On Wednesday morning, Farrington water polo coach Eric Polivka had his phone in one hand and a trash can nearby to do an early morning radio interview.
"I was so nervous I thought I was going to throw up," he said. "I had to talk for 15 minutes. I’m not really good at public speaking stuff."
The coach of the undersized, outmuscled, overlooked but undaunted Farrington girls has been struggling to come up with ways to say thank you all week.
"The support we’ve received from the community, from strangers, their generosity and their encouragement has just been. … I don’t know how to say it … it’s like when I first met my wife … way more than I expected. Totally amazing."
They weren’t asking for donations. They didn’t ask for publicity. But in this time of such widespread hardship and struggle, the story featured in last Sunday’s newspaper about Farrington’s gutsy season struck a chord.
The team lost every game it played this year, which was the sport’s inaugural season for the school. At first, the girls could barely swim, let alone get control of the ball. Most of the team members are so small they can’t keep their heads above water and touch the bottom of the pool at the same time — even at the shallow end.
But during this terrible recession, people can relate to feeling too small to win, and many found a metaphor in treading water. For many, it meant something very personal that these girls never gave up trying.
"So many people wrote to the girls saying, ‘I know what it’s like,’" Polivka said.
Polivka has received what he describes as a stack of checks in his Farrington mailbox. He set up an account with the school’s business office to handle donations, and says the team won’t have to hold fundraisers for years to come.
He has had to regretfully decline all the offers from restaurants wanting to host the team’s end-of-the-year banquet. That dinner had already been held. "If we accepted all the offers to feed us, wow, that would be like the major water polo block party," he said.
There was an invitation to speak to Honolulu’s venerable Quarterback Club, something Polivka accepted with extreme reservation.
"I’m going to lose sleep over that speech," he says.
A legal office called to invite the two seniors on the team to apply for summer internships. The courage they showed in the pool stands for their character references.
And the Honolulu City Council is honoring the team’s never-say-die attitude at a meeting on May 14, which pretty much blows Polivka’s mind.
"I’m just going to be, ‘Hey, what’s up Romy? These are the girls,’" he said, referring to Kalihi Councilman Romy Cachola. "And then I’m going to hang in the back and stay out of it."
For some, the team inspired a rallying cry to fix the school’s long-dead swimming pool. Unbeknownst to the coach, team member Naren Diego had been working on a project in her engineering class this semester that offers ideas for how to repair the pool. Diego will now be presenting her proposal to legislators.
Though the season is over, the team continued to meet so they could work on all their thank-you cards to everyone who has called, written, stopped by and congratulated them for their winning attitude through a losing season. The girls still can’t quite believe they could be role models.
"I told them, you know, you inspired people," Polivka said. "They didn’t know they had the power to affect anybody but themselves. They kept saying, like, ‘All we did was just play this game and do things the way we thought they should be done.’"
Lee Cataluna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.