By Crystal Hayduk
When Kiera Crawley entered high school, she dipped her toes into the world of competitive swimming. Before long, she plunged into water polo. Now, she’s made a splash with ripples that have already touched the lives of hundreds of Chelsea area students.
Crawley, the daughter of Jane Pacheco and Dennis Crawley, is a junior at Chelsea High School (CHS) and a member of Girl Scout Troop #40076, led by Kelly Stoker. Crawley recently completed the requirements for her Gold Award, the Girl Scout equivalent to the familiar Eagle Scout status for boys.
Following Crawley’s freshman [fall] season on the girls swim team, she joined the water polo team in spring 2021. She rapidly acquired a thirst for the sport. “Water polo is a huge part of my life now, but I had no idea it even existed before my freshman year,” said Crawley.
As Crawley entered the 2021-22 swim season with the goal of continuing water polo, she wondered how she might have progressed with an earlier introduction to the sport. A trickle of a thought soon became a flood of ideas to run a water polo clinic for a wide age range of children.
“I thought about what I would have wanted when I was younger,” said Crawley. She submitted her proposal for a Youth Water Polo Clinic for students in third through twelfth grades to the Girl Scouts, and it was quickly approved. The first clinic was held at the Cameron Pool at Beach Middle School in Dec. 2021 during the district’s winter break. It was so successful that she facilitated a second clinic during winter break in 2022.
More than 100 students attended each three-day clinic. “Children learned more about water polo and were able to give it a try, which was especially important for the younger students since it’s not a sport offered here at elementary and middle school grades,” said Crawley.
The nearest available water polo club is in Ann Arbor.
Clinic sections and activities were divided by grade level. Younger children played games and generally had fun in the shallow end. Middle school students learned the rules of the game and water polo basics: how to tread water and pass the ball, while still having fun with games and playing scrimmages.
The clinic experience for high school students was more intense, running almost like an in-season water polo practice, but with more games and scrimmages. Crawley said games teach students skills, such as shooting and passing; scrimmages are simulated matches.
Crawley worked hard to plan and prepare for the clinics so the students would have a great experience. She arranged for the pool time, recruited coaching and water polo team members to help, solicited funding, and advertised the clinics (which were free to those attending).
Area businesses generously donated funding, she said. Each student was given a T-shirt printed with sponsors’ names.
Although future clinics will no longer be free, it is likely they will continue to be offered. Crawley said the coach is willing to run it, and team members will continue volunteering.
Jessica Hinderer (CHS Class of 2012) coached the clinics. Hinderer played water polo in Chelsea, and went on to excel in the sport at Grand Valley State University. After graduating in 2017, she became the assistant coach for both boys and girls water polo in Chelsea, taking over as head coach in 2018. “Leading this program that gave so much to me is truly the honor of a lifetime,” said Hinderer. “Water polo runs in my blood and there is nowhere else I would rather be.”
Crawley said she learned a great deal about planning and coordinating a big project and gained leadership skills through her Gold Award efforts.
Hinderer said Crawley is a “…hardworking and dedicated student athlete…[who] is the epitome of a leader and what we want student athletes in our program to exemplify. … Kiera led the in-water demonstrations. She was so good with the kids. It was great to watch her and the other water polo team members give back and teach the younger generation. I was there to help guide them from drill to drill but Kiera led her teammates as well as the clinic participants.”
Since the clinics have been held, the CHS teams have gained many new members. “In a community with a large youth sports landscape, water polo has been extinct,” said Hinderer. But that’s changing thanks to the clinics, which offer an introduction to an uncommon sport and helps to grow Chelsea’s program, she said.
Some younger clinic participants joined the Ann Arbor club team, Wolverine Water Polo (WWP). After the 2021 clinic, WWP asked for help to run a summer session for beginning players. Hinderer (as coach) and Crawley (as lifeguard) jumped right in. “I love that Kiera has picked up this enthusiasm of not only wanting to be the best in the water but also giving back and wanting to grow this sport that means so much to her and all of us within our program,” said Hinderer.
Crawley floats on air when she thinks about advancing her favorite sport. “Because water polo is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world, I wanted to show more kids what it’s all about, hoping to get a program for younger kids in Chelsea,” she said. “Water polo is an inclusive and body positive sport. Anyone can play, regardless of size or gender.”
With Crawley’s gift for self-motivation, her Girl Scout leader expected the clinics to be successful. Stoker said, “Kiera gives 110 percent to something she believes in, and she believes water polo is the best sport ever.
“Kiera is competitive in the best way. She brings up the others around her so they can reach the same goal.”
About CHS water polo:
Water polo falls under the guidance and rules of CHS athletic department rules and regulations.
Water polo is self-funded. The team does not receive money from the district or directly from athletic boosters.
Water polo shares the Cameron Pool with the district’s swim and dive teams. Therefore, the team benefits from facility upgrades requested by those teams, but the water polo team may not request upgrades.
Because Chelsea’s pool is not regulation-sized for water polo, the team plays many matches away.
Everyone is encouraged to support the team by attending a match. The girls schedule can be found here. (The boys team plays in the fall.)