Water polo star Messan Moore, during an international competition in Poland.
Water polo star Messan Moore, during an international competition in Poland. Credit: Chuck Moore

Prince James Story

In Riverside County,  local aquatic athlete Messan Moore aspires to compete on the United States Olympic men’s water polo team, is drawing comparisons to another beloved Southern California athlete. 

“I would describe Messan as a very well-spoken, educated, full of heart, big man,” said Edwin Barrera, former coach for the Irvine Kahuna Water Polo Club. “Basically, [he is] like what everyone thinks about Shaq [which is], ‘Oh, that guy’s intimidating.’ [But] when you get to know him, the guy is the biggest teddy bear.” 

At 6’6 and 286 pounds, you can’t miss Moore’s presence at any water polo competition. 

Similar to Shaquille O’Neal’s role in basketball, Moore plays the center-forward position, where he is placed in front of the opponent’s goalie and is often guarded by multiple defenders at once but can use his size and strength to get shots past the goalkeeper. 

Moore aims to add his name to the short list of Black athletes to compete for the U.S. Olympic men’s water polo team. 

The men’s and women’s U.S. Olympic water polo teams currently have one African American male Max Irving and one African American female Ashleigh Johnson, competing on their respective teams. 

Johnson became the first African American female to compete on the U.S. Olympic women’s water polo team in 2016.

In 2016, Ashleigh Johnson was the first Black woman to compete on the U.S. Olympic women’s water polo team (source: Jon Gaede, BVN Sports)

In 2004, Genai Kerr, Jamaican American, and Dr. Omar Amr, the son of Egyptian immigrants, were the first Black people to compete for the U.S. Olympic men’s water polo team. 

Kerr said the only comparison he could make to his friends about being the only Black person on the team was what it would be like, “If you were the only male on a women’s team or vice versa, being only female on a men’s team. Even though I was accepted on the team, I still stood out.” 

Dealing with racism in other aspects of his life was what lingered with him while he was competing. 

Kerr shared an experience he had in college with a campus police officer who pulled him over one morning while he was driving to practice.

The officer let Kerr’s white teammates leave the car and walk to practice, but Kerr was held at gunpoint by the officer. 

To this day, he still doesn’t know why he was pulled over.

“My teammates didn’t do anything wrong, but they also didn’t understand how traumatizing that was for me to be held at gunpoint. Where they were just more concerned about being at practice on time, I was concerned about being shot in the face,” shared Kerr. 

Still, Kerr didn’t let incidents like this influence his love for the sport and his mission to help the sport grow. Kerr said that everyone shares responsibility for creating more diversity in the sport. 

That starts locally by raising awareness, investing in swim and water polo coaches, and providing equipment to underserved communities.

Jamaican American Genai Kerr (along with Dr. Omar Amr, not shown) were the first Black people to compete for the U.S. Olympic men’s water polo team. (source: usawaterpolo.org)

He encourages athletes like Johnson and Irving, who are competing at the national level, and others like Moore, who aspire to be there one day, to keep going and prepare for the adversity they will face so they’re ready to overcome whatever comes their way. 

The Dream

Moore started playing water polo the summer of his sophomore year at John W. North High School in Riverside.

Moore broke his leg sophomore year, and while rehabbing, he spent time in the pool, where the water polo coach invited Moore to attend one of their practices. 

Moore started swimming when he was four years old. Although unfamiliar with water polo, he spent most of his childhood in the pool. 

He decided to go to one water polo practice and fell in love with the sport.  

The most challenging part for Moore was learning to tread water because you’re not allowed to stand in the pool in water polo. High school water polo is four periods, and each last seven minutes, but sometimes, they run longer because the clock stops whenever the ball is not ‘in play.’ 

For a 6’3, 300-pound teenager, the “eggbeater” kick, a technique used to tread water, took a little time to learn, but his swimming background and hard work ethic helped with a quick transition to the game.

Moore spent every summer, beginning his sophomore year of high school, practicing with men’s water polo clubs in Orange County. 

In his senior year, he joined an “18 and Under” club, Irvine Kahuna Water Polo Club, which competed in Junior Olympics. That is when he first met coach Barrera.  

Barrera allowed him to play for the club without paying any membership fees, and this was because Moore traveled over an hour almost every day to go to practice.

“I don’t care [about] the payments as long as the kid gets what he needs,” said Barrera. “I grew up in the 80s; if kids aren’t doing extracurricular activities, they do something else, and that something else is most likely not the best or the most positive thing for them to do.” 

After high school, Moore accepted a scholarship to play water polo at Concordia University in Irvine.

Moore played all four years, and for career goals, Moore is ranked No. 4 all-time at Concordia. 

Moore graduated college in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, so he spent his time during quarantine researching water polo professional clubs overseas that he could join. 

He contacted teams in Spain, Italy, Greece, and a few other countries like Croatia and Serbia. 

A Polish coach from the University of Warsaw got back to him after Moore sent him a message through social media. 

Coach Jakub Bednarek played water polo at the University of California, San Diego, and is fluent in English, which benefitted Moore and helped with his transition to Poland. 

With help from family members, friends, and the Black Chamber of Commerce in Orange County, Moore raised enough money to move to Poland, and his dream of playing professional water polo became a reality.

Moore played in Poland for two years and led the league in scoring during his second season. (Courtesy: Chuck Moore)

After the conclusion of his second season, a team from Germany contacted his coach about Moore potentially playing for them, and shortly after that, Moore traveled to Germany for a tryout. 

“He greatly contributed to the successes of this team,” said Bednarek about Moore. “We wish him all the best. We tried to put him in the best place possible outside of Poland, and we will be following his future steps.” 

The tryout lasted a week, and afterward, they offered him a contract. 

Moore will travel to Düsseldorf, Germany, in September to join SV Bayer Uerdingen 08 Water Polo Team.

“I’m not too nervous because I know I’ve been working ever since I got back from Poland, and I’ve been training and staying ready,” said Moore about facing tougher competition in Germany. “I know there’s gonna be pressure, but as long as I play my game, I won’t have any worries.” 

Giving back to the community

When Moore is not playing water polo, he’s teaching the youth how to play water polo.   

The Moore family recently applied for nonprofit status, and their nonprofit will be called “Black Tide Water Polo and Aquatics.” 

Last year, Moore started teaching middle school kids how to swim and play water polo through a partnership with the Moreno Valley Unified School District. 

Moore is committed to getting more kids in Riverside and across the Inland Empire involved in the sport.“There’s a lot of Black kids and Mexican kids [in] our communities, and we want to give them a chance to have another sport to excel in.”

Black Tide is a family affair, as Moore’s father, Chuck Moore, teaches beginners swimming lessons, and his sister, Mauriama, helps him coach water polo. 

“I want to see more Black kids take swimming scholarships,” said Chuck Moore. “I’m not looking at producing mediocre swimmers. I am working to turn them into some world-class swimmers out of Riverside, and San Bernardino count[ies].” 

They also teach adults how to swim, and his sister is a certified water safety instructor who works with disabled children and adults of all ages. 

Last year, 75 middle school kids didn’t know how to swim when they joined the program; by the end, 73 were strong enough swimmers to play water polo. 

Moore advises the next generation of Black and Brown swimmers to “Just keep going.”

“Don’t worry about other people; just focus on your skills and just play your game. There are not many of us, [but] we definitely have [a] chance to take over the sport.”

As Moore prepares to travel to Germany for this next step in his career, his goal to represent the United States in the Olympics hasn’t faded. As he has done up to this point, he plans to stay ready for his next opportunity to try out for the U.S. Olympic team.

Report for America Corps member and Black Voice News Climate and Environmental Justice reporter, Prince James Story was raised in Atlanta, Georgia. He is an intersectional journalist with experience covering news and sports across numerous mediums. Story aims to inform the public of social inequities and discriminatory practices while amplifying the voices of those in the communities harmed. Story earned his master’s degree in Sports Journalism from Arizona State University-Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He earned a B.A. in Mass Communication and a B.A. in African American studies from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Contact Prince James with tips, comments, or concerns at Princejames@blackvoicenews.com or via Twitter @PrinceJStory.