The shape of water polo at La Jolla United

The La Jolla United water polo club practices at the La Jolla High School swimming pool.

“Step up, step back and send it back around!” Sam Busby instructs about a dozen female middle-school students splashing around with a ball in the deep end of the La Jolla High School swimming pool.

This is one of three weekly practices for the 14-and-under girls division of La Jolla United, a water polo league consisting of boys and girls divisions, ages 9-18, from around San Diego.

Simulating the final moments of a match where a last-second goal will determine the winner, Busby runs the clock down from 30 seconds again and again for 90 minutes on a Thursday evening.

“They’re working on being able to protect the ball, and manage, coordinate and run in offense,” Busby explains after practice.

In water polo, which dates back to 19th-century England and Scotland, two teams swim and tread around a pool with two nets, trying to either score or block a goal.

“It’s like underwater rugby,” student player Austin Milligan, 12, says.

La Jolla resident Sam Busby coaches La Jolla United's 14-and-under girls division.
La Jolla resident Sam Busby coaches La Jolla United's 14-and-under girls division. COREY LEVITAN

Until earlier this month, this club was known as the La Jolla Water Polo Club. Formed about 20 years ago, it has traditionally drawn from La Jolla High.

After its fall season, however, Busby and his business partner, Steve Horowitz, began marketing to other towns and some members now drive in from Clairemont, Point Loma, Del Mar and even Coronado. (Membership in La Jolla United costs $400 per season plus a USA Water Polo membership.)

“Our winter registration is the highest we've had to date,” Horowitz says of La Jolla United. “We're expecting 140 athletes in the spring season.” Another goal, Busby says, is his 12-and-under and 14-and-under girls teams going to the Junior Olympics by this summer.

“They’re good swimmers and they’re fast,” he says.

Born in Minnesota, Busby, 31, moved from Portland just before enrolling at La Jolla High, where he discovered the sport that become not only his passion but his career. (His day job is coaching water polo at the Francis Parker School.)

Margareta Backlund and Austin Milligan relax after practice.
Margareta Backlund and Austin Milligan relax after practice. COREY LEVITAN

“It’s the best sport on the planet,” says Busby, who still lives in La Jolla. “It’s just as complicated mentally as physically. It’s always a challenge.”

Milligan interjects with a controversial joke: “If water polo was easy, it would be called football!”

“Oh my God!” Margareta Backlund, 13, responds.

Water polo has been “a little bit idle” in recent years, Busby admits. “It definitely is down on the girls’ side,” he says. “More girls need to play water polo.”

Male players still outnumber female players 4 to 1, and Busby said that’s a shame because water polo “can teach them toughness.” After playing a game, he says, “they can surf any break in La Jolla, they can handle boys, they can handle middle school.”

“We can already handle boys!” Milligan replies.

—For more information on La Jolla United, call (619) 886-7379, email or visit

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