Hello everyone. Me again with another amazing interview for all of you. As you all know by now, I usually start my interviews with some sorts of an intro, but for the first time I really didn’t know how to start this interview. I feel that whatever I write will not be nearly as brilliant as the idea that our today’s guest has put into fruition. I have never met Mr. Ivan Vranješ although we come from the same club, and more importantly we are both just two kids from Zenta. Zenta is the home pool of our alma mater Pošk.
Personally, I think that the Water polo Cruise (WPC) is one of the best ideas ever conjured up by anyone in any sport. Its so simple and to the point that you can either be in awe, or just be jealous. To quote master Yoda. Indifferent you will be not. I guess that you don’t need to be Einstein to come with this idea, but I am pretty sure that you almost have to be Einstein to make it work. Ivan lives and operates from USA. American way of doing business is a bit different then how we in Europe do business. So without any further ado lets jump right into the water with this one.
Greetings Ivan. I hope your family and you are okay and doing well. Before we start with the obvious questions could you please explain our readers just how magical Zenta really is. Could you explain our readers what makes Zenta so special and magical.
– Tomo, first of all I would like to thank you for this opportunity to talk about water polo and our project. When you talk about water polo then certainly you can’t but mention Croatia and Split. After all Split is the birthplace of water polo in Croatia and it is a ground zero for the sport in the region. Therefore, all of the pools in Split could be iconic in a way since they have produced so many players and coaches that have influenced our sport. For me Zenta is absolutely special and magical place as you have mentioned. Just like you, I have some of the best childhood memories from that pool and around that pool. The relationships and friendships forged at that pool have definitely shaped who I am today. When you talk about Zenta and POŠK then you have to mention some of the legends that came out of there. Bebić, Lušić, Kaurloto, Rebić, Sarić, Oreb and of course Mateo Jurić. Mateo is my partner in crime and I, sort of, followed his footsteps to the United States. But let’s not forget other legendary places like Danče beach. That is our favorite stop when we visit Dubrovnik. We used to stay in Dubrovnik for couple of days and we would bring our teams to play there. Now, we just stop by during our tour of Dubrovnik for a quick dip and the coldest (and cheapest) beer in Dubrovnik. At night we take the team to Mlini or Cavtat (another legendary place) for a game against the local teams.
Now you live in California. When did you moved there and why did you stayed? Your wife is also Croatian. How does she like it in California? Did you two meet before you went to California, or have you two embarked on that adventure together? I presume that all of your kids were born there?
– I came to California in 1997. Couple of years prior I was playing with POŠK (Slobodna Dalmacija) and since the club was looking to make top results, they were bringing in some of the top players (Dudo Šimens and Deni Lušić where the first additions and then Alen Bošković, Barać, Burburan and Đogas came in). That didn’t leave much room for the younger players in the club. My choices were either to stay with the club or to move on. I decided to move on. I told my parents that I will try school overseas for one year. That one year is now 23 years later. It was a good decision because I wouldn’t be who I am right now if I didn’t take that leap of faith. I wouldn’t be able to meet my lovely wife and we wouldn’t have our beautiful three children. You are right, my wife is Croatian, but she is born and raised in California. And so are our children.
Do your kids have wishes, or plans to play water polo professionally? What would you say to your kids if they come to you and say that they want to go and play water polo somewhere in Europe for 1000 euros a month and a meal a day? How have you integrated water polo into your parenting?
– My kids are still young and I don’t know what their plans are. But whatever they are I will support them equally. My parents didn’t push me into sport, it was purely my decision, and I will not do that for my kids either. If they choose water polo and look to play on the pro level (whatever that means) I will encourage them. Money is not the most important thing in life. As long as they find something that will fulfill their life and make them a better person. I am glad that I have stayed in water polo as a coach because that did help me with my parenting skills. It is true when they say that kids don’t come with the instructions. You figure out things on the fly. But I would say that is the same when you are dealing with people in general. Every person is different and there’s no one size fits all approach. As a coach you quickly figure out that any generalization stops with the individual.
And now the question that we all have been waiting for. I want to know everything. And I mean everything. When did you got struck by lighting and decided to combine cruising with water polo?
– Idea for this cruise is something that was destined to happen. It was fall of 2013 and we were in Las Vegas relaxing by the pool of our condo. Mateo Jurić, my partner and co-founder of WPC, was living in Vegas with his family for a few years already. We were just there for the weekend. Mateo already owned a sail boat in Croatia that he was chartering and he had very good insight. After a few beers our conversation moved in that direction and Mateo suggested that we invest in a boat. However, that idea very quickly died because both of us don’t know much about boats, even though he owned one. Since we were involved in water polo all of our lives, as players, coaches and parents, we naturally came up with the idea of organizing water polo trip on the boat. When we were younger, we played summer league and we would travel with the boat to these small island towns. That experience stuck with us and we wanted to share it with the rest of the world. I was already working on the inflatable fields for a few years and I had one field ready-made sitting in my garage. My idea was always that water polo doesn’t have to be in the pool but that we should be able to play it anywhere. We live on the blue planet covered with water after all. That is why I have created a water polo field that is portable and also sturdy enough to be placed in the sea or ocean. Naturally that water polo field is immediately included in our idea. First, we wanted to go with maybe two catamarans where we would be able to fit about 16-20 people or about one team with coaches. Quickly we realized that we are making the mistake. That mistake was that we have overlooked the parents and family, the most important part. We looked back and we realized that all of the experiences that we had with this sport, games, camps, tournaments didn’t include parents. They included them only in the way of financing and organizing. While I was coaching, I was really admiring parents and just how much they do for their kids. So, we decided that we should do something that would include the whole family, but still be water polo related. We have found a mini cruiser yacht (it wasn’t easy to do and we got lucky) and we have started to advertise. By the November of 2013 we already had one team signed up. We didn’t really want any more teams because we didn’t know how would all of this turn out. After that first cruise we were amazed how good it was. Both of us grew up in Croatia and played in the sea, and we traveled on the boat from island to island before, but after this experience we were so amazed that we knew we are on to something. After that we were just growing every year as we were also expanding additional activities for the family members. We always wanted to be more than just water polo. And here we are today.
I was also blessed to have played one summer league on the Dalmatian coast. Traveling the islands, playing water polo and really enjoying life. I must do a shout out to VK Omiš from a town called Omiš. I think that they are also one of the destinations that WPC visits on its tours. It really was an amazing experience playing for VK Omiš. I would recommend to anyone who really really loves water polo to take one summer out of their lives and come to play the summer league on the Dalmatian coast. Before we continue with questions about WPC, could you tell me more about the inflatable water polo field that you have been developing. How does one develop an inflatable water polo field? Why were you developing it in the first place? Were you trying to make some money with it, or did you had extra place in your garage which you had to fill up with something haha?
– At the time we were playing Beach water Polo in Newport almost every Sunday until Ocean got too cold. A friend of ours John Dobrott lived close to the ocean where we played and we would roll out water polo field out of his garage. He had a cool set up with goals and lane lines but it wasn’t really that simple to set everything up and then dismantle it and take it back to his house. So, I thought there’s got to be a better way. At the same time, I was coaching the young kids at the Newport Water polo Club and I thought it would be really cool to create something fun for the kids. Then, I came up with this inflatable field with very thick vinyl tubes that looked really cool. At the time we were trying to grow the numbers in the club and we just started a Water Polo School for kids from 7 to 10 years old. We had to recruit them and take them away from the swim club. And this was the way to reel them in. We would let them play on the field. Because of the big tubes they were able just to jump on those tubes and on the goals and just have fun without me yelling at them to get off the lane line, or a goal. So, the second one I designed and created was a design that would be able to go in the ocean even with a small surf. So, that was the field that was in my garage when we were talking about creating a Water Polo Cruise. It was the perfect timing and like I said it was destined to happen.
Ahaaa. Okay. Now back to WPC. When I read your answer, to be honest, I was expecting a much more complex answer. It just can’t be that easy and so simple to organize a Water polo cruise. Could you tell us if your partner and you ever went through a phase when you thought about giving up on this idea, or was it always smooth sailing?
– We go through our phases all the time. It’s like in every relationship, you have ups and downs. And it’s like in every business, you have your ups and downs. but I think the reason why we work together so well is that we are very alike, we are not quitters. We are no strangers to adversity, and challenges that we have in front of us we don’t see as an obstacle but rather as something that will make our business even stronger, if we manage to get over it.
According to my research you are the only one who has developed this type of business inside of our beautiful game. I think that it’s a matter of time before someone copies your idea. Do you have any fear of competition?
– We already have seen attempts of people trying to copy our experience. We are not afraid of competition. Competition breeds excellence. After all we have to compete against all of these camps and other travel programs that are out there for water polo teams. So, in a sense we are already competing. If this was easy to do it and simple to set it up, I’m pretty sure that people would already be doing it. However, I didn’t see anybody so far that is crazy enough to do what we do. We do it because we love it.
As of now we can safely say that your partner and you have found and developed a business niche that is a certified Brand within our water polo community. Do you think that you can build a franchise from it? You have already conquered the Adriatic sea. Do you plan using your brand to conquer any other seas, or maybe even oceans?
– We would love to expand to other places. The whole idea of my inflatable field was to play in the ocean in the first place. I have already had some expressed interest from my friends from other places. The questions that I usually have are; can you do it the same way that we do it here in Croatia? Do you have crystal clear sea that is warm and pleasant with no waves? Do you have boats that can accommodate people in the same way we do? Do you have 1100 islands you can choose from and everyday be at the different place? Do you have water polo programs on those islands that can accommodate our teams? Usually the answer on all of these questions is no. I’m sure that we will expand our brand somehow but it cannot be in the same way as we are doing it right now. Croatia and the Adriatic Sea is the only place in the world where you can do this.
As of now you are only bringing youth players with their families. Do you think that the time will come when a team like Pro Recco, or Jug will rent your cruise ship and do some sort of training camp with the facilities that you have?
– Not true. We had teams from 10 to 65+. The youngest guest was 2 months old (he wasn’t a water polo player yet) and I am not sure about the oldest one. We can accommodate any team and any age group. Our cruise is completely customizable. I think teams like Pro Recco or Jug can really benefit from the cruise like ours, especially before the season. Our cruise would be great even for the national teams as a form of a team-building. But what people don’t understand is that you can have very good training camp organized on our cruise. Not just in the form of team building but also in a form of physical building. We do many other activities on the cruise on a daily basis. We do a lot of hiking, open water swimming, kayaking, paddle boarding and resistance training. With our inflatable field, we are able to set it up in the secluded coves where nobody can bother you. There you can work on all of the elements of the game in peace and quiet. We have a large salon for the team meetings and with the TV that we usually hook up to the computer for the presentation. But since the beginning, my dream was always to organize a game between Italy and Croatia in the middle of the Adriatic to see who is the real king of Adriatic. Imagine a boat with water polo field in the middle of the Adriatic Sea and two of the best national teams playing against each other. What would that exposure do for our sport? We can easily organize this, so if Croatia and Italy already we are ready too.
King of the Adriatic. I must say. It does have a ring to it. Are you working on any other projects now, or does WPC take too much of your time?
– My day to day operations are with my family and with my construction business. If you are asking what’s next, then if you know me, you would know that I’m always working on something. Water Polo Cruise is still growing and I hope that it will evolve into something more than just another water polo trip. My idea is that eventually we will have national teams working with us since this concept is perfect for team building. We were even toying with the idea of international tournament: “Tour of Adriatic”. Teams would live on the boat during the tournament and play against each other in the towns and cities that we visit. They would practice in the secluded cove during the day and everything would be filmed, much like the reality TV. Kind of like the “Below Deck” show but water polo version. When you are on the boat you can have as much, or as little control over your team. We are able to customize our trip to suit any team or any age group. In addition, we have created educational materials that we use. This is the website that I am working on sporadically as the time permits (www.WaterPoloSchool.net). I have created many eLearning modules and articles to help players and coaches. In addition to that there’s a game analysis program that I call “Water Polo Code”. It is a very useful tool to follow the game analytics and what is even more interesting is that it works with the video recordings and it can be integrated with YouTube. I have picked YouTube because it is very simple and it’s free to use. There other game analysis programs out there that you can use but they charge too much and this mainly for hosting your videos. Last couple of years I was also working on couple of books that we use on our cruise. First one is the collaboration with Mr. Zoran Kačić, “Program And Work Of The Youth Water Polo Clubs” (https://www.amazon.com/Program-Work-Youth-Water-Clubs/dp/1702770419/). This cooperation started when Mr. Kačić came to California to work on some camps that we have organized to promote his book about water polo goalkeepers, that you probably know about already (https://www.amazon.com/Water-Polo-Goalkeeper-Zoran-Kacic/dp/1979421005/).
While he was here, he saw that I am working on something that is equivalent to what he was doing. He shared his book in Croatian that he just finished and we have agreed that I will translate it and adopt it to the American system of work. Although I am not big fan of chronological grouping of athletes, I do believe that we need to have some structure in place to give coaches some kind of outline on how to work with the young athletes. It is much like curriculum that any kind of school has and yet you don’t see that in the water polo clubs. Not just in America but throughout the world. So, this book is exactly that. It is curriculum for the youth clubs. For example, my son played water polo in Southern California for one of the better-known clubs. They would constantly be making coaching changes and most of these coaches were college kids that were trying to teach young boys the same skills that they use in college. To be honest with you, it was very hard to watch how they struggle and kids, not only were not improving, but they were getting discouraged to play water polo. I have asked the head coach if he had any kind of plan that he can share it with me. He said no. This is very typical that young coaches are thrown in the fire without any kind of tools or skill sets. I would often sit on the bleachers and draw an inspiration from watching those practices. Then I would write an article about it and post it on the website. From those ideas I started to compile a water polo handbook that I called “The Way of Dalmatian”. It is an outline of my philosophy on water polo which, after I have analyzed it, comes from learning water polo in Dalmatia. What is the secret of longevity of the programs in Dalmatian region? When you look at it, most of the clubs are financially fragile and always on the brink of extinction but somehow, they always survive and, what is surprising, they are always producing quality players. This is something that was interesting to me and with growing up there at maybe the worst time (during the war) I could find the parallels and maybe answer some of these questions. First answer is water polo culture that was passed on from generation to generation since the start of water polo at Bačvice beach. I certainly have to thank one of my first- and long-time coach, Miro Trumbić, for bringing me up in that culture and for developing many other young players there. That is why on our cruise we have Višeslav Sarić, Mario Oreb and Aljoša Kunac who were a part of that “old school” generation as our guest coaches. Currently I am working on the second installment of “The Way of Dalmatian” book where I will follow the water polo in Dalmatia from the beginning and throughout times with connection to modern day sport science. This way I would try to answer the old question that I hear all the time (and quite honestly, I am being tired of it): “Why are Croatian players so good?” There’s too much and too early of specialization in our sport. We need to look at the long-term gains not just short term. This way we will keep athletes and coaches longer involved in the sport. There’s also problem of exclusivity. I do hear a lot from the people: “who is this Ivan Vranješ or Mateo Jurić”? Maybe we were not Olympians with medals, or well-known professional players. However, we are long enough in the sport to know enough, to see what needs to be done. When you look at any organization you can see that many of them are comprised of the well-known water polo players but with very little experience in the real world. I am also old enough to understand that if you were a good player it doesn’t mean that you will automatically be a good coach. Even if you were blessed enough to play under the best coach in the world. When we create culture of inclusivity and not only looking at the association then we will be able to make some progress.
How do you see the differences between European and American way of running sports and running Water polo within the sports world? Could you do a certain comparison between the two?
– I think that in a sense I have answered that in the above part. To me there’s no difference how you should run the sport. It’s up to your customers to decide and that will determine your bottom line. Technical part should be same everywhere. Like I said, there needs to be curriculum set and plan and program created in every club. Only then you can follow the progress, look at the metrics and see how the program is running. Without the plan set you are just comparing apples and oranges and you are not getting a clear picture. Financially speaking it’s up to the club to figure it out. Here in California you can easily tell which club will thrive and survive and which one will live shortly. Clubs are business like any other and it is expected that you provide best service possible. And coaches are their face of the business. However, many clubs are taking the easy route with less financial burden especially if they are startup. The mistake that they make is that they pay their coaches on the hourly base. Even if you are able to attract the good coach to your club that coach will not going to stay there for long, or he/she will not work as much because there’s no incentive to do more. Coaching is more than just showing up to practice for couple of hours. If coach is not compensated it will not work. Most of the quality coaches stay for a little while but then move on. I call this a “rent a coach” syndrome. This way you attract “transactional” coaches that will only do as much as they are paid. Parents and kids see this and often they chose to move to the other clubs which creates these super clubs that just take over valuable pool space. As I mentioned before, parents are the ones you have to cater to. If they see that you are doing a good job, they will reward you. Most of the parents would do anything for their kids. However, if you do them wrong then you are in for a wild ride that you will often lose. But then there’s another problem that you encounter in the public sector. Most of the colleges and high schools are not letting coaches earn as much as they can because any extra payment is violation of CIF or NCAA rules. Even if the parents are willing to pay them more. Most of the pools here are public pools within colleges and schools which makes it very hard to get any pool space if you are not affiliated with the school. In the places where water polo is able to grow its usually stifled by the governing bodies. In my experience these are the main reasons why this sport is not growing as it should be. At least in California where all of the numbers and statistics are telling us that water polo should be one of the better-known sports. There is a huge loss of talent and loss of people involved in water polo.
So according to you the way the Hungary runs its Water polo is wrong? Where do we draw the line between government involvement in a certain sport and letting the market create healthy business’?
– European system is much different than American. In some places works and in others doesn’t. I can’t say that Hungarian way of running water polo is wrong. I mean, look at their accomplishments. You can’t deny that they are doing a good job. Is that system going to work in Croatia? Probably not. Just like every individual is different, it’s the same with the countries. Whatever works there it doesn’t mean it will work here. I will repeat it again: every generalization stops with the individual. It is same with the societies as well. Now, can we learn something from these different countries? Absolutely! The question is how much government involvement is there in the Hungarian water polo? Does Hungarian government control every aspect of the sport, or is it just subsidizing some of the sport? Better question is: what is government? When you say government then most of the people think that it is some kind abstract entity that is controlling everything. Hungarian government are Hungarian people and if they decide that they want to subsidize water polo I say good for them. If any other country wants more financial help then they should petition their people to make it happen. I am sure that Hungarian success is not just because of the government help. There are many more things involved. Many people don’t know but Hungarian water polo was in a crisis after the boycott of Los Angeles Olympics and it took them a while to get out of it. But when they did, they have created the dynasty (millennium team). So yes, I am for free market and freedom to do whatever you want within your own society. I don’t think that some kind of blanket policy within EU regarding sports or water polo would be good. It easy to take the position of victim and have that victim mentality blaming everyone and everything for not succeeding. I hear a lot, especially here, how people are fed up with these Europeans winning all the time. Since 2000 all of the gold medals came from Hungary, Croatia and Serbia. For FINA and many other people this is a problem. Why? I don’t see a problem in this. If you are American, Australian, Italian, German and you think this is a problem then do something about it. Grow water polo in your own neighborhood. Work with your athletes. Improve conditions. And ultimately win a gold medal. But don’t complain that Hungarians are cheating because their government invested in water polo. All of these attempts to artificially grow the sport are useless. They are just waste of resources and time. We had WC in South Korea. How is that working out? Are the numbers up in south Korea? I loved the organization of 2017 WC in Budapest. That was the best organized water polo event to this date. To be honest with you, if Hungarians are willing, I would give them organization of every major water polo event until other countries start doing the better job. Why would you take the sport somewhere where it’s non existent and take it from the place where it’s celebrated? We need to start holding all of the countries that are complaining accountable and start asking them: How is water polo doing at your home?
I must say that that was a bloody brilliant answer. Applause. And now the last question. Do you have a lot of people who want to experience WPC, but for a cheaper price because you are big big friends all of a sudden haha?
– We are always ready to help our friends. That is why we have our good friends like Vija, Mario and Aljo as coaches and guests. I have to mention one friend that was always supportive and that was with us from the beginning of our journey, Dubravko “Dudo” Šimenc. He is a true promoter and an ambassador of our sport and is always ready to help. And yes, we get a lot of calls and requests and if we are able, we make it happen. Are you just asking for a friend or maybe asking for yourself?
I am just asking for a friend of a friend and his wife haha. Thank you for your time Ivan. We from dance.hr wish to your family, to your business partners and to you personally all the best in all of your future endeavors. It was a privilege and a pleasure to do this interview with you.
– Thank you for the opportunity and your support. It is really appreciated, not only by me but by our families and friends. A thousand times thank you!
And there you have it Ladies and Gents. Another amazing interview. I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have. Stay safe, google Dalmatia, book a flight for the next summer and start training. Because we Dalmatians, we don’t mess around haha.