U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Bartosz Lesniewicz, left, and Chief Warrant Officer… (Cpl Lindsay L. Sayres / U.S.…)
Reporting from San Diego -- For three years, Marine Warrant Officer Jeremy Piasecki has been trying to organize a national water polo team for Afghanistan.
His theory is simple: the people of such a war-torn land need sports heroes too.
When an Afghan won a bronze medal in the tae kwon do competition at the 2008 Olympic Games, cheers erupted not just in the capital, Kabul, but from the mountainous east to the deserts of the west.
But how do you train a water polo team in a land-locked country with few swimming pools and no history of aquatic sports?
Answer: a trip to Southern California, which is to water polo what Texas is to high-school football. The first and most expensive step has been to find a way to get the athletes here.
Now, Piasecki has gotten a pledge from commercial airline employees to provide transportation for 10 athletes, several of them members of the Afghan army. He's working with the State Department to get visas.
Their tentative arrival date is mid-November. The next step for Piasecki is to find enough sponsors to house and feed the athletes.
"If it was easy, I wouldn't be doing it," he said.
Piasecki has been focused on water polo since he played at Corona del Mar High in Newport Beach and Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. He coached for Temescal Canyon High in Lake Elsinore and the Fallbrook Associated Swim Team.
Enthusiasm notwithstanding, fundraising for what appears a long-shot endeavor has been slow. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that Piasecki is no longer stationed in Afghanistan.
He deployed last year to Stuttgart, Germany. He's saving up his leave time so he can come to Southern California to be with the team during the stay, which he hopes lasts through February.
The war has provided its own brand of setbacks: three of Piasecki's would-be players have been killed in combat. Others have decided it is too dangerous to leave their families while the fighting continues.
"They have endured hardships that most Americans and those in the western world cannot fathom," Piasecki said of his athletes. "They have had their homes destroyed, family members killed, have had to live in exile in other countries....But they still find ways to smile, laugh [and] enjoy camaraderie."
Bahram Hojreh, a former water polo player at UC Irvine and now club director of Los Al Water Polo in Los Alamitos, is arranging training sessions and matches for the Afghans. A large squad of volunteers, Hojreh said, meets weekly.
While others may have gotten discouraged, Hojreh stayed optimistic. "I knew this day would come," he said. "But we will not be satisfied until all details of the trip are covered."
Scott Tanner, head of sport development for the Huntington Beach-based USA Water Polo, which promotes water polo clubs nationwide, said Piasecki is "an inspiration for anyone in the U.S. involved in the sport, an example of overcoming incredible obstacles to put together a team."
Tanner recently hired organizers to spread the sport in Chicago and Orlando, Fla. It's a job perfectly suited for Piasecki, when he leaves the Marine Corps, Tanner said:
"If he ever gets back to the U.S., I want him to work for me. He has the moxie."