Genai Kerr has built quite a following in the water polo world as a big man with an even bigger personality. Standing 6’8 with a 7’1 wing span, Genai dominated the sport, earning All-American honors and Big West Male Scholar Athlete of the year while playing under Ted Newland at UC Irvine. He transitioned to the United States’ National Water Polo team and competed in dozens of international competitions, including multiple World Championships and a role as the starting goalkeeper for the 2004 Olympics Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. His national team career spanned over a decade before he retired in 2010.
Over the course of your career, you spent a good amount of time playing in Europe. What was that like?
Well it was a lot of fun… in Eastern Europe especially, just because the sport’s so big there. It’s actually the national sport of a number of those countries. You can go to a club game with six to seven thousand people in attendance, all screaming. I really thrive off of that. And, being the first African American water polo player to play with the United States, I was seen as a bit of a novelty. I remember in Italy when I still had my dreadlocks, the crowd would sing Bob Marley during games. It was an experience. Prior to the 2009 World Championships in Rome we had a tournament in Montenegro. Each time I made a block, fans would yell “Kobe” or “Obama”. Definitely a different kind of energy.
There’s such a passion for the game overseas, why do you think the sport hasn’t picked up in the United States?
Americans are not familiar with water polo. It’s a sport that can be difficult to understand without having actually played since the majority of the action is underwater. I have a friend involved in developing underwater robotics that’s rolling out a system that will broadcast above and below water action simultaneously. They’re introducing it in Serbia and other parts of Europe where it’s already televised and popular.
So there’s this perception that Olympians are built in a lab or molded since childhood. Were you raised with a water polo ball in your hand?
Oh no, not at all. I’d never even heard of the sport until my sophomore year of high school. Basketball and other land sports were my passion until that point.
How were you first introduced to the sport?
I attended Chula Vista High School’s School of Creative and Preforming Arts magnet program. One day, I was getting off the school bus and heard whistles, so I figured there was a basketball game going on. I went to check it out, but saw that it was coming from the pool instead. I peeked my head in; it looked interesting enough. But honestly, I still didn’t even know what it was called at that point. It wasn’t until the next day that I thought to ask about it. It was mid-season, but I decided to try out for the team.
How was that first practice?
I had always been comfortable in the water because I spent part of my childhood living in Jamaica where my father was a spear fisherman. But water polo conditioning was unlike anything I’d ever experienced and definitely took some adjusting to. I actually got a few of my basketball buddies to try out with me. Walking onto the pool deck, you could tell the coach was excited to see a bunch of tall, athletic looking kids wanting to join. We jumped in, had a nice time. We were hit with a bit of a shock when, halfway through practice, we were moved from the shallow end to the deep end and realized we wouldn’t be able to touch. My friend – who ended up being 7’1 – got out and walked home dripping wet. But I stayed. There were a few more things I’d need to adjust to. I came in wearing these big baggy basketball shorts so the speedos definitely took some getting used to [laughs]. But like I said, I was stubborn and up for the challenge. So I stuck with it for the rest of the season.
What kind of an impact did transferring to Coronado High School and playing under Randy Burgess have on your career?
It was a whole new level of the sport. At the time that I joined in, the team was ranked number 2 in the country and had rattled off a number of CIF Championships. Coach Burgess was critical in my reaching my potential. Whereas before I had relied almost totally on my athleticism, Randy taught me fundamentals and discipline. I learned a lot and was very proud to earn “Most Improved” on the team.
How was the college recruiting process?
Well, I was initially being recruited by basketball coaches, but I was recognized by water polo coaches when they would come to games to recruit my more experienced teammates. A few of them thought that I had potential, but it wasn’t until my recruiting trip to UC Irvine that I was set in my decision to play water polo. I was attracted to the camaraderie of the guys on the team and everyone’s dedication to continued improvement. I was able to play for a legendary coach – Ted Newland – who went on to become the winningest coach in the sport’s history and inducted into the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame. I was surrounded by motivated student athletes who were willing to put in extremely long hours, even after practice, to achieve their goals.
So, in today’s game all goals count as only one point. But there was a three year window – that just happened to coincide with your college days – where any shot behind the seven meter line counted as two. What did you think about the rule and how would you feel about bringing it back?
Well, the game could change in a matter of seconds. Some of my fondest memories come from shots that I made as a goalie. Hearing Jovan Vavic [the legendary USC Coach] yell at his team after I scored a two pointer from the other goal was really satisfying [laughs]. I remember scoring another one against Berkeley in a game we went on to win by a single goal. I don’t know about bringing it back, but it did make things pretty damn exciting.
What have been the highlights of your Olympic career?
The moment we actually qualified for the Olympics by winning the gold medal in the Pan American games in Santo Domingo was just surreal. You’ve got to understand too, through that process, five of the thirteen people who qualified for the team were teammates of mine at UCI. Omar Amr (my best friend and biggest influence), Dan Klatt, Jeff Powers, and Ryan Bailey were all on that team in 2004 with me. So the whole thing was really just unbelievable.
Any low points?
I’ve been blessed to have had the career I’ve had, but you really feel useless when you’re injured. I was lucky that I didn’t have many, but it’s still a horrible feeling to be helpless and unable to contribute.
So was the Olympic Village all it’s cracked up to be?
Well… the actual structure of the place was nothing special. Obviously anyone can go to a resort and other places like that that would blow your socks off, but what made the Village so special was being around – literally – the top athletes in the world. Meeting people who understand exactly how hard you’ve trained and how dedicated you are to your sport fosters a kind of camaraderie that’s hard to replicate. Everyone’s excited, everyone’s focused. Everyone understands what it takes to reach your goals. Setting all that inspirational stuff aside for a second… that cafeteria was amazing. Just imagine going into a Costco-sized restaurant where everything is free. I met people from all other the world and made a lot of new friends. So yeah, I’d definitely say it’s all it’s cracked up to be. It’s impossible to recreate that atmosphere.
Going back to basketball, who would you call water polo’s “Michael Jordan”?
I don’t know if there’s one guy who’s distanced himself the way MJ did, but Tony Azevedo could be in the running. He’s one of the best players in the world and probably the closest from a marketing standpoint.
Who’s the best player you’ve ever gone up against?
I’ve played against so many amazing athletes, but one that particularly stands out is Tamás Kásás. He’s retired now, but won three gold medals for Hungary from 2000-2008. Not only was he 6’7, but he was very fluid and could do things that other athletes just couldn’t. He had a great awareness and was incredible at elevating and maintaining high position in the water. You also come across athletes like Wolf Wigo for the US, who have dedicated so much time to perfecting the little skills and micromovements that obviously you aren’t born with but really have to take time to perfect. I really respect him as an athlete and competitor.
One last question! You’ve got a billion dollars on the line. You can choose anyone in the world to take a five-meter penalty shot. Who do you take?
Oh man, I’m taking that one myself [laughs]. I mean, as a competitor, that’s the way you have to think. But I do have lots of experience shooting them as well as years and years of reading other goalkeepers. If you take out swimming and transition time, I’d definitely count myself among the top shooters in the world.
Thanks so much!
Any time, take care.
If you have any questions for Mark, you can reach him on Twitter @Mlaturno.