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

First Week of Practice

The first week of practice was quite exciting. The amount of spectators alone was incredible. About 150 onlookers came and watched practices daily. They all have many questions on how they can join the program. My answer, as always, is for them to speak with Colonel Safi.

The most interesting thing about the past week is how quickly the team has adapted to practices. More athletes arrive on time every day, are more focused, more hydrated, and less hungry. The team has the stretching and dryland exercises, I no longer have to tell or show them the order of the exercises and I get to work with each individual athlete on their technique.

Dryland exercises consist of several exercises to include flutter kicks, leg lifts, crunches, leg throws, and pushups. These exercises have proven difficult for the team as the exercises are either new to the athlete or their strength is not there yet. From past experience of coaching aquatic sports in a combat zone to Afghans, this week I started the team with ten repetitions per exercise. Ten repetitions may seem like a joke to some but it is needed as working on proper technique of these exercises is the key. For pushups, some of the athletes would just move their heads or their butts into the air; crunches, some of the athletes would be using their hands to move their heads, which could result in horrible injuries; and athletes would try to flip their legs, almost like a flip, instead of lifting their legs only six inches off of the ground during the leg lifts. Correcting their form and technique was very important and the athletes were taking it well.

Yesterday, there was some water in the pool but the pipe broke again. Colonel Safi said that this is a major priority. He has told me that the morale of the soldiers on the Shorabak Garrison is high because of this program. However, our entire week has been on the pool deck and not in the pool.

We have also completed a lot of classroom instruction about water polo and practiced a lot of ball handling skills on the deck. The athletes and the team as a whole have a good grasp of what is to come once the pool is completely fixed. We will see how well the athletes swim and tread water once they are in the pool.

Besides not having a filled pool, I am satisfied on the team’s progress and successes. I am confident that next week’s practice will be as good, if not better than this week’s practice.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Second Day of Practice

I was disappointed again today as I arrived and there was still no water in the pool. With my mind looking to the positive, I felt I could fit in a day’s worth of dryland instruction about the basics of the game after the team completed their stretching and dryland exercises. As athletes started arriving, I felt a little relieved that we would finally be able to begin actual practices vice trying to make it happen. Two, three, and then a fourth athlete arrived but no more. I asked the athletes that arrived so far where the other athletes were. Their response was that the soldiers were still at work or off of work.

What does that mean exactly? Are they still at work or off of work? With difficulty understanding my own translation of what I think they were telling me, it meant that the other soldiers were still working or they were too tired to come to practice. Maybe they had headaches, did not feel well, or were taking naps.

One of the athletes then received a call on his radio telling him that he had to return to his unit. He apologized, told me that he would return as quickly as he could, and quickly left.

Disappointed by this news, I walked to Colonel Safi’s office to find out what was going on. Colonel Safi asked me to sit and have chai with him. I respectfully declined and told him that I was trying to run practice. Excited by my response, he asked how practice was proceeding. I responded by telling him that it was not as only three soldiers came to practice.

Enraged, Colonel Safi called in another colonel and a captain, yelled at them, and quickly dismissed them. Colonel Safi told me not to worry about it and the soldiers would be there shortly. Colonel Safi, ignoring my request to not drink chai with him, had a soldier bring me tea and told me to stay until the soldiers were ready. I reluctantly agreed, not because I did not want to have tea with him but because I was leaving work to come coach and not hang out and drink tea. However, this is the way things have been done in Afghanistan for hundreds, if not thousands of years, who am I to disregard history?

Knowing that I was concerned about soldiers not arriving in time, Colonel Safi assured me that this would not happen again and reminded me that organized sports is a new concept for them. It will take time for them to understand promptness and being prepared. He said that the soldiers have a hard enough time showing up for where they need to be for work. These concepts are the very thing I want to teach the athletes on the team. I am glad that he understands this and wants to support what we are trying to accomplish.

After Colonel Safi and I finished our chai, I left his office and returned to the pool where a captain was getting all of the soldiers into formation. Once they were ready, I explained to the captain that I wanted all of the soldiers on the deck next to the pool and the most responsible soldier to stand next to me in front of the athletes. He got the soldiers to where I instructed him to and then he came to stand next to me. I then told him to lead the team in stretching by watching what I do. He looked at me perplexed after my communication to him using Farsi and hand signals.

As I walked behind all of the other soldiers, so the captain could lead the stretching, all of the soldiers turned around to look at me. After a few times of telling the soldiers to turn around, they finally were looking at the captain and not at me. I started the first stretch, which was just slowly spinning one of my arms in a forward circular motion. The captain then told all of the soldiers to look at me to see the stretch. I then quickly told the athletes to turn around in Farsi and they did so in confusion. The athletes starting spinning their arms in the same motion. I then switched direction, upon seeing this the captain directed everyone to turn around and watch me. Seeing this, I quickly stopped my arm motion and told the soldiers to look at the captain. I then reiterated to the captain that I would show him the stretch, he would copy me, and all of the soldiers would follow his direction.

The captain followed my direction but I still think he was confused. When I switched arms and direction, he then followed my lead but did not tell the soldiers anything. The other athletes confused, they turned and looked at what I was doing. Once I turned the soldiers around again, I think the captain finally understood what I was trying to communicate to him. He quickly stopped following my lead, explained to the soldiers that they will only watch him, and then resumed the stretching. With the exception of a few minor hiccups, the stretching went well.

The stretching did take a long time, about thirty minutes, but I was satisfied with their performance. By the time we were done with our stretches, it was already 5:00 pm. It was time for me to go back to work. Reading this, some might say that this was not a successful practice. However, I feel that we were successful as we went through our first portion of practice and the athletes know what to expect. Hopefully, everyone will show up on time tomorrow ready to practice. Maybe there will even be water in the pool!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Shorabak Garrison Swim and Water Polo Team’s First Practice

I was very excited today as this would be the day that organized swimming and water polo would be introduced to southern Afghanistan and Helmand Province. I had complete faith and confidence that Colonel Safi would come through with his end of our agreement by having the team ready and the pool filled with water. This was going to be an exciting day.

It was a very busy day and heavy workload for me at Marine Expeditionary Brigade Afghanistan and I did not have much time to think about the upcoming practice. I already had the workout plan written out and topics to discuss with the athletes before practice began and I even made sure that I called another section to borrow a vehicle as the vehicles in the G-3 were out all day.

All of a sudden, I realized what time it was. It was 3:15 in the afternoon and I was potentially late for the first day of practice! I called over to the Marines who were letting me borrow their vehicle but their vehicle was taken earlier in the day and was not returned yet. I called every section that I could recall having a vehicle but they were all gone due to a planning meeting aboard Bastion, an adjacent British Air Base to Camp Leatherneck. It was now 3:20 and I still did not have a vehicle. I had to find a quick solution to make it to practice and still get the gear for practice out of my tent. There was no way that I would make it in time.

Knowing that I had one last possibility before I was very late and had a long run to Shorabak. This would not have been a good way to start off our season…being late to the first practice. I went to see Sergeant Pugh in the Staff Secretary’s office. Sergeant Pugh looked at me with a smirk on his face after I shared my dilemma with him. After waiting for words to come out of his mouth, which seemed like minutes but in reality was probably seconds, I wanted to cry. The suspense was killing me.

Sergeant Pugh laughed and said “Anything for you Sir”. He handed me the keys with a smile and asked when I would have the vehicle back. I told him the vehicle would be back at 5:15. As I ran out the door, I asked what kind of vehicle I would be looking for. He told me that the keys were for the Commanding General’s vehicle. I quickly stopped in place and had a puzzled look on my face. Sergeant Pugh said that the vehicle was not needed until 6:00.

It was now 3:24 and I was still worried about arriving in time, how I was going to fit getting the equipment from my tent on the way to Shorabak, hoping that the vehicle was not going to be blocked in by other vehicles, and that I would have the vehicle back to Sergeant Pugh in time to drive the Commanding General. What would happen if the Commanding General’s schedule changed and they had to leave earlier? How would Sergeant Pugh explain that I borrowed a vehicle to drive to Shorabak to teach Afghan soldiers how to swim and play water polo while in a war zone to his boss or to the Commanding General? So many thoughts going through my mind with only six minutes before the first practice started. I should have been focused on the upcoming practice.

At 3:25 I arrived at the vehicle all sweaty and attempted to enter the vehicle on the passenger side. Not one of my smarter moments but would be par for the course for me. I quickly corrected myself and drove to an area near my tent.

At 3:26 I left the car on and door open, ran into the a very dark tent with no flashlight, probably waking all of the Marines sleeping who worked during the night hours after tripping over a chair, and grabbed the bags I had set aside.

After a semi-successful sprint to and from the tent, I was back in the vehicle and was onward to Shorabak. As I was passing through the “Friendship Gate” which was a gate ajoining Camp Leatherneck and Shorabak Garrison, manned only by Marines, they were about to wave me through thinking I was the Commanding General. I rolled down the window and showed the Marines my identification card. The Marines smirked and waved me through. So there I was, at 3:28 driving around in General Nicholson’s vehicle, now with witnesses.

I arrived at the Shorabak Garrison pool at 3:29. With lots of sweat dripping down and about 30 seconds of breathing room, I quickly grabbed the bags and walked up to the pool. As I was stepping through the barbed wire, I realized that I did not see anyone on the pool deck. As I arrived on the pool deck, I looked at the surrounding area and did not see anyone approaching the pool which was not filled. At 3:30, I was disappointed, sweating, and in dire need of a drink of water, I started walking towards Colonel Safi’s office to find out what happened.

When I arrived at his office at 3:35, Colonel Safi waved me in. His office busy, and the officers in his office looking at me in anticipation of why I was there, I neatly placed my bags and sat down. Colonel Safi wanted to me to stay and drink chai. As impatient and confused as I was, I wanted to ask him where all of the athletes were. In my limited Farsi skills I told asked Colonel Safi to wait a moment to see if I could find a linguist. At 3:39, Colonel Safi said not to worry about it and he would speak in English with me.

Colonel Safi asked me how the practice was coming along and if I needed any help from him. He then told me that this was such a great thing for the Afghan soldiers, Shorabak Garrison, and the Afghan National Army. He also told me that the pipe was fixed and then broken again when the pool was partially filled. I proceeded to tell him that there were no athletes there. Shocked and irritated, Colonel Safi got on the phone at 3:49 and called another colonel, some of his other officers, and his sergeants major. Colonel Safi told me that the team would be at the building shortly and then we could begin practice.

At 4:01 a captain came into the office and reported to Colonel Safi that the team was all present. Colonel Safi waved him away and asked me if I needed anything help with anything else. I told him that I would appreciate if he would come to the meeting for a few minutes and tell the team his expectations and give them encouragement. He agreed and we walked out of his office, still filled with officers waiting to speak with him about important things.

Once we walked out, a linguist that worked with Hakim was there waiting. Hakim was busy with his work and asked this nice older gentleman to assist with today’s practice. It was very important to have a linguist at today’s practice because a lot of the spent would be speaking with the team. Most other practices I could get away with using hand gestures and my limited Farsi skills. I spoke with the older gentleman briefly while Colonel Safi spoke with his soldiers in his conference room. I briefly explained to the linguist what we would be discussing with the athletes and emphasized to ask me any questions if needed. Colonel Safi explained what a great opportunity this would be for the soldiers, Shorabak Garrison, Helmand Province, and Afghanistan.

Colonel Safi finished speaking with the team and promptly left. At 4:21, I spoke with the team about what was in store for the program, what to expect at practice, and what my expectation of the athletes ere. Some of my expectations included being at practice on time, hydrated, mentally and physically prepared, giving 100 percent at all times, listening, and completing homework when I give it. At 4:32 I wrapped up my short speech and asked the athletes if they had any questions. There questions were:

1. What is swimming football?

2. How is it played?

3. Why were they selected for the team?

4. What if they were stuck at work and could not make it to practice on time or not at all.

5. Will they get uniforms?

6. Who do they speak with to be on the national team?

7. What if they cannot read or write? How do we complete the homework?

Very valid questions. I quickly answered the first two questions by showing a few photos, taking out a cap and ball for everyone to touch, and explained the basic rules. All of the athletes were satisfied with my response. I then explained that I do not know the exact criteria used to select the team but they should take that up with Colonel Safi. They should always strive to make it to practice, even if they are late. My emphasis to the athletes is that this is a team sport and the team is only as strong as its weakest player. If teammates are missing, it will adversely affect practices and the team’s progress. I further explained that I would provide all of the required gear and at the next national team tryouts they can compete for a place on the team. And my for my final response, I told the athletes that the homework was a requirement and if they needed help, the athletes should get help from one of their teammates who could read and write.

Because we were almost out of time for the practice, I closed the meeting at 4:43 by reiterating to them how challenging the practices would be and how I would push them to their limits. All of the athletes shook their heads up and down like they all had it and it would be easy. After the meeting concluded at 4:45, many of the athletes came up to me and told me what great swimmers they were and how they think the practices would be fun and basically easy. I showed them my appreciation for speaking with me and said I would see them tomorrow. We will see how easy they will think the practices are after the first day…

During the drive back to Marine Expeditionary Brigade Afghanistan at Camp Leatherneck, I could not help think that even though I was disappointed that we did not practice in the pool today, it was a successful practice. We will see where this new adventure leads us.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Final Planning Meeting for the Shorabak Garrison Swim and Water Polo Team

Throughout the week, Colonel Safi was telling everyone on the base about the team that he was putting together. Upon my arrival to the meeting, Colonel Safi asked if he could be on the team. I told Colonel Safi that if he was going to be at practice every day, he could participate. He said that was not possible. I did tell him that since he was the Garrison Commander and it was his team, that he could be in the team photo. This made him very excited as he has been bragging to the Ministry of Defense about all of this.

Colonel Safi said he will have everything set for Saturday. He will have the pipe fixed (Which is supposedly being fixed today), water in the pool, and a team to train. I was very happy with this and look forward to Saturday.

We sat and drank tea, spoke about the team, about Bugs Bunny cartoons which were playing on the television in his office, and about the common people that we knew. As always, Hakim did an outstanding translating as always. I cannot wait until Saturday.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Shorabak Garrison Meeting

I asked Hakim to translate again as I wanted to make sure that Colonel Safi and I were able to communicate. Hakim was very excited to help as he felt like he was contributing to something very exciting.

When Colonel Safi first invited me into his office, he looked very busy. He had about 20 Afghan National Army officers in his office and he was speaking on two cell phones. Hakim and I sat in some very comfortable chairs and waited for our turn. Colonel Safi quickly completed his phone calls and introduced himself, ignoring all of the patiently waiting officers. He then started telling Hakim a story about how his friend was telling him about a water polo program in Pol-e-Charki and how much they accomplished last year.

Needless to say, I did not need to say much to convince Colonel Safi to get involved in the water polo program and to get the pool fixed. Through Hakim, Colonel Safi promised that he would have a team ready and the pool fixed in one week. He then asked if I had any questions. I asked him if he had any questions about my vision for the program or what my plans were. His response was that he knew enough about me and my plans and did not need any other information.

Colonel Safi was very keen on the idea of starting an organized sports program aboard Shorabak Garrison. What better way to accomplish this than to start a swim and water polo team? He said he would take care of the pool issue.

I am going to wait to express my excitement about this meeting until after the Shorabak Swim and Water Polo Team starts practicing. I do not want to get my hopes up again like I have in the past few weeks, just to get let down.

I look forward to the next meeting with him about introducing water polo to Helmand Province Afghanistan.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

205th Corps Swim and Water Polo Team's First Practice

I made sure that I gave myself enough time to leave the office and arrive at the pool early. I stopped by my tent, grabbed my bag of gear which included goggles, swimsuits, water polo balls, water polo caps, and some other miscellaneous items. I then borrowed a vehicle to drive over to Shorabak. Upon my arrival at the pool at 3:00 PM, I noticed that the pool was bone dry. Even though I was a little disappointed that there would be no water in the pool for the first water polo or swim practice in the history of Helmand Province, Afghanistan, I was optimistic of the outcome of today's practice. I patiently waited for the athletes to arrive and by 3:30 PM, not one athlete showed. Since I was concerned that I may have not understood where Captain Zebullah said I was to meet the athletes, I walked over to his office to see if the athletes were waiting there.

With his office locked, I was concerned that he may have been given wrong information of the intended start date and time of our practice. I looked around the other office spaces and Captain Zebullah was nowhere to be found and no one knew his whereabouts. Defeated, I started walking back to the vehicle I borrowed when I saw Captain Zebullah walking from a building. I walked over to him and we started trying to speak with each other.

With no linguist to assist us, he was able to effectively communicate to me that with the 205th Corps being sent to another city, he did not have athletes that would be here for more than a few days or weeks. He did not want to have them start and then disappear one night because their unit was moved to a new location. That would leave me with no players.


Even though this was one of Captain Zebullah's original concerns which I thought that we discussed and agreed on (Even though the soldiers were being sent to a new city, they would practice until they left), it just did not work out that way. However, he did speak with the Shorabak Garrison Commander, Colonel Safi, who agreed to meet with me in one week and he also made some headway with getting the pipe fixed at the pool.


With it not being a total loss, I was still back at square one. I thanked him for his assistance and said that I would meet him next week so he could introduce me to Colonel Safi. Disappointed and knowing that I had a lot of work waiting for me, I sadly returned to work. All of that energy and planning out the window. I hope that my upcoming meeting with Colonel Safi puts us back in the right direction.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Marjeh and Now Zad

Major Chris Curran set me up for a trip to Marjeh and Now Zad with a group of VIPs. I was excited for this opportunity as it would be first time to see any of Helmand Province since I arrived in November and I am able to leave the daily grind at work, even though it is only for a few hours. I made sure all of my gear was set and went to the airfield at Bastion to catch my first ride in an Osprey. While waiting for the Osprey, I met Tony Perry from the Los Angeles Times. He was taking his final trip with the 2d Marine Expeditionary Brigade Afghanistan before he returned to the United States. He was a very nice gentleman who took the time to write about what the Marines were accomplishing here. It was quite enjoyable hearing about his yearly trips to the war and his fondness for the Marines. Ironically, he lives in the San Diego area, heard about the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team, and actually wanted to write a story about the team. It just shows how small of a world we live in. We had to meet all of the way in Helmand Province, Afghanistan for us to share our stories when we live so close to each other in the United States.


The ride on the Osprey was quite exciting as my time in Marine Corps aircraft is little compared to other Marines or my daughter Isabella (Who has more flight time in Marine Corps aircraft than I do). Other than cargo transport, I have flown in US Army Blackhawks. And since the Osprey is the future of Marine Corps aviation, it was nice to actually know what it was like. It was a great experience.

Our arrival in Marjeh was very interesting. We landed in the middle of a villager's farm and walked to the forward operating base nearby. Upon entering the base, I felt for the Marines and their living conditions. These Marines did not have heating or air conditioning; laptop computers; a laundry service; easy access to hot showers; refrigerators; or anything that would be a comfort of home. Even though our living conditions here may seem austere, it does not compare to what the Marines on the ground deal with every day. Knowing that the Marines would not have much, I picked up an any Marine/Soldier box from the post office and dropped it off with a Marine upon our arrival. Even though the Marines there were tired of visitors showing up, I think they appreciated the boxes that I and others brought.

After speaking with a few Marines, the party we came with wanted to walk into the town. As we left the base, I saw a teacher conducting classroom instruction in an outdoor setting. He had about 20 children being very attentive, even though a bunch of Marines, other military personnel, and two civilians (One of which was Tony Perry) were walking right behind their "classroom". It was nice to see that regardless of any situation, to include that just a few days before there was heavy fighting in this area to include the street we were on, that someone takes the time to hold classes.

While continuing to walk down this street, I saw many locals sitting, talking, and watching. Of interest, I saw a little boy, about the same age as my son, Westy, sitting next to a motorcycle. I do not know if at the ripe old age of 4-5 he knew how to fix a motorcycle or if he was just pretending to. Either way, I could imagine Westy doing the same exact thing if he were sitting next to a motorcycle back home.


Marjeh was quite beautiful compared to many other areas I have been in Afghanistan. It was very green and had some beautiful flowers in the fields. It also seemed like a friendly community to those who lived there and to outsiders.


As I was walking with a few of the young Marines way ahead of the group, a young girl hesitatingly came up to one of the Marines who was clearing the area. Knowing that the Marine was focused on making sure that the area was safe for the upcoming entourage, I motioned for the girl and her family to come to me. The first thing I did was say hello in Farsi. I then asked how she was and what her name was in Farsi. Before I even finished what I was saying (Regardless of the fact that I am positive my accent was horrible), I realized that I was speaking in Farsi to a native Pashto speaker. Just goes to show how not mentally there I was. But as a high quality "Staff Officer" that I am, I quickly pulled a lollipop out of my cargo pocket and handed it to her. Her look of horror that an American was speaking Farsi to a Pashto speaker quickly went away and a smile quickly emerged. As she went to grab the lollipop, I saw a very bad burn to one of her arms. I quickly asked one of the Marines what their unit's procedure was for treating local national children in this area. He responded by saying the unit corpsman could provide limited treatment there or we could send the girl to the base. The Marine quickly called for a corpsman and he arrived very promptly. After the corpsman assessed the wound, he took out a bandage and carefully wrapped her burns. With the help of a linguist, he explained to the family that they should bring her to the base the next day for more extensive treatment. As the child smiled, ate her lollipop, and had a handful of candy that she was sharing with others, the crowd of over 30 locals to include family and other villagers swarmed the corpsman to touch and thank him. It was quite an amazing site to see that they were so appreciative of what one corpsman could do. The long lasting effects that one person can have…

A short while later, we returned to the forward operating base and boarded the Osprey. This time, we were heading to Now Zad. Once we arrived in Now Zad, we visited a bazaar. The bazaar was very similar to many others I have visited in Afghanistan. However, some of the shops were closed due to a big shura (Meeting) that was being held. We then entered a local school. What was so impressive about this school, other than the amount of kids that were in the classrooms, was that there was a classroom full of girls. It looked like the girls were receiving the same curriculum as the boys, which in my mind was a great thing. From afar, I watched the teachers try to finish their classroom instruction amongst all of the visitors walking through the classrooms. I just sat and marveled at the simple school and how much these teachers were achieving. I then thought about how progressive this community is by having such a large class of girls. On our way out, I asked one of the Marines at the local unit about the girls' classroom. The Marine said that sometimes there are so many girls in that classroom that there is barely even enough room to even move around. I am glad that the families are sending all of their children to school, not just the boys.

As we were waiting for our transportation back to the landing zone where the Ospreys were waiting, I noticed that there was a football (Soccer) field. It was a very simple construction. Someone cleared away all of the rocks from the dirt and erected two goals out of wood. There were a few children around and I wished that I would have been prepared with a ball. Why was I not prepared? I just did not think that I would run into a football field, with children on it, in the outskirts of Now Zad. Just to reassure everyone, if there was a pool in Now Zad, I would not have been prepared either.

I am very appreciative that Major Curran set me up on this trip and that Major Benson and Major Lesniewicz covered my work for me while I was gone. It was great to see the villages in these areas and it reminded me of why it is so important for the western world to be helping in Afghanistan. These villages are the future of Afghanistan. This is why education, dreams, hopes, and heroes are so important.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Final Planning Meeting for the 205th Corps Swim and Water Polo Team

It is finally official. We will begin the 205th Corps Swim and Water Polo Team in one week. I just walked out of a meeting with Captain Zebullah and he assured me that we would start the team then. They are going to get the broken pipe at the pool fixed so the pool can be filled with water and are going to select a team of 20 soldiers for me to coach. It was decided that the Afghan National Army soldiers would be democratically selected for the team from each of the units in the 205th Corps and on the Shorabak Garrison. I am glad that they are choosing the athletes this way and just not selecting athletes based off of family ties, ethnic background, or rank.

I eagerly wait to start the team next week. I already have swim and water polo gear here. I have suits, goggles, balls, water polo caps, and water polo balls. All I need now are athletes to coach and water in the pool. Here is the start of a new adventure!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Captain Zebullah

Lieutenant Joshua Pogue set a meeting for me to meet with Captain Zebullah, the assistant S-3 officer for 3rd Brigade, 205th Corps, Afghan National Army on Sunday. I went to the meeting very excited as this would possibly be a small new chapter for the Afghanistan Water Polo story. Bringing organized swimming and water polo to Helmand Province would be a big undertaking, just like starting the 201st Corps Swim and Water Polo Team in Pol-e-Charki.

Josh was nice enough to coordinate a linguist to join us. Hakim, who has been working with Josh over the past few months, is a very nice Afghan who has been very interested in the Afghanistan National Water Polo project since Josh told him about it.

Captain Zebullah offered for me to sit in his chair in his office and also offered all the chai that we could drink and all of the treats that we could eat. He wanted to know everything there was to know about me. Where I was from, where I worked here, about my family, and the all important question, if I had any children. I answered all of his questions and asked the same questions of him. He also tried to add the few English words and phrases that he knew into the conversation. I was very impressed by his language abilities, especially since he just started learning English, his sixth language.

Captain Zebullah was very keen on the idea of starting a swim and water polo team aboard Shorabak. He was very concerned on who was going to fix the pool and how we were going to determine who was going to be on the team. I told him to work with the Shorabak Garrison Commander on fixing the pool and the selection of the team. I suggested that the 205th Corps and Shorabak Garrison can select soldiers from all of the units. He concurred and said that my idea was very fair. He then asked what I and the Marines could do to fix the pool. I explained that the request to fix the pool must go to the Shorabak Garrison Commander and he will work it. He said he would take care of it.

As I had to go back to work, we said our goodbyes. It was a great meeting and I am looking forward to the next meeting with Captain Zebullah about introducing water polo to Helmand Province Afghanistan.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Pool at Shorabak?

About two weeks ago, I was informed by Lieutenant Joshua Pogue, a co-worker of mine at 2d Marine Expeditionary Brigade Afghanistan who works at Shorabak, that there is a pool there. Shorabak is an Afghan National Army (ANA) base a few minutes away from Camp Leatherneck. Josh called me because he knew about the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team, 201st Corps Swim and Water Polo Team, and my work at the 201st Commando Kandak. He knew I would be immediately interested in hearing this news. Since then, I have asked Josh many times about the pool: Where it was, how to get there, how the pool was built, what it was used for in the past, future plans for the pool, and which ANA soldiers had more information about the pool.

I was finally able to escape from work and go to Shorabak. I received a quick tour of Shorabak from Josh. He took me to go eat at a linguist dining facility at FOB Tombstone, an adjacent base operated by the UK. The food was very reminiscent of my dining experiences in Pol-e-Charki at the linguist dining facility, Commando dining facility, and the ANA dining facility; and at the Commando field mess in Jalalabad. A lot of rice, a little meat, and many vegetables and fruit. We took our meals to one of the linguists’ tents and ate there. We sat on the floor and ate our feast, spoke about a myriad of topics to include American politics, Afghan politics, the Marine Corps, and the soap opera that was playing on the television that was in Farsi. It was a very enjoyable time and our hosts were just happy for us to be there.

After lunch, Josh showed me the pool. It was right across the street from the building he works in. The pool stands above ground and on a man-made hill. There is a staircase leading up to it with nice tiling and barbed wire surrounding the entire structure. The pool is about the size of a large backyard pool or your standard hotel pool. It is about 15 yards long and 10 yards wide. There was some trash inside the pool: plastic bottles, soda cans, wrappers, and some miscellaneous scraps. There was also some dirt and gravel inside. I also found a rubber tube that looked like it was possibly used for putting water into the pool.

Josh then told me that Colonel Sarwa, the S-3 officer for 3rd Brigade, 205th Corps, Afghan National Army built the pool by hand last year. By the looks of the pool and the limited resources in the area, he did a magnificent job building the pool. I was hoping to meet the colonel but he was away with his brigade fighting the war. From what Josh was told, the pool is the best place to be during the hot months for all of the ANA soldiers in Helmand Province. As he was telling me this, I was watching the 30 or so ANA soldiers sitting on the edge of the pool…with no water in it.

Josh then took me to meet Captain Zebullah. Since Colonel Sarwa was gone, Captain Zebullah who is the assistant S-3 officer for the brigade would be the most suitable person to help with my goal of starting a swimming and water polo team at this pool. Captain Zebullah was gone at the moment and one of his soldiers told us that he would be back soon. Since I was gone from work for a while already and Josh also had to go back to work, we decided that I would come back and the beginning of the week to speak with Captain Zebullah.

I eagerly await to meet and discuss the idea of a swim and water polo team at Shorabak. I think it will be a great opportunity for the ANA soldiers, for the people in the area, build the important bridges between US and Afghan military, and spread these sports into more areas and people in Afghanistan. Another crazy idea, I know. We will see where this takes us.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Mohibrehman

On Christmas Day, 2009, I am sitting here at work in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. I am in Afghanistan serving in the capacity of a United States Marine, not as the Head Water Polo Coach for the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team. I have been here since the beginning of last month and am missing the entire holiday season. No Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Easter, birthdays, and special events to be spent with my family. I am missing even more of my children's' lives.

I am also saddened by the news I received today. With the help of a linguist, I spoke with Ahmad Shah over the phone, receiving an updated status on compiling all of the information required to obtain passports. Another athlete on the team has passed. He too was an ANA soldier. In particular, he was a commando in the Afghan National Army. He died while serving his country, fighting against the Taliban. And he definitely called the Taliban "The enemy of his country."


Mohibrehman was about 27 years old. Like many Afghans, he did not have a birth certificate. Just an estimate from his family of when he was born. He was from the village of Shahi, in Laghman Province. He was a very reserved man. He remained focus and only spoke when he had something very important to say or a very inquisitive question to ask.


Mohibrehman was a first sergeant in the 201st Commando Kandak. It was the same unit that I mentored while I was in Afghanistan last year. I saw him a few times a week through the course of my duties but it was through the creation of the 201st Corps Swim and Water Polo Team where I really came to know him. He quickly emerged as a natural leader of the team. Just like I would see him training his soldiers through a weapons range, clearing buildings, teaching classes, or leading his company in unit physical training (He was the only leader that I ever saw on the Pol-e-Charki Base leading a platoon size or larger unit in a formation run); he would lead the team during drills, scrimmages, stretching, or dryland training. He always ensured that all of his teammates were ready to practice both mentally and physically, were quiet during instruction, and always asked important questions to ensure that all of his teammates understood what I was trying to communicate.


Prior to the 201st Corps Swim and Water Polo Team, he never swam in a pool before. Mohibrehman never participated in organized sports before. He never encountered the game of water polo. This did not deter him from wanting to excel and become a good athlete and great leader for the team.


If you were to say the name Mohibrehman, the first three memories that come to mind are:


1. Mohibrehman would make sure all of the athletes of the 201st Corps Swim and Water Polo Team stayed hydrated throughout the day and even made sure that they all ate enough food as the Afghan National Army chow hall on Pol-e-Charki did not always have enough food. As they would walk up the long hill, he would have refilled water bottles that he would make them drink and would always have extra fruit in his cargo pockets. Even in the Commando chow hall, he would make sure all of the athletes were served enough food and ate it all. He would not allow them to drink anything else other than water.


2. I had a problem with an athlete on the 201st Corps Swim and Water Polo Team during the first week of practice. On the third day of practice, I had it with him. He was too disruptive during practice and was a distraction for everyone. At the end of the practice, I told all of the athletes to get out of the water and to line up in groups of five, for some final sprints. As everyone was lining up, this athlete decided to do a cannonball into the water. After he figured out that I was not amused, he quickly got out of the water and in line. After the sprints were completed, but before I could call this athlete over, Mohibrehman came up to me and told me that he would take care of it. Take care of it? What did that mean? Mohibrehman was only a First Sergeant and the athlete that was causing problems was a Captain. Well, I game Mohibrehman a chance and I never had a problem with this athlete. He actually turned out to be one of the biggest assets of the 201st Corps Swim and Water Polo Team.


3. During the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team Tryouts in 2008, he not only made sure that all of the 201st Corps Swim and Water Polo Team athletes stretched and prepared for the tryouts, he directed all of the athletes participating in the tryouts to stretch with the team. He did this knowing that this may reduce the chance that he and the other athletes on the 201st Corps Swim and Water Polo Team would have to make the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team. He also made sure that they were prepared everyday for the tryouts, directing them to stay hydrated and ensured that they ate enough during the day. He even arranged for a place to stay for the athletes who came from 8-10 hours away.


He took the 201st Corps Swim and Water Polo Team and the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team very seriously. Maybe it was because of his natural leadership, seriousness demeanor, it was the first time he was in an organized sport, or because he did not want to lose the opportunity to swim in a pool, spend quality time with his comrades, or be part of a sports team. However, I will not be able to ever ask him questions like these again.


He was a great man and he will be sorely missed, by his family, friends, villagers, Commandos that he led, and by his teammates, both on the 201st Corps Swim and Water Polo Team and by the athletes on the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team. I hope one day I will be able to meet his family and explain to them what I thought about him, my sorrow for their loss, and his contribution to Afghanistan as an athlete and leader of the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team and more importantly, as a hero for his country as a Commando in the Afghan National Army.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Two Athletes on the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team have Died

Over the past year, I have received phone calls, emails, or questions directly from people that heard what we are doing and ask me questions or say to me:

"Is the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team is a joke?"

"Are you serious?"

"That is too funny. "

"Is this for real?"

Two athletes on the team have died in combat operations in Afghanistan. I was told this today by Rohullah Marouf, the Swim Chair, at the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee. Abdullah Tahiri, Scott McCook, and I were on a conference call with him about the passports for the athletes today. He is trying to get more information on who specifically died.

Once Rohullah said this, and Abdullah translated, I felt like I was going to vomit. Most likely, these athletes were also on the 201st Corps Swim and Water Polo Team, who I spent many months with, training them, teaching them something new, making them smile, and taking them away from the war, even for a few minutes of their lives. These athletes could also have been in the 201st Commando Kandak (Battalion), which meant I probably worked with them every day for a year, spent time with them mentoring them their jobs, drinking tea with them, talking about sports, movies, and current affairs, and even watched soap operas in Farsi with them.

I was thinking about what a short life that these athletes, who were also soldiers in the Afghan National Army, had. I started thinking about their families. What if they were married or had children? Who is going to provide for their family now? Who is going to be the father of their children? Who is going to teach their children to do the right things in life, educate them? Who is going to stop the Taliban from educating these children, taking their families' food, and harming their families? Who is going to protect this family, or the village they live in from the Taliban?

All of these feelings, questions, and concerns, and I still do not know exactly who was killed. Once I know this information, I know I will be sick. I will be sick because I did not move fast enough. I should have:

Moved faster,

Convinced more people to get involved,

Had our elected officials in office move faster,

Somehow convinced some airline executive to provide air travel,

Been more effective in contacting a decision maker at the US Department of State that could provide guidance and support of this project.

Closed deals with affluent individuals and big corporations on donations and sponsorships...

The list is endless of things that I could done better and more of. But the fact remains that there are now two less heroes that Afghanistan could have had. Two less upstanding citizens who really could have unified their country, shown their countrymen what could be accomplished, shown the children of a very poor and war-torn country how to dream, build cultural bridges between Afghanistan and countries of the Western World, and shared their future personal, cultural, educational, and business experiences in other countries with people in their villages, provinces, and country, to make Afghanistan a better place.

I will never be able to talk with these athletes again, shake their hands, hug them, listen to them, see their excitement when they talk about the future, see them with true happiness in the pool, or watch them learn something new.

If I would have just made this project happen more quickly, these athletes would not have been killed fighting the Taliban, or even in a war zone for that matter. They would have been in the United States training as a team for water polo. They never saw a place without war, they never had an opportunity to make their country a better place, they never got to see why America and the Western World are so great, and they never became heroes for their country, a country that needs heroes so desperately.

This was not a case of could have, should have, would have.

This was a case of could not have and should not have had this opportunity in a million years. And then, they died. Before they would partake in the impossible feat of having a national water polo team in Afghanistan that would be following the pathway to the Olympic Dream.

This is for real. This is so real, and I failed to save two lives. My record now for losing people involved in water polo in Afghanistan is three. How many national team athletes has your country's national team lost today, this week, this month, this year, or this decade?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Rotary, Rotary, Rotary, and the IRS

The last two weeks have been spent making contacts with people and trying to fundraise. I have spoken at two Rotary clubs, the Fallbrook Rotary and the Fallbrook Village Rotary. I will also be speaking at the Bonsall Rotary this upcoming week. Speaking at each Rotary has been different thus far. The Fallbrook Rotary only gave me five minutes to speak while the Fallbrook Village Rotary gave me 20-25 minutes as the guest speaker. Both Rotary's were nice enough to let me raise awareness of the Afghanistan Water Polo program. At the Fallbrook Village Rotary, we could not get the projector to work. I had to give the presentation with no slides. Fortunately, since I know the presentation pretty well, I did not make myself look too much like a fool. I luckily had some posters of the team to pass around as well. They were so nice and attentive, even though I had no slides (What did we do before projectors?!?).

I also FINALLY received my appointment letter from the Swim Chair at the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee. It says that I am the coach of the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team. It was something I have been waiting to receive since September of last year. I was promised it nearly bi-weekly and just never received it. I am glad that everyone that was waiting for it from me was so patient and never doubted that I would get it.

We also received our favorable 501(c)(3) letter from the Internal Revenue Service as well. That is another task that is now complete for bringing the team to the United States. This process started by sending in our forms to the IRS in August 2008 for the non-profit we created, The Dream of Afghanistan Athletics, to be the support arm to help the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team follow the Olympic dream. Naturally, we received this letter after everyone’s personal taxes were due. So now we have to notify everyone who has donated so far that their donations are tax deductable since August of last year. I wonder how many of our donors will have to redo their taxes because of this? I hope not too many. I also have to add that us receiving the favorable 501(c)(3) letter was also helped along by our congressman’s office. It was amazing how it only took a phone call from them to the IRS to get it done.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Meeting Olympians from the United States

This weekend was very exciting as I had the honor of meeting two Olympians, see again one of the best coaches in the history of swimming, and meet some other high performance athletes as well.

Brian Goodell called me two weeks ago after he read the Orange County Register article about the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team. He wanted to find out more information about our project and to see how he could help.

Brian is working on a project with a company called the Pacific Institute to help athletes and people in general visualize success. He was hosting a PX2 clinic in Mission Viejo, California and invited me to attend. This would be a great opportunity for me and the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team. Brian is one of the best distance swimmers in history. He has help many world records, won two gold medals in the Olympic Games, and is one of my favorite swimmers. When he called me on the phone, I tried not to sound too excited to hear from him.

When I arrived, there were a number of athletes there and Coach Bill Rose, from Mission Viejo Nadadores Swimming. I remember Coach Rose from my swim days when he had athletes swimming like James Davidson, Philippe Demers, and David Schmidt, just to name a few that I remember. It was nice to see that he was doing quite well. Some of his athletes were there as well, to include an Olympian and other high performance swimmers. It was great to meet these inspirational athletes and hear their stories.

The course that Brian taught was outstanding. It took a lot of the bits and pieces of useful information that I learned along my athletic and coaching careers about visualization and fit them together nicely. Brian then gave me the other 80% of the information I was missing and I finally understood the big picture. I walked away from this class feeling knowledgeable and I also felt good knowing that in my past coaching positions, I used similar techniques on athletes and teams and that other coaches believe and teach these types of programs.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

City Council meeting at the City of Newport Beach

This evening I gave a presentation to the City Council of the City of Newport Beach. Dave Kiff, the Assistant City Manager, was the one who put us in front of the City Council after hearing what Scott McCook and I had to say about the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team.

It was a good experience, giving a presentation to the City Council. Even though I rehearsed the presentation many times, I still struggled through the presentation at times. I always felt like I was leaving something out or not telling the whole story. I was afraid that I would not say enough or say too much. I was only slated for seven minutes for all of my slides and questions. In the middle of the presentation, one of the council members asked a question. Even though it was a simple and easy question to answer (something that I should have brought up earlier in my presentation), it threw me off a little. Other than my few stumbles, I did ok and got my points across. We will see what the future holds for the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team and the City of Newport Beach.

You can watch the video at Newport Beach TV: http://newportbeach.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=24&clip_id=953. You can fast forward on the right column by scrolling down on the right side until you see Afghanistan Water Polo or you can sit through the first ten minutes of the city council meeting.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Thankful

I just spent a wonderful day with my family for Easter. You may ask, what was so wonderful about it? It was spending time with the family.

Even though Easter is not Thanksgiving, I have a lot to be thankful for these days. To start, would be my wonderful wife, Leilani, and our wonderful children Isabella and Westy. They have been so supportive during this project of trying to get the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team to the United States to train. We would not be where we are with this project without them. Other family members have pitched in as well. All have pitched in emotionally to support us and some have used sweat equity to help and some have even donated. There are many ups and downs during this great opportunity to create heroes for Afghanistan and my family has been supportive every step of the way.

The athletes are patiently and anxiously waiting in Afghanistan. I pray every day that the team will all make it the United States safely and that nothing horrible will happen to them prior to making this trip. These athletes showed me how to shove adversity back and create something positive in such a difficult environment. They also showed me what things are truly important in life. They are the reason that this whole dream started. I am so thankful for these honorable men.

Our volunteers have stepped up to the plate and have brought us to where we need to be. Whether it was people who volunteered to be on the board of our nonprofit organization, people who have put us in contact with potential donors, people who are helping spread the word and help create awareness, those who want to provide lodging, meals, pool time, or hand out towels to the team after practice, I am just thankful for the extraordinary volunteers that are ensuring the development of this team to promote peace through sport.

Our donors and sponsors have been phenomenal and I will always thank them. Some of our sponsors even go back as far as before there was even a national team. All of our donors and sponsors help us get closer to bringing the team here. Whether it was a small, anonymous donation, to donations of equipment, pool time, and the like, it takes the team towards the pathway of the Olympic dream.

The general public has been remarkable. From teary-eyed calls of support to referrals to people who may be able to assist our program. Sometimes people accidently run into our website or they read or watch something from the news, just the calls or emails are always very encouraging. Our supporters from the public have been outstanding and I couldn’t ask for more. Thank you.

I had a quarterly newsletter prepared to send out but felt that this letter was more appropriate. If you have not already picked up what I am trying to point out in this letter, I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I am so blessed and thankful of your support of our program.

We are now so close to bringing this team to the United States in August. Let’s all come together, push through, and ensure this happens.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Riding Around Pol-e-Charki

Tom Pfingsten, from the North County Times, in San Diego, expressed interest in doing a story on the team and what we have been accomplishing. Once he established contact with us, we immediately fed him a lot of information, stories, photos, and the few videos we had. He seemed to be putting together a good story.

Since it is Ramadan, the team is not working out and I did not have any video of the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team. Tom wanted video of the team working out and I could not provide it. It is one of the many things that I should have done when I had a chance. But I am only one person and it would have been too difficult, and weird, if I were trying to run the national team tryouts and videotaping the whole thing at the same time.

Tom asked me if I could give him a lay of the land. He decided it would be best, and asked me if I could go around the base at Pol-e-Charki and take photos and video of what was there. He was trying to make a deadline, and since that deadline was in two days, I thought that I should hurry and get it for him. I jumped on an ATV after work and drove around the base. I made a loop, first I by driving to the pool, then to the 201st Corps area, 3rd Brigade, one of the bone yards, and finally back to the area that I live in.

The many videos are quite interesting and can be seen here: http://www.facebook.com/AfghanistanWaterPolo?v=app_2392950137.

video

Tom's article came out quite well and is the first major news story on us. He even got it placed on the front page of the paper and has a very nice video online (I wonder where he got the footage from). The North County Time's article can be found here: http://www.nctimes.com/articles/2008/10/01/news/inland/fallbrook/z05238a4ad97f3a4b882574ce0008fad4.txt.

It is very exciting that we were able to kick off our awareness campaign this way. Scott McCook did a great job getting the North County Times motivated to do a story. We will see what kind of response that we will get from this.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Agreeing to coach the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team

After a week of Leilani and I discussing and praying about the opportunity that Rohullah Marouf, the Swim Chair at the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee, presented us with, Leilani and I agreed that we would proceed. I asked Reshad to arrange a meeting with Rohullah so we can discuss this. I did not tell Reshad what my answer was as I was going to make sure that everything was in place with the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee before I started advertising this project.

Once the meeting was set, I told Abdul Kholic what our plan was and he offered to provide the armed escort. He was very excited about this as he hoped that I would say yes to the opportunity presented to me. He, just like many others, think that this is such a great honor. I do not think they realize the vast responsibility that is associated with this. We are starting this from scratch, to include the fact that there is absolutely no funding. Upon Abdul Kholic's question of what my answer would be, I told him he would have to wait until after the meeting. I am sure that he was confident that he knew the answer because all of a sudden he was in a good mood, after a week of him being irritated with me and trying to convince me to do this.

We went to the Ministry of Defense on our way to meet with Rohullah to take care of some administration issues. While there, we met with a Afghan National Army General about these administrative topics. While speaking with him, the General brought up to us how proud he was of the 201st Corps Swim and Water Polo Team and he wanted to wish success for me leading the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team. When I asked Reshad how he found out, he said that they did not say anything and that there are no secrets in Afghanistan.

The meeting with Rohullah was quick and full of energy and excitement. I told Rohullah what our answer was and we got straight down to business. I told Rohullah what my plan was to train the team, bringing them outside of Afghanistan, and he explained all of the roadblocks, primarily the issues concerning nepotism and pockets with holes in them. The nepotism issue I definitely think we can work but the hole in the pockets is difficult as it cuts out potential funding opportunities from the Olympic Council of Asia and the International Olympic Committee.

Rohullah promised me that he will get me a letter saying that Afghanistan Water Polo is official and I am going to be the coach, so I have source documents to show people about the validity of our program, if needed.

With Rohullah, Reshad, and Abdul Kholic very excited, we departed from Rohullah's office and went back to the 201st Commando Kandak. On the drive back, all that was in my mind about how there is so much planning and work to do. First on my list, is to set up a meeting with the selected athletes for the national team, to include the alternates.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Afghanistan National Water Polo Becomes Official

Since the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team tryouts have ended, I have only heard from Rohullah, the Swim Chair at the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee once. This was at the national swim competition a few days ago. Reshad and I were trying to get a hold of him but he was not answering his phone or email. Reshad finally got a hold of him last night and when he came to work today, he told me, in front of the S-1 Officer, that we would be meeting with Rohullah.

Since I knew that the S-1 Officer would insist on the armed escort, I thought that we could kill two birds with one stone. The S-1 Officer and I were talking about taking a trip to Darul Aman to recruit graduating soldiers, from the Afghan National Army boot camp, to fill some shortfalls in the 201st Commando Kandak. It was a perfect opportunity to go to Darul Aman today.

Abdul Kholic, the S-1 Officer, agreed that today would be a great day to go as the Commando Kandak was already paid and all of the pay reports, that show that every Commando was paid, were already submitted. This saved me from having to sneak out without an armed escort and leaving Abdul Kholic feeling like I did not want to listen to a very respected man, full of wisdom, about how a "well known and important American" needs to remain protected and safe.

Abdul Kholic quickly coordinated a three vehicle convoy, two pickup trucks with mounted weapons and a 7-ton truck to carry all of the soldiers we were planning on bringing back, and about ten Commandos as drivers and to man the crew served weapons and protect the convoy.

Knowing how the Commandos drive, how much traffic there is, and that most of the people on the road are first time drivers, I opted to ride with Abdul Kholic. I have been a passenger in his vehicle on many trips before and he is a very defensive and proactive driver. I think that he would do quite well driving in California, the Republic of Korea, or other places around the world that have unpredictable drivers.

The drive to Rohullah's office was quick and uneventful as there was not a lot of traffic. We arrived early at Rohullah's office, but he was not there yet. His assistant said that he was meeting with the President of the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee about some swim matters. His assistant quickly ushered Abdul Kholic, Reshad, and I into Rohullah's office and had tea and some pastries made for us. He also had someone bring tea and pastries out for all of the Commandos who were waiting by the vehicles. Hospitality is so wonderful in Afghanistan!

When Rohullah arrived, he quickly came into the office and was very excited to meet with us. After the introduction of Abdul Kholic and Rohullah and listening to the two of them speak for a while, we all started speaking about current events, the upcoming presidential election in the United States, the weather, and the success of the national swim competition. Rohullah was very optimistic about the results of the swim competition, which was the first ever swim meet in Afghanistan, especially when "the expert", believe me, I am no expert, agreed that it was a well run competition with great results. I think my encouragement about how well the swim meet went made his day.

Rohullah quickly cut to the chase and said that he appreciated my help with teaching aquatics sports to the people of his country and for helping him strengthen aquatics in Afghanistan. He reviewed the strategic plan of a proposed national program over the past week and read the list of athletes that were recommended for the national team. He was even approving of my recommendations for coaches for the national team. He profusely thanked me for my hard work and dedication and hoped that this would be the beginnings of something great for Afghanistan.

Rohullah started telling me that hopefully they will be able to continue the program in the future because things are very tough as he receives no money from the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee for the national swim program. He said "God willing" they will be able to do something in the future with the team. This was a little disappointing as it seemed that Rohullah was not focused on taking on this program. Seeing my disappointment, Reshad and Abdul Kholic started telling him how great a national water polo program, with Afghans from Afghanistan, would be for the country. That Afghanistan needed this.

After about ten minutes of me not being able to get a word in edgewise because of the heated discussion between Rohullah, Reshad, and Abdul Kholic, about the future of the potential Afghanistan National Water Polo Team, Rohullah stopped the discussion and asked Reshad a question for me. The question was simple, "What were my thoughts?" My response was simple, to tell the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee to create a national water polo program, based off of the plan we worked so hard to make. Upon hearing my response, he asked Reshad "Will I help them?" I answered "I wanted to continue to support them in the development of a national water polo program."

During Rohullah's recent meeting with the President of the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee, Rohullah was discussing the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee's thought process on their budgeting or lack thereof and the lack of support to the national swim program. The president, not wanting to be questioned about his direction, started asking Rohullah about the progression of water polo. By the end of their meeting, Rohullah did not get any swim questions answered but came back with the approval to officially start a national water polo program. Rohullah knowing this, did not share his excitement about this when we first started talking today, but it still made me happy.

Rohullah also wanted to know if I would lead the program. I was touched by the notion that he would think of me that way. I told him that I would help them in developing the program and that I did not have the background to lead a national program. I explained that I was just a high school varsity water polo coach, a club swim coach, and previously ran some club water polo teams that were successful. I would help them find some quality coaches and help them in the development from the plan we created. I was also concerned about my availability between my job and how much longer I would actually be in Afghanistan. I did not want to commit to something that I could not follow through on. I did not want to be like the "old story" that I was just another westerner or American who promised something and did not follow through. I did not have any of the skills needed to start, develop, and fundraise for a national sports program and its national team, other than interest and my recent focus of starting the team at Pol-e-Charki and organizing the national team tryouts. I told him that I would speak with Leilani and we would pray and discuss about it. I would give him an answer in a few days.

Since we had to get to Darul Aman, we had to finish our meeting. Rohullah was hoping for us to stay longer and for an answer, but I told him it will come soon.

Our trip to Darul Aman was very interesting. Between us almost getting in 50 accidents and Abdul Kholic's sole focus on why I would not coach the team, it was a pretty stressful ride. It was amazing to see how a big 7-ton truck can maneuver through traffic. We survived the ride there but Abdul Kholic was not done asking why I was not willing to help. I tried ten different ways to explain it to him that I did not say no, I just needed to think about it, discuss it with Leilani, and look at the feasibility of it. Could this be something that could really be put together? If I were to take this program on, the team could not train two-three months out of the year. We would have to get them out of Afghanistan and into a first world country to train the team. I tried explaining this Abdul Kholic, through Reshad, that there was a lot to think about. Abdul Kholic was still not happy and felt that I did not care about Afghanistan.

Towards the entrance of the base at Darul Aman, there was a palace from a former king of Afghanistan. Even though it was almost completely destroyed, you could see the beauty and could imagine how it once looked. I tried asking Abdul Kholic about it, but he was frustrated with me. Reshad tried giving me a little history about the palace.

The graduation ceremony at Darul Aman was very quaint. It was on a dirt track, the graduating platoons did a pass in review, there were two band members who were just learning how to play their instruments, and it took seven minutes. Other than Reshad, the Commandos, and I, there were no other spectators. It was very different from a boot camp graduation ceremony in the United States, where the bleachers would be full of families and friends, a big military band participating, a pass in review where everyone is in step, a honor guard, a long speech from the commander and maybe a guest speaker, all of which could take between thirty minutes and an hour.

After the ceremony, Abdul Kholic went to the drill instructors and told them which soldiers he wanted. During the ceremony, he watched at how the soldiers marched and stood in formation. He also looked at how healthy and strong they looked. The drill instructors called the soldiers out of formation after Abdul Kholic would point them out. The soldiers then went to get their bags and jumped on the truck. It was a very quick process and the soldiers were not told where they were going or anything. It was an interesting evolution to watch and I wondered how the Afghan National Army would account for these individuals or what would happen when these soldiers did not show up at their new commands. I guess we will see how this works.

Even though Abdul Kholic was satisfied that we accomplished a big mission that he and I have been working for a long time, he was still mad at me and did not say much on the way back to Pol-e-Charki. We were still defying death and accidents by the miracle of us fitting in spaces half the size of the vehicles. With no regard for the newly recruited soldiers who were stuffed in the back of the 7-ton truck like sardines, they somehow made it back to Pol-e-Charki with no incident too.

The rest of the day was very quiet. Not much was said in the office. Hopefully, I will be able to talk about this with Leilani soon.