Right at the very beginning, just as the idea of water polo in Ghana began to float into reality, Asante Prince brought out some balls and caps in front of a handful of curious children.
He decided to try a fight, but he had no nets. So they put a football bench on each side of the pool.
It was “enthusiastic confusion,” he said. And the caps – which have protective cups that go over the player’s ears – well, they were especially fun.
“Somebody said, ‘Oh water bra, thank you so much,’ water bra,” said Prince, who laughed.
It was one of the first meetings of the Awutu Winton Water Polo Club, a fledgling league in a difficult part of the world for the oldest team sport in the Olympics — and a true passion project for the energetic prince.
Growing up in Coronado, California, he was often the only black person in the pool or in his classes. He went looking for a water polo that looked more like him and found it in the waters of his father’s homeland.
“It’s like my baby and it’s cute because, you know, it’s crying and growing, but it needs your full attention, 24-7,” the 31-year-old prince said. “Every time I talk about it, it’s great because it’s something I would have liked to see as a kid.”
In Ghana, dangerous waves off the country’s coast have caused countless drownings over the years. This has led to concern about deep water in a nation where low- and middle-income families already have limited access to swimming pools.
When Prince first started swimming in African communities, he saw looks of fear and panic on their faces because “everyone has stories of someone going out and not coming back,” he said.
Awutu Winton Club has seven teams representing three regions of Ghana. Players range in age from 7 to 25, and the league includes a group of about 20 women. It had 85 athletes and 10 coaches when it opened its new season last month in Ghana’s capital, Accra.
Prince said most of his Ghanaian players had some knowledge of swimming when they joined the program but not in deep water where the sport is played.
“Stepping in water and how to handle the water polo ball was very difficult when I started playing,” said Ishmael Adjei, 20. “But as time went on, I could see myself improving.”
Adjei’s club is part of San Diego-based Black Star Poloan organization founded by Prince that also works to create water opportunities for African and African-American communities in the United States.
“When I started playing, (my family) thought it was just a waste of time,” Adjei said, “because you had to help them do the family work and you would take a break to go and practice… but as time goes by, they become interested.
Any significant growth in Africa would be a welcome development for a sport that, like aquatics in general, has struggled with a lack of diversity for decades. Even in places where water polo is most popular – such as California and parts of southern Europe – there are very few players of color.
Egypt and South Africa are the only African countries to have played men’s water polo at the Olympics. South Africa became the first women’s team from the continent to reach the Games when it finished 10th in Tokyo in 2021. World Aquatics said it did not have data on player participation broken down by ethnicity.
“I think it’s vital to the growth of our sport that we break out of the normalcy that has been the last century of traditional water polo nations,” said former U.S. player Jenay Kerr, who serves on the board of the Water Polo Diversity Alliance.
The second of three brothers, Prince took up swimming and water polo after his family became good friends with the family of five-time US Olympian Jesse Smith.
Prince played college water polo at California Lutheran University and earned a degree in psychology. He competed professionally in Brazil and trained in Europe.
He often felt that he stood out as a black man.
“I’m just used to everybody seeing me and standing out,” he said, “and I’m the one that everybody notices first, in every class, on every team.”
In Ghana, the birthplace of his father, Dr. Kofi Sefa-Boakie, it was different. Prince’s mother, Elizabeth, is from Los Angeles and met Coffey when they were students at the University of Southern California.
Prince started going to Ghana with his father after he graduated from high school. He often wore balls and hats on trips to visit family. In 2018, he contacted the country’s swimming federation and it held an event at Awutu Winton Senior School — one of the only schools in the country with a pool — where it made a donation and promoted the program.
“What he’s doing is great because it’s so hard to start something from scratch,” Smith said.
A relatively small geographic footprint can put a sport at risk of losing its spot in the Olympics, according to Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and clinical assistant professor of history at Arizona State University. But, Jackson said, decisions about what sports to include are hard to predict and reflect politics, relationships and subjectivity.
Jackson said an all-black water polo team at the Olympics could have a profound effect on the sport.
“I mean, it’s that quote, right? “You can’t be what you can’t see,” she said. “The horizon immediately expands.”
That’s why Prince’s efforts in Ghana have attracted attention in some prominent corners of the sport.
KAP7, a company that sells swimwear and other water polo gear, supplied the doors and other equipment. Kerr and five-time U.S. Olympian Tony Azevedo also donated gear, and former USA Water Polo Director of Excellence John Abdu held a Zoom training session for referees.
“It’s something that everybody can see, hey, look, this is happening,” said Wolf Vigo, a three-time U.S. Olympian, one of the co-founders of KAP7 and the men’s coach at UC Santa Barbara. “It’s not just one black guy in a group with 12 white teammates or two. It’s a whole pool full of black athletes, all playing water polo and having a great experience.”
Prince — whose full name is Prince Kofi Asante Sefa-Boakie — is looking to keep the project afloat by making the most of his connections in the sport and a GoFundMe page. But as Prince sees it, he’s already won.
He helps promote water safety in Ghana and his native Southern California, a major issue for black communities. He helped teach swimming lessons to Somali refugee children at the San Diego YMCA last year.
“I just wanted to play the game,” he said, “but now I realize it’s an even bigger and more important mission than before.”
He also dreams of Ghana competing in the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. The most likely route would be through the continental qualifiers in Africa, but the next step is likely to be for some of Ghana’s players to join American college programs. Prince also said he plans to send an under-12 team to a water polo festival in Italy in June.
Los Angeles seems like a long shot, but Prince has a plan — and he’s already come a long way.
“My face is in front of a portrait, so I don’t see the full picture, so I can relate,” he said. “But it would mean literally bringing my two homelands together in L.A., bringing Ghana to L.A.”
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