Water Polo.. in the Midwest?

by Gabrielle Madewell, Contributing Writer

McKendree University’s men’s and women’s water polo programs have turned 1 as of this 2017-2018 school year. The person responsible for making the program’s first year successful is Colleen Lischwe, head women’s water polo coach and assistant men’s water polo coach.


Like many Universities nation-wide, McKendree heavily prides itself on having very successful and well known athletic teams in the Midwest region. While the school has a variety of different teams offered, a total of 34 men’s and women’s teams, this school year marks the one year anniversary of a unique addition to the athletic department: Men and Women’s Water Polo.

Most U.S. water polo teams in the United States are located in California. To put that into perspective, out of the 510 registered USA Water Polo club teams, Missouri has 5 club teams, and Illinois has 10 club teams, mostly located in the Chicago area. McKendree University has the only varsity water polo program in the entire state of Illinois.

While water polo is a rarity in the Midwest, that doesn’t mean the region doesn’t develop great players and coaches. Colleen Lischwe, McKendree’s interim head women’s water polo coach and assistant men’s water polo coach, has been playing and coaching water polo for over a decade. She has coached high school teams, club programs within the St. Louis area, and Olympic Development Program (ODP) camps for the Midwest Zone.

Lischwe began playing water polo the summer before her freshman year of high school on a dare from a close friend. “His club team hosted a ‘take your friend to practice’ day and he brought me as a joke.” She was the only girl there and ended up doing pretty well matched up against the male players. She said that her and her teammates had a bet going on who was going to be in the starting lineup come their first season, and she made it.

Lischwe has won numerous awards for both playing and coaching. Some of her awards include Missouri State Female Water Polo Player of the Year from 2005 to 2007, Missouri Water Polo 2007 All-State Team Recognition, and 2017 CWPA Midwest Division Coach of the Year for McKendree University, making her the only female to ever be recognized on an all-state team in Missouri.

After being a highly appreciated and recognized player in high school, she began meeting college coaches from her experiences playing ODP and going to camps around the country.  In college, she played DI water polo for Marist College, a private liberal arts school, located in New York. “I ultimately ended up at Marist because it gave me the opportunity to play DI polo right away and get just what I needed in the classroom” she said.

Lischwe played for Marist her freshman and sophomore years of college until ultimately she decided that while the school provided her with a great opportunity for water polo, she was left unsatisfied with the education she was receiving. “I finished up at SLU and I spent three years there, did an extra lap.”

In college, Lischwe received her degree in Environmental Science and Sociology. Upon graduation, Lischwe started working at an animal hospital. Since she thoroughly enjoyed her experience working at the animal hospital, she didn’t feel it was necessary to try and jump into other career opportunities, so instead, she started volunteering with the company Fair Shares.

Fair Shares is a local company, connecting farmers with one another in the St. Louis area. The company is dedicated to helping farmers receive a fair market price for what they’ve grown as well as connecting growers with other local businesses to improve the variety and quality of local products in St. Louis. “Because I liked it so much, I worked really hard volunteering until they offered me a full time job, so it kind of just fell into my lap.”

Even though she has moved on to a new career, Lischwe still dedicates the free time she has on weekends and days off from her new full time job of coaching college athletes to help volunteer at Fair Shares. “I’ve always had an interest in sustainable environment and food and I think that it’s really important that what I put into my body is good for me and good for the environment.”

Lischwe said working with different farmers has shaped her idea of what it means to work hard “One of my favorite stories from a farmer is there was a period during the summer of a huge drought and he was working literally around the clock to keep his crop watered so it wouldn’t dry out so he was setting sprinklers in the field and laying down where the sprinklers started and sleeping in the field and he knew to wake up and move the sprinkler when it hit him. I think that sums up what I think is the most important part about doing something you love and you’re passionate about. It shows you that hard work is worth it and it pays off.”

Whether she was working towards earning her degree in college or working a fulltime job, Lischwe never took a break from coaching. “In some fashion, whether it’s my full time job or a hobby, I do plan to coach as long as possible,” she said.  Helping start the first girls program in the St. Louis area is something Lischwe will always look back on as one of her greatest achievements.

Lischwe recognizes that water polo in the midwest is very new and accordingly has set growing its popularity as her goal. “Having grown up playing with both men and women, I know what it’s like to be a high schooler and not have a women’s team to participate on.” she said. Through recruiting college level athletes from the coasts, she sees an opportunity to bring that west coast style of play and popularity of the sport out to the midwest, “especially for women. We’re lucky to have a women’s varsity team so close by.”


Lischwe (right) coaches alongside new head men’s water polo coach for McKendree University, Ryan Hall (left). (Photo courtesy of McKendree University)

As for her coaching style, Lischwe said she has learned how different athletes have different learning styles. For her, being yelled at by a coach was the most beneficial way for her learn a new play, but she recognizes that that’s not how every athlete learns effectively.  “As a coach, my relationships with athletes are so important and each athlete I coach teaches me something new about the sport and how I play or instruct. The way I see it, coaches are some of the most influential people in the lives of young athletes.”

As for her presence in the McKendree’s athletic department, Lischwe was originally hired on as a graduate assistant and an assistant coach for both Men’s and Women’s teams. She said, “I came into this atmosphere working with one specific coach that I knew very well and planned on coaching with and learning with a lot from. Unfortunately he’s no longer with this program, which is okay, because now I have the opportunity to work with an amazingly knowledgeable coach who is now the head coach for the men’s team.”

This meant that last season Lischwe, originally hired on as just the assistant coach, was having to form practice plans, recruit for future seasons, run practices, schedule games, and travel for tournaments completely alone. “It was probably the worst part of this job. I never knew how much went into this collegiate coaching, but I came out of it alive and learned a lot” she said.

Victoria Jones, a sophomore on the women’s water polo team said, “She’s a great coach, especially with being put in the position she was put in last year.” While both the men’s and women’s teams recognize the hard work Colleen put in last year, practices this season seems to be going a lot smoother, according to Jones.

Overall, having coaches like Lischwe will without a doubt benefit the water polo community in the Midwest area. “My athletes have taught me to loosen up, joke around, and when it’s time, to work hard. Right now, I am coaching athletes from age 7 to age 22 on a weekly basis and not a day goes by that they don’t make me laugh.”

Colleen Lischwe, Head Women’s Water Polo Coach at McKendree University, played DI water polo from 2008 to 2009 at Marist College. (Photo courtesy of Colleen Lischwe)

One thought on “Water Polo.. in the Midwest?

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  1. This is an amazing article! It’s weird how Illinois isn’t known for waterpolo at all.

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