it’s never too late is a series about people determined to pursue their dreams on their own terms.
At 86, Mark Braley may be the world’s oldest water polo player. And according to Braley, a Texas native who now lives in Davis, Calif., he’s “absolutely the worst.” That may or may not be true, but playing the sport is still an impressive achievement for someone who came to the game at the age of 76. Water polo, played in two teams of seven, is challenging. aerobic (endurance) and anaerobic (sprinting).
Braley says he loves friendships as much as sports. Currently, his co-ed teammates consist of his 40 players. Some are in his 20’s. Most others range from their thirties to middle age. Teams may bond after a game at a local pizza restaurant or a special occasion get-together.
“I do score goals from time to time, but there is always the suspicion that it is the gift of a kind goalie,” Braley said. “Every player in this area knows my name because they have to shout instructions incessantly.”
Braley likens water polo to basketball, but it’s a sport in water. “You’re throwing the ball and you have a goal cage,” he said. I have not blocked anyone yet.”
From his twenties to his sixties, Mr. Braley had a lot of work to do when he left his job as a project manager for the U.S. Office of Economic Coordination (now called the Department of Defense’s Office of Regional Defense and Community Cooperation). He was a spokesperson for the Houston Press, Capitol Records (“I thought the Beach Boys had no future”), director of former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley’s Office of Energy, and the U.S. Intelligence Service (now deceased) diplomat.
Despite this, Braley said, “Of all the experiences I’ve had, water polo was the best adventure.”
Regardless of his self-esteem as a player, he inspires his teammates. “It’s amazing to start playing an intimidating sport like water polo at age 76 and stick with it,” said Paul Oralde, 31, an IT consultant with him in Sacramento, Calif. “He’s the star of the program.”
Braley continues to swim for 40 minutes five times a week, in addition to his two 90-minute water polo games, which are typically held at the Char Aquatic Center on the UC Davis campus.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
What made you start playing water polo?
I wanted an alternative to swimming. When I was in high school, Texas didn’t have water polo. I had never seen a game until ten years ago when my dear friend and swimming coach, Ross Yancher, introduced me to water polo. He gave me the ball and taught me how to shoot on goal. I was hooked. When he moved to his swimming pool in West Sacramento, he invited me to join the Water Polo Masters Club he was organizing.
why water polo?
Growing up, I wanted to be athletic, but I wasn’t. And I made some great friends. Two things he didn’t get at his previous job: he feels appreciated and supported.
What do you like about games?
An exciting and thrilling game. I love watching it as much as I love playing it. I like that it’s a rough game where you never know what’s going to happen next. And I love being in the water. I have weak hip joints. I have had two knee replacement surgeries. All my ailments are alleviated in water. It gives you a freedom you can’t get in any other way.
What does it feel like to be the oldest on the team?
Respectful. It makes you feel special. I wish I had started playing this game when I was younger. I am grateful for the 10 years I have spent. I know you have limited time to do this. I try not to think about it. Looking back, the memories of the people who played with me will remain, and that’s also a special thing.
What I learned about myself through sports?
You can accept praise and support without feeling depressed by it. It means you can do almost anything if you don’t mind not being good at it. Being forced to be good at something made me unable to do things for the rest of my life. I have learned that I am more capable and have more stamina than I thought.
where does your determination come from?
my father. He was an excellent athlete, playing semi-professional baseball for room and board in a small Texas town in the 1920s. He was an electrical engineer who served in World War I and World War II. I observed and internalized his determination. He was a young father during the Great Depression, and it was really hard to get a job and support a young family, but he did. I was impressed that he could climb telephone poles and orange trees. Thanks to all the exercise he got, he stayed fit for a very long time in his life.
You mentioned that you are considered an inspiration to young players. Why?
Young players don’t think they can play longer. It reassures them to see me still doing it at my age. It also makes me feel like I’m giving back and setting a good example to my teammates and others who haven’t discovered the game yet.
How did the friends you made in this game affect your life?
It is wonderful that we were able to share and share this unique bond that unites us. With these people, I don’t feel that way. They represent the acceptance I missed.
How else are you involved in sports?
For the past ten years, I have written a column for a monthly magazine. Davis Enterprise, the local newspaper about water polo and masters swimming. People stop me and say they read my column and it was great. I feel like I am retiring and doing something worthwhile. I like to reach out to other seniors and let them know that swimming is a great area of expertise for them.
Do you have any advice for people who want to try new sports or sports?
I am a big believer in exercise. It extends and improves your quality of life. Most cities and neighborhoods have senior centers that offer a variety of programs and classes. Find something you like. Don’t worry about being good at it.