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Henderson man to referee water polo at Rio Olympics

One of the most surprising aspects about the time-honored Olympic sport of water polo — at least if you’ve never played — is that there are entire sections of manuals and theses on the internet dedicated to water polo injuries. With footnotes.

This is what it said in the Croatian Medical Journal, Croatia being the side that won the most recent Olympic men’s gold medal in water polo in London:

“Many times these injuries are intentional and can sometimes anger players to take revenge …”

If revenge is taken during the water polo competition at the Summer Games in Brazil, angry water polo players may have to deal with a Henderson man bearing red and yellow cards and a shrill whistle.

Back when he was wet behind the ears, Joseph Peila, 52, played water polo in college at Cal-State Los Angeles. Now he is a water polo referee — a referee held in such regard that he was selected to preside over the pool play, and the rough stuff in the deep end, in Rio de Janeiro.

“Other injuries take place underwater as many things cannot be seen from above the surface, and not much padding is used to protect the players …”

Yes, things take place underwater at a water polo match that would impress a school of piranha and the cast of “Caddyshack” during the swimming pool scene.

Before the last summer Olympic Games, when the gold-medal winning U.S. women’s water polo team was in Las Vegas to play cast members of “O” during a fundraiser at Bellagio, I wrote about a notorious match called “Blood in the Water.” Hungary vs. USSR, Dec. 6, 1956, Melbourne Olympics.

A month before the match, Soviet tanks had rumbled into Budapest and squelched Hungary’s rebellion over being occupied by the original Big Red Machine.

“Hungary was leading the USSR 4-0 when a water poloist named Valentin Prokopov flew out of the deep end like a marlin and punched Hungary’s star forward Ervin Zador in the face. Blood streamed into the pool. Angry Hungarians streamed onto the deck in search of retribution. And harpoons …”

The deck is where the referee stands. It is where Joe Peila will be pacing during water polo matches that do not involve the U.S. teams, or any nations in the U.S. brackets. He said it is his great hope that political winds do not blow (and that mosquitoes do not bite) at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium.


“There’s a lot of suit grabbing, a lot of holding, kicking,” he said. “They even have underwater cameras” to show viewers watching late at night on CNBC the kind of underwater high jinks that occurs beyond the referee’s purview.

But Peila, who also was a whistle-blower at the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia, said a water polo referee does not get to look at the video when assessing fouls. There are no replay challenges in water polo.

“You just call what’s above the water, what you can see,” he said, and then you hope that political winds do not blow.

The Basic High School math teacher said he has never known a water poloist to lose his swimsuit during an underwater scrum. But he has seen players emerge from the pool with torn trunks and pained Marquess of Queensberry grimaces.

“It’s a physical game,” he said. “You get kicked in the groin, you get punched in the groin. You have to protect yourself at all times.”

“Early play allowed brute strength, wrestling and holding opposing players underwater to recover the ball; the goalie stood outside the playing area and defended the goal by jumping in on any opponent attempting to score …”

Joe Peila, one of only seven international water polo referees in the free world (and some Communist countries) chosen to patrol the deck in Rio de Janeiro, was watching his son swim Tuesday morning at the Henderson Multigenerational Pool, where Team Vegas-Henderson — the only water polo squad in the valley — trains.

He removed his sunglasses to reveal a nasty scar above his right eye. Happened when he was playing water polo in college, he said. Against Pepperdine.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski

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