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For Piasecki, rebuilding Afghanistan includes building water polo

Jeremy Piasecki coached club water polo in Fallbrook until his full-time job with the United States Marine Corps sent him elsewhere.

Piasecki currently has civilian status in Pol-E-Charki, Afghanistan, and is tasked with helping to rebuild the country.

He is also now the coach of the Afghanistan national water polo team, where he has introduced the sport of “football in the water” and hopes to build the program to competitiveness on the international level.

“We just have to get them in shape. We have to get them to learn a sport they’ve never heard about before,” Piasecki said.

Coaching water polo in Afghanistan isn’t like coaching water polo in Southern California.

An American club’s concept of swimming involves endurance, speed, and technique. Being a swimmer in Afghanistan means being able to go into a river or lake without drowning.

Tryouts for the Afghanistan national water polo team drew 70 natives and Piasecki noted a need to improve their endurance.

“They get pretty tired after 25 or 50 yards,” he said. “I had to actually jump in and grab someone because he was drowning.”

There are more swimming pools in some California neighborhoods than in the entire country of Afghanistan.

Fewer than 15 known swimming pools exist in the nation. Many of those are private pools, and the only known hotel swimming pool is at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul.

“It’s one of those odd-shaped pools,” Piasecki said of the hotel’s pool. “It’s pretty shallow.”

The Afghanistan national Army base at Pol-E-Charki, which is approximately 15 miles from Kabul, has a swimming pool.

It is an all-deep pool approximately 10 feet deep and about 25 yards long, although it is only three to four lanes wide.

“This is the hand I’ve been dealt and we definitely made the best of it,” Piasecki said.

When the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, sports were discouraged and one swimming pool in Kabul was used for executions.

“Having aquatic sports in Afghanistan is definitely new for them,” Piasecki said.

After Piasecki arrived in Afghanistan, he witnessed the national swimming championships. Only three Afghans knew how to swim the butterfly stroke.

The chair of Afghanistan’s national swimming federation pays most of the expenses out of his own pocket.

“It’s been a very interesting journey for him,” Piasecki said.

Although Piasecki was sent to Afghanistan as a civilian, he is also a Chief Warrant Officer II in the Marine Corps Reserves and from time to time has been called to active duty.

The 30-year-old Piasecki was raised in Newport Beach and attended Corona Del Mar High School.

He also attended Orange Coast College for one year and played on the water polo team, but his commitments as a reservist made full-time college infeasible and he completed his education through online and other distance learning classes.

Eventually, he received a BS degree from Excelsior College, which is based in Albany, NY.

Before being reassigned by the Marines, Piasecki was the head water polo coach of the Fallbrook Associated Swim Team (FAST) as well as a coach for several individual FAST teams.

He also coached at Temescal Canyon High School in Riverside County.

Piasecki was sent to Afghanistan last January to serve as a mentor for Afghanistan’s Army. He works with the Army’s special forces team and lives on the Pol-E-Charki base.

His earliest experiences on the base included seeing the swimming pool in its condition at the time. “When I first saw the pool it was during the winter months,” he said.

The snow on the ground covered the true status of the pool. As the temperature warmed, work on restoring the pool to swimming conditions began.

“Once they started filling it with water, I saw all sorts of things,” Piasecki said.

The pool was used for irrigation, drinking water, and laundry.

No chlorine or other chemical treatments were used, nor did the pool have pumps or filters. It was not covered and has no heater.

“It’s basically four walls and water,” Piasecki said. “They don’t have anything you would expect from a Western civilization-style pool.”

Last spring the pool was open for swimming for one day before being used for other functions. It was not refilled with water.

Later in the spring, Piasecki offered to teach swimming and water polo to the soldiers.

Those lessons began in June. “It went pretty well,” Piasecki said.

The pool was clean on most days. Armed guards surrounded the pool to ensure the safety of the soldiers during practice.

“It’s the only place I’ve ever coached where I’ve had an armed guard,” Piasecki said.

After conversations with the national swimming federation and the national Olympic committee, Afghanistan Water Polo was created in September and Piasecki was named as the coach and director.

He also met with the ministry of defense’s sports office. “They’re all excited about that opportunity,” Piasecki said.

In August Rohullah Nikpai became the first-ever Afghan to win an Olympic medal when he secured the bronze medal in tae kwon do for the 58-kilogram weight class.

“They felt that this could be another vehicle for them to have more national heroes,” Piasecki said of Afghanistan Water Polo.

Developing Olympic sports in Afghanistan requires more than talent.

“The Afghanistan national Olympic committee has no money,” Piasecki said. “We’re relying solely on donors.”

Most of those expected donors are from the United States or other Western countries, but general development funds won’t be easy to obtain.

“What we are doing is considered development, but when people are living in mud huts and have no shoes it’s hard for me to compete,” Piasecki said.

One of the players Piasecki coached with FAST Water Polo was Erin McCook, who is now a freshman at Fallbrook High School. McCook’s father, Scott, has known Piasecki for approximately four years.

Scott McCook volunteered to become the Director of Development and Fundraising for an organization called The Dream of Afghanistan Athletics.

Piasecki’s wife, Leilani, remains in Fallbrook and is on the board of The Dream of Afghanistan Athletics.

His mother, Jane, is also on the board, as is Orange County coach Bahram Mojreh.

“We want to bring the team out of Afghanistan to Southern California with a target date of February so that they can play here and train here,” said McCook, who lives in Fallbrook.

“Five months is a reasonable timeframe to at least get enough money to bring the team to the US,” Piasecki said.

Financial resources won’t be the only obstacle of a United States trip, since the United States government requires visa information to be in English.

“Filling out passports just in their own native language, let alone English, is difficult,” Piasecki said.

Many Afghans don’t know their exact birthdate, which is required for a passport. “Having a birth certificate is only a recent phenomenon,” Piasecki said.

The fact that many of the players are active-duty soldiers requires appropriate leave to be granted.

“There’s a thousand and one things to do between now and the beginning of February,” Piasecki said.

The active-duty military status of many of his players means that some may not only go on missions but might become casualties.

Piasecki’s strategic plan involves the formation of two national teams with 13 players apiece.

“We basically don’t know who is going to be on the A team or the B team right now,” he said.

The team includes civilians, although base access for those players has been another obstacle.

“It was a big problem during national team tryouts,” Piasecki said. “Two of the five days not everyone could attend national team tryouts.”

Piasecki will be the national team coach as well as the head of Afghanistan Water Polo.

One of his responsibilities will be to train coaches; the two national teams will each have one head coach and one assistant coach.

Piasecki will also recruit and train referees, and his plan includes the development of youth teams in the future.

“Part of the challenge is to form local and regional teams to develop talent for water polo in Afghanistan,” McCook said.

“I want them to be self-reliant,” said Piasecki, who also hopes for an eventual university team in Kabul.

Currently Piasecki coaches both national teams when they scrimmage against each other and also referees the games.

He also shows games of more experienced national teams on a DVD player at the base.

The planned trip to California in February will include games against open division or college teams, although the exact locations will be dependent on pool availability and financial support.

Piasecki plans to enter the national team in the 16th Asian Games, which will be held in China in November 2010.

Although his realistic goal is the 2016 Olympics rather than the 2012 Olympics, the team is expected to play in the qualifying tournament for the 2012 games.

“Getting them in top-level competition is what they need,” Piasecki said. “We have to train to that level.”

Although the Afghanistan national team lacks experience, sharing the attitude of beginners may be a benefit.

“These people have a true appreciation for the sport and they give 100 percent,” Piasecki said.

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