Chris Ramsey is bullish on the chances of the United States to gain medals in water polo during next year’s Paris Olympics.
The women’s team will compete for its fourth consecutive gold medal, while the men’s team looks to build off a bronze medal performance at the World Aquatics World Cup earlier this year.
“The women have been one of the most dominant teams in the history of Olympic sports—I fully expect them to challenge for a gold medal in Paris,” Ramsey said.
“We have the most talented offensive team of men that the U.S. has ever had. I have confidence that they will put up quite the fight in Paris. I’d not be surprised to see us medal on both sides.”
If anyone should know, it’s Ramsey, who is chief executive of Irvine-based USA Water Polo Inc., where he hires the head coaches and oversees a program that has more than 50,000 members.
The nonprofit, which says it has “the toughest athletes in the world,” reported $16.1 million in revenue for the 12-months ended June 30, up 17%, and placing it No. 34, up six spots, on this week’s Business Journal list of the largest nonprofits in Orange County.
The Ballet Connection
Ramsey has a background that’s unusual in water polo. True, he was a water polo player in high school and at the University of Redlands and his three sons all played the sport when teenagers.
However, his career included journalism, where he worked on the “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” on PBS along with several other special series for public and commercial television, including “The Story of English and Learning in America.”
Then he joined the New York City Ballet for about a dozen years.
“Artistic people ran the ballet,” Ramsey said. “I ran the business side.”
Ramsey, who has a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Cornell University, was the editor of several books on ballet including “Tributes: Celebrating Fifty Years of New York City Ballet” and “Balanchine 100: A Commemorative Journal.”
He’s also published short fiction and poetry, and authored a play, “Two Voices,” produced by the Fitzwilliam Theater Society in Cambridge, England.
In 2006, USA Water Polo was moving from an all-volunteer organization to a formal corporate model. It asked for advice on nonprofit management from Ramsey, who was a volunteer water polo coach at a summer club in Greenwich, Conn., where he lived at the time.
The organization decided to hire Ramsey as its first CEO.
Water polo and ballet have more in common than one would expect, he said.
“They’re both international businesses,” he said during an interview with the Business Journal at his office in Irvine. “Both deal with athletes who have limited careers.
That process of working with people who are incredibly gifted but also have a fuse on how long their gifts can manifest themselves is something I’m very sensitive to. Ballet helped me better understand water polo players.”
One of the first things Ramsey did was move the organization from Colorado Springs to Orange County, first in Huntington Beach and then to Irvine about seven years ago.
“Southern California is a hotbed of water polo,” he said. “I’ve often thought that Orange County is the capital of water polo in America.”
He has two goals for the nonprofit: expand the reach of water polo in the U.S., and win medals in international competitions.
In 2009, the organization launched Splashball, a program designed to introduce water polo and safety to children ages 5 to 9.
“What I’ve learned is if you throw a yellow ball in the water, most kids will jump in and try to get it, even if they cannot swim,” Ramsey said. “They’ll learn to get water safe very quick. We would like everybody in the world to sample water polo.”
Nowadays, USA Water Polo is the national governing body for water polo in America, overseeing its United States Olympic program as well as 20 championship events annually, such as Junior Olympics and Masters National Championships.
USA Water Polo is also the sanctioning authority for more than 500 member clubs and more than 400 tournaments nationwide.
Ramsey worked on getting the sport approved at the varsity high school level in various states, such as Texas two years ago. The sport is also growing in places like Utah, Florida, Michigan and Ohio, he said. The sport’s 50,000 participants are more than double the number when became CEO.
The Junior Olympics tournament, which had 100 teams when he joined, now has almost 1,000 teams.
“It’s the biggest water polo tournament in the world,” Ramsey said. “It’s truly becoming a national sport.”
It hasn’t been a job without challenges.
Some prominent former players in 2021 started a petition that called for Ramsey’s dismissal for the way he and then Chairman Michael Graff handled allegations of sexual abuse by a coach against teenaged female players.
Ramsey said the coach was immediately suspended when the charges came forward; that coach was convicted and in January was sentenced to more than 18 years in prison.
The association, along with the club where the abuses were charged, the International Water Polo Club in Los Alamitos, settled the case in 2022 when its insurance paid $14 million.
“We have heard the plaintiffs’ testimony, and their allegations are heartbreaking,” Ramsey said in a statement at the time of the settlement. “These are young women who have grown up in the USA Water Polo family. We hope that this allows them to begin a new chapter in their lives.”
Ramsey said the petition was signed by a relatively small number of its 50,000 members and the Olympic governing body cleared the water polo entity of wrongdoing and re-certified the organization.
Nowadays, each club has athlete safety officers and athlete safety risk management plans approved by their boards. It also adopted a Minor Athlete Abuse Prevention Policy annually, approved by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, to which all members required to follow.
“We put in additional measures for athletes safety in our organization,” Ramsey said, adding that sexual abuse isn’t limited to water polo and “runs across all parts of our society.”
Goal Medal Goals
The nonprofit said its residency adds about $30 million a year to the Irvine economy. It said it will give $12 million to Irvine to build a proposed three-pool complex that’s estimated to cost around $90 million.
While Irvine has approved the project, which has been in the works for several years, Ramsey said he doesn’t expect the facility will be ready in time for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles due to funding issues at the city.
He said the organization is actively seeking to work with businesses for sponsorships and fundraisers.
In October, it announced a partnership with Dallas-based BSN Sports, a division of Varsity Brands, to provide a new custom apparel offering to the USA Water Polo Olympic Development Program in addition to select outfitting for the USAWP National Team programs.
“I really do believe that Orange County and Southern California should be incredibly proud of this water polo legacy. We have the largest water polo tournament in the world. We are deeply respected around the world.”
Title 9, Size, Speed Aid US Medal Chances
In 2009, USA Water Polo Inc. launched an official Olympic Development Program to track 3,500 athletes who are introduced to high-performance methods and may be identified to participate in elite-level training and competition opportunities.
Earlier last month, the men and women’s teams dominated the Pan American Games, winning almost all its games by more than 10 goals.
USA Water Polo Chief Executive Chris Ramsey credited the impact of Title 9 for making the women’s team so dominant in water polo.
“The women’s team is successful because the NCAA is the best women’s league in the world,” Ramsey said. “More and more women from other countries are trying to get into colleges and play.”
On the men’s side, Ramsey in 2013 hired Dejan Udovicic, who was the former head coach of the Serbian national team.
Udovicic’s first move was to get taller players—usually at least 6’5” and more than 220 pounds, Ramsey said. Each member of the starting lineup can swim 100 yards in under 46 seconds.
“Part of what makes our current team quite a threat is that we’re incredibly fast,” he said.
Udovicic also arranged for 22 Americans to play in the professional European leagues where the best players can earn more than 150,000 euros a year. The team’s center, 6’6”, 245-pound Ben Hallock, is currently the starting center for Italy’s Pro Recco, which Ramsey said is the No. 1 team in the world.
“What’s catapulted us is taking these players and placing them in Europe,” Ramsey said.
“They’re playing in pro leagues against the best in the world. Now when we come up against them in international competitions, they’re not afraid of them anymore.”