Natalie Golda’s Guide to Watching Water Polo

The silver medalist tells you all you need to know about her sport

Natalie Golda-main.jpg
Natalie Golda looks to pass the ball during a preliminary round water polo match at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Nick Laham/Getty Images

Introducing the Expert

Name: Natalie Golda
Games and Medals: Athens 2004 (Bronze); Beijing 2008 (Silver)
Key Quote: “The game always presents different scenarios and you have to read each situation as it comes. I also love the physicality. You have to be smart, but you have to be fit and tough as well.”
Favorite Olympic Moment: “Walking in the Opening Ceremonies and standing on the medals podium are memories and feelings I will never forget.”


Cap - the funny hat players wear. The cap protects a player’s ears from any kind of impact (fist, elbow, foot), dictates what team you are on (light or dark), and shows your number for the referees.

Tank/Course - our field of play (the pool)

Goal – At either end of the tank is a goal, 3 meters wide and 0.9 meters tall, floating on the water.

Ball – The ball weighs 400 grams to 450 grams. The circumference of the ball used in women’s games is slightly smaller than the one used by men.


Turn - On offense, you may “turn” a defender either by using her momentum against her or by using your off-arm to hold and spin to gain an inside water advantage.

Stunt/Gap - On defense, if you wanted to slow down an attacking offensive player on the counter-attack, you may “stunt” or “gap.” It is a fake out; you pretend like you are going to go at the offensive player. The motion stops that player from moving forward and allows your teammates time to close in to help.


1. Weak - When a player is open on the opposite side of the pool, you yell “weak” to get the attention of the player with the ball and make them pass it to the open player.

2. Hockey Sub - You can substitute during play if the player that needs to come out swims to the penalty box; the new player can then swim into the field of play.

3. Donut/Bunny - When the shooter shoots the ball in between the goalie’s arms directly over the goalie’s head.


Fouls - One whistle is an ordinary foul. Ordinary fouls, usually made by the defense, are not added up and counted against you like in basketball. Two whistles indicate an offensive foul, meaning the offensive player did something illegal to gain an unfair offensive advantage. The ball immediately turns over to the defense. Three whistles means there has been an exclusion/ejection. Similar to hockey, the offending player has to sit in the ejection box for 20 seconds, and the offensive team gets a 6x5 advantage.

In basketball, a player holding the ball can get fouled; in water polo, the offensive player must let go of the ball in order to draw a foul. While the player is holding the ball, the defense can do almost anything short of dunking or punching a player, but once the offensive player releases the ball, the defense must let go and get off of the offensive player in order to avoid a foul being called.

Defenders sometimes sink or hold back an opponent, especially to take away a scoring opportunity, but this warrants a major foul. Three major fouls per game (20 seconds in the penalty box each time) and you are out.

Game Changers

2004 - In Athens, the women had to play on a 30-meter-long course, which is usually reserved for men. For 2008, the women’s course was switched back to its traditional 25 meters.

2005 - In most sports, whoever touches the ball last before it goes out of bounds stays on defense, and the offensive team retains possession. However, in water polo, thanks to a rule change in 2005, if the field player (any defensive player other than the goalie) tips the ball out of play on a deflected shot or pass, that defensive team takes over possession. If the goalie tips the ball out of play, the offense retains possession.

2008 - Prior to the 2008 Olympics, when an offensive player was fouled, she would always have to “get live” by passing the ball to a teammate and getting it back before she took a shot on goal. Now, if she is outside the 5-meter marker, she may shoot the ball directly after she is fouled, but it must be in one fluid motion with no fakes or hesitation.

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