By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor
As water poloâ€™s popularity rises in the East, a critical component is surfacing: identifying coaches who not only can grow the sport but also create opportunities for Eastern clubs to achieve success at the national level.
Luckily for the Capitals, an age group club located in Arlington, VA, Miras Jelic was available to coach their growing pool of 12U to 18U players. Jelic, who from 1995 â€“ 2004 played professionally in Serbia for Spartak Subotica, came to the U.S. in 2008. He didnâ€™t speak English when he arrived from Europe, but in 2012 got the opportunity to grow a polo club from scratch at SwimRVA in Richmond, VA.
After her club was blown out in a 2015 scrimmage with Jelicâ€™s upstart RVA Shark squad, Leslie Entwistle, head coach for Capital Water Polo, wisely offered him a job, then had to sweat out a competing offer from a California prep school.
Luckily, Cristina Menendezâ€”Jelicâ€™s fiancĂ©â€”convinced him that staying in the East offered more possibilities for success and happiness than entering the highly competitive California market. Her advice has paid off handsomely, as her boyfriend’s coaching career has blossomed the last three years. The Capitals have realized increases in membership and competitive opportunities, while his coaching opportunities have broadened, including a spot on the USA Water Polo Girls Northeast Zone staff.
At a recent youth tournament in Stanford, CT, where his Olympic Development Program (ODP) team was competing, Jelic spoke with Swimming World about coming to America, developing the sport in the Washington D.C. area, what water poloâ€”their national sportâ€”means to Serbians and the challenges of being an experienced coach in a community that has little history with the polo.
– How did you end up working in American water polo?
I came [to the U.S.] 12 years ago. But the idea of coming here was not about water polo. It was because of the hardship in Serbia and losing my parents, which was tough for me.
When I had the chance to [come to America] it was to further my language [skills] because I didnâ€™t speak English. I found an ESL [English as a Second Language] programâ€”I spent my first two years [here] learning, from A, B, C, D to reading and writing. After that I went to a community college in Richmond.
I ended up finishing four years [later] and getting a [B.A.] in business marketing. In 2012, thinking what I should doâ€”I had sales jobs and worked in a restaurantâ€”I went to SwimRVA, an aquatics facility in Richmond and knocked on the door and met Adam Kennedy, the aquatics director. I said that I played water polo, and asked if theyâ€™re looking for somebody [to teach]. He told me he would definitely would like to see [polo] at SwimRVA. But in the Richmond area, no one knew about the sport.
He gave me a chance [but] the first practice there was no one. I remember that because it was my birthday, September 9th. They called me from the pool and said: â€śDonâ€™t come because we donâ€™t have kids.â€ť The next day they called me back and said they had one kid.
For two month it was just him and me.
The Serbian community is not big in Richmond, but some families heard about a water polo coach whoâ€™s from Serbia. One family had two boys, and one was playing soccer; the other didnâ€™t know what he wanted. [His] parents thought: water polo is the number one sport in Serbia, it would be good for their son. The little brother said he wanted to try, and little by littleâ€¦ after four months it was ten kids.
In a couple of years I had 45 kids.
– How does American youth polo compare to where you grew up?
The biggest challenge for me about working with kids here, versus working with kids in Serbia, you have to understand the mentality, the culture. Maybe something thatâ€™s acceptable in Serbia is not [acceptable] here. The style of coaching and figuring out [how] to put pressure on them to work hard and win, versus just being fun.
I understand that you want to have fun but in the end, you also want to see progress, and especially now, when kids are 12, 13 and thinking about playing in college. The earlier you start thinking that way, the better. If you start thinking about college at 16 itâ€™s too late.
Thatâ€™s a difference I see from Serbia, kids grow up quicker there. Thereâ€™s less opportunity thereâ€”you have to understand the reality. Parents in America accommodate [their kids], taking them on vacations.
-How did you happen to connect with the Capitals?
I was searching for a place for my club to scrimmageâ€”it was mostly just practicingâ€”and somehow, I found a club in D.C. called Ball Underâ€”now called the Capitals. We came up to play Ball Under and [we won] something like 21-3 and everybody was like: â€śWho are those kids?â€ť It was a shock from their side because their team was competing in [Junior Olympics] and suddenly thereâ€™s a new team from Richmond no oneâ€™s heard of and they play really well.
After six months Leslie [Entwistle, head coach of the Capitals] offered me a job. At that time, I was already in contact with Bellarmine Preparatory School in San Jose.
– You were looking at a whole different kind of life in America.
I had already bought a ticket and they called me from Capitals for a job interview. We spoke for two hours and I told them in two days Iâ€™m moving to California. But my girlfriend she worked in a hospital in a PICU [Pediatric Intensive Care Unit]. She was not ready to move yet.
I flew [to San Jose] and spent three days there. The program director for water polo and the head coach for a local club is Colin Mello, an All-American from UC Irvine. The idea was [for me] to work with his club [College Park Water Polo] and to be an assistant coach in his school.
From having one little club in Richmond to having two offers on the tableâ€¦ thatâ€™s like a dream.
Cristina said it will be smarter for me if I go to Capitals. She could apply for a job [in D.C.] at the [Childrenâ€™s] National Medical Centerâ€”and thatâ€™s what happened. Sheâ€™s currently working there and Iâ€™m here [with Capitals].
My dream is to work in California. Sasa Branisavljevic, who I played with at Subotica, started a club started a couple of years ago in Orange County. VanguardÂ last year won [the] U12 and U18 divisions at JOs.
Coming from Serbia doesnâ€™t always help because of the politics before, but it was much easier opening doors. You want to be in a hot spot, you want to be in California to do that.
– On top of your work with the Capitals you are now working in ODP.
On the East Coast water polo is not that big compared with the [West] and for it to grow you need healthy competition. Little by little, working the club there we have a few schools with a full season water polo programs. One of them is The Landon School, a private boys’ school.
Their coach contacted me last August and offered me a job. Iâ€™m currently working six months a year in that school as their water polo and swim coach. In the meantime, Momo [Ivetic] offered me a position to work in ODP with the girls.
Itâ€™s new territory for me. I had girls in my club but not only girls. Everywhere I go Iâ€™m learningâ€”I didnâ€™t know how much I didnâ€™t know! That idea is motivating me to move forwardâ€”growing as a person and as a player.
Working with the ODP girls and seeing the different mindset versus boysâ€¦ understanding the game, I never had a doubt. Understanding the culture, the parents, [I realize] I canâ€™t be in the mindset that Iâ€™m from Serbia, I know everything. You have to understand that youâ€™re starting from zero.
– But you have a base of experience in water polo that most Americansâ€”especially coachesâ€”donâ€™t.
[The American Cadet] 15U just won the tournament in Serbia last summer. They won [the Darko Cup] beating Serbia and Croatia. The potential here is enormous. International coaches are helping, but I donâ€™t want to [take the attitude] that water polo is owned by Serbia and Croatia and Hungary and Italy. The difference hereâ€”and if Iâ€™m going to stay with Serbiaâ€”when people ask me why Serbia is so good in water polo, I tell them if you look back, itâ€™s not just water polo itâ€™s also basketball and volleyball. [Serbian women] won the silver in [2016 Olympics].
The number one reason is that my coachesâ€” ex-Yugoslavia playersâ€”go back to that Russian, old fashioned exercise [regimen]. We drilled until we literally couldnâ€™t anymore.
For example, coach will tell you to go 10 x 200. You go nine times, and heâ€™d say one more and youâ€™re finished. Youâ€™d do that and heâ€™ll ask was that ten; when you say â€śYes,â€ť heâ€™ll say thatâ€™s wrong, it was nine. Letâ€™s go again.â€ť
And you do ten again.
[Those coaches] want to challenge each of their players to see whoâ€™s going to give up and whoâ€™s going to fight until the end. That was the one way of practicing before the war.
– Serbian players are hungrier than their American counterparts.
[Serbia] is a great place to go for a visit, but thatâ€™s just on the surface. Belgrade is pretty much like D.C.â€”highways, all that. You go a little bit deeper and find that the average salary is $500, $600, $700.
The only exit for most Serbians if theyâ€™re talented in a sport is to work hard and play professionally, often in some other country [like] Hungary, Italy even Russia.
If youâ€™re an average player from Serbia you can make [between] $30,000 to $150,000. Playing for a few years you can buy a nice house and maybe open a coffee shop.
If youâ€™re a top player, every time that the Serbian National Team won Olympic gold, silver or bronze, players get a guaranteed pensionâ€”twice what the average income in Serbiaâ€”for the rest of their life. This is for every single sport, not just water polo.
Thatâ€™s one motivation for the playersâ€”the gold medal the Serbians won in last Olympics, each player got 40,000 â€“ 50,000 Euros.
But they’re not just playing for money. Theyâ€™re also playing for country. The problem in Serbia for sport is lack of money. The National Team does have money and government support. But for the local teams to compete, itâ€™s awful. Partizan Belgrade, one of the best clubs in the worldâ€”won seven European Championshipsâ€”they barely have money to pay players. Theyâ€™re losing every single game.
The Hungarian government has a plan, investing money in three to five team sports, and one of them is water polo. Theyâ€™re investing lots of money there. They can get top players from Serbia. Andrija PrlainoviÄ‡, heâ€™s with Szolnok.
– When you hear about the horrible things that took place at USA Gymnastics, how does your experience in Serbia give you a perspective about the incidence of abuse in American youth sports.
That goes back to understanding the culture. One example; in Serbia the culture [towards children] is more liberal. They allow kids to go abroad [by themselves] for summer vacation. But here thatâ€™s a no-no.
I always go back to understanding that the culture here is not everything that I know back home. So Iâ€™m extra cautiousâ€”on top of cautious.
As a coach, you always have to understand how far [to go] when you have to explain how to do something because the nature of water polo is lots of contact. To explain the details of certain moves you have to realize itâ€™s not the same as working with boys and girls.
What happened with gymnastics and also what Iâ€™ve heard happened [in the past] with swimmingâ€”clearly [abuse] has happened there.
My conversations with the players is about water polo. if they have a personal, private concern, they go and talk [to someone else].
Itâ€™s a new way for me to learn the culture, obviously whatâ€™s happening here.
When I work at to teach swimming, itâ€™s again [about] understanding the culture. In this case, it was using the bathroom. A coach told me: Donâ€™t go to the bathroom that the boys are using. Use [one for coaches]. Somebody might say something.
You always want to make sure that you donâ€™t do anything thatâ€¦ [looks suspicious]. The way people are looking, whatâ€™s happening around us in the world. People are super itchy on everything.
I donâ€™t want anyone to think twice about my actions. You work on yourself to be able to explain to playersâ€”girls or boysâ€”without making lots of contact.
Every coach in any physical sport, basketball, etc., is trying to explain because thereâ€™s one way of learning. Maybe itâ€™s not going to be me thatâ€™s going to explain. Iâ€™ll take two players to demonstrate [a situation].
Itâ€™s understanding the culture around us.