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Just Like One of the Fellas : Water Polo Team's Only Woman Holds Her Own With Aggressive Play


WOODLAND HILLS — Ilene Tucker packs her long, blond hair inside the white water polo cap and plunges into the Pierce College swimming pool, ready for combat.

The guys in the pool never blink.

Elsewhere, people might have questioned Tucker's audacity, her chutzpah. They might have wondered what makes this woman think she can play this demanding game with men.

But not in these waters.

Around here, nobody gives it a second thought, not when it comes to Tucker.

The guys on the Pierce water polo team, the ones she helps coach as an assistant to Mike Garibaldi and also tries to beat in intrasquad scrimmages, know she belongs.

Garibaldi and other members of Second Effort, a masters age-group team, also know it.

"She holds her own," said Garibaldi, who restarted the Pierce men's program last fall. "Actually, she's pretty aggressive. You got to watch out for those fingernails."

Tucker, who oversees the pool operation at Pierce and in the fall will coach the first Brahma women's water polo team, is one of only a handful of women playing on men's masters teams because there are no women's teams at that level.

She has been with Second Effort for five years and two weekends ago played with the team at the masters national championships at UC Santa Barbara. The team didn't do well but Tucker said nobody cared. They were more interested in having fun than winning.

"We were a giving team," Tucker said, laughing. "We did terrible but we had a great time. What could be more fun than playing with a bunch of guys?"

Although she can't out-muscle the men, Tucker, who plays driver, tries to compensate in other ways. At 6 feet 1, with long arms and legs, Tucker uses her height and reach to create problems for opponents.

"That's my one advantage," Tucker said. "Sometimes I steal passes and I can play strong defense. . . . I really like playing water polo. It's dynamic and aggressive and physical. It's more exciting than swimming."

Tucker swam for Taft High in the early 1980s and at Valley College. After college, she worked for 10 years as a counselor and recreation coordinator at a Van Nuys residential treatment facility for emotionally disturbed teenagers. She still keeps in contact with the kids, many of whom swim on weekends at Pierce.

"One of the girls in the group is taking a lifeguard training course and she'll be working with me [at the pool] in the summer," Tucker said.

Tucker left her job at the facility--"I felt I just needed a change"--and took over as the provisional Pierce aquatics director about 1 1/2 years ago when the permanent director was granted a leave of absence. She is in charge of the pool's daily operation, from scheduling to maintenance and everything in between. But she might lose the position in August, when the previous director is due back.

"I'm kind of in limbo right now," said Tucker, a single mother to 7-year-old daughter Orlee. "This job is kind of tailor-made for me, because I can do my coaching and play polo and run the pool and be a mommy."

Even if she's displaced as aquatics director, Tucker is looking toward getting Pierce's first women's water polo team off and splashing in the fall. She is searching for players to fill the roster.

"I hope to find more players in summer leagues," Tucker said. "It's hard to find women water polo players because there haven't been many age-group teams in this area for a long time."

Tucker, however, didn't have to go far to find some recruits. She talked some current and past members of the Pierce swimming team into playing, including Teresa Frias, who swam for Pierce five years ago and has eligibility left, and Heather Strong, a junior college All-American last season.

"I've known Ilene for about four years," said Frias, a Birmingham High graduate. "I was working out with the masters swimming team and she asked me if I wanted to play water polo here. I said 'yes' "

Strong, who played on the Louisville High girls' water polo team as a senior two years ago, was eager to play. She likes the contrast water polo offers from what she calls the monotony of doing laps, looking at the bottom of the pool.

"Ilene has a very relaxed personality," Strong said. "It's easy to learn here because you are not afraid to ask questions."

And Tucker is not shy about giving her opinion. Even to a pool full of men.

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