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It’s Never Too Late to Take Up Water Polo

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It’s Never Too Late is a series about people who decide to pursue their dreams on their own terms.

At 86, Mark Braly may be the world’s oldest water polo player. And according to Mr. Braly, a Texas native who now lives in Davis, Calif., he’s “certainly the worst.” That may or may not be true, but playing the sport is still an impressive accomplishment for someone who came to the game at 76: Water polo, which is played with two seven-member teams, is a challenging one, requiring significant abilities, both aerobic (for endurance) and anaerobic (for sprints).

Mr. Braly says he loves the camaraderie as much as he does the sport. Currently, his coed teammates consist of 40 players. A few are in their 20s; most of the others range from their 30s through middle age. Sometimes the team can be found bonding, postgame, at a local pizza restaurant or gathering for a special occasion.

“I sometimes make goals, but there is always the suspicion they were the gift of a kind goalie,” Mr. Braly said. “Every player in the region knows my name because they have to shout constant directions.”

Mr. Braly compares water polo to basketball — but in the water. “You’re throwing the ball around and you have a goal cage,” he said. “I’m swimming hard when we’re defending, and when I have to guard people, I try to pick out other weak players. I have yet to block anyone.”

From his 20s through his 60s, when he retired from his position as a project manager for the U.S. Office of Economic Adjustment (now called the Department of Defense Office of Local Defense Community Cooperation), Mr. Braly held a number of jobs: reporter for The Houston Press, publicist at Capitol Records (“I thought the Beach Boys had no future”), director of the energy office for former Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles and a foreign service officer for the United States Information Agency (now defunct).

Despite all of that, Mr. Braly said, “of all the experiences I’ve had, water polo has been the greatest adventure.”

Regardless of his self-evaluation as a player, he inspires his teammates. “To start something as intimidating as water polo at 76 and to stay at it is impressive,” said Paul Olalde, 31, an IT consultant who lives in Sacramento, Calif., and has been playing with Mr. Braly since he was 19. “He’s a staple to the program.”

Mr. Braly keeps up by swimming 40 minutes, five times a week, on top of the twice-weekly, 90-minute water polo matches, which are usually played at the Schaal Aquatic Center on the campus of the University of California, Davis.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

How did you first get involved in water polo?

I wanted an alternative to swimming. We didn’t have water polo in Texas when I was in high school, and until my late, dear friend and swim coach, Ross Yancher, introduced me to it 10 years ago, I’m not sure I’d ever seen a game. He gave me a ball and showed me how to make a shot at the goal. I was hooked. When he moved to the West Sacramento swimming pool, he invited me to join a masters water polo club he was organizing.

Why water polo?

Growing up, I wanted to be athletic and wasn’t. Water polo gives me a feeling that I can do sports even though I’m not good at them. And I’ve made wonderful friends. It makes me feel appreciated and supported, two things I didn’t receive in my previous jobs.

What do you love about the game?

It’s an exciting, thrilling game. I love watching it as much as I love playing it. I love that it’s a rough game — you never know what’s going to happen next, and that encourages me to keep playing. And I love being in the water. I have a weak hip. I’ve had two knee replacements. All of my ailments are lessened in the water. It gives me a freedom I don’t otherwise have.

What is it like to be the oldest person on the team?

I’m shown respect. It makes me feel special. I wish I had started this game when I was younger. I’m grateful for the 10 years I’ve had. I know my time doing this is limited; I try not to think about that. When I look back, I will be remembered by the people who played with me, and that’s special as well.

What have you learned about yourself through the sport?

That I can accept praise and support and not feel diminished by it. That I can do almost anything if I don’t mind not being good it. Being forced to be good at something has excluded me from doing things all my life. I learned I’m more capable and have a greater stamina than I thought.

Where does your determination come from?

My dad. He was a good athlete and played semipro baseball for room and board in small towns in Texas in the 1920s. He was an electrician who served in World War I and World War II. I observed and internalized his determination. He was a young father in the Depression, and it was really hard to get work and support a young family, but he did. I admired that he could climb telephone poles or orange trees. He remained fit for so long in life because of all the exercise he got.

You said you’re considered an inspiration for younger players. How so?

Younger players doubt they can play much longer. Seeing me still at it, at my age, is reassuring to them. It also makes me feel I’m giving back and setting a good example for my teammates and others who haven’t discovered the game yet.

How have the friends you’ve made through this game affected your life?

It’s been wonderful to share this unique bond that we have in common and unites us. I felt like I didn’t belong much of my life. I don’t feel that way here with these people. They represent an acceptance I’ve been missing.

How else are you involved in the sport?

For the past 10 years I’ve been writing a monthly column for the Davis Enterprise, a local newspaper, about water polo and masters swimming. People stop me and tell me that they read my column and that’s been great. It makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile with my retirement. I like to reach other older people and let them know swimming is good expertise for them.

What advice do you have for those who want to try a new sport or athletic endeavor?

I’m a big believer in exercise. It extends and improves the quality of your life. Almost any city or neighborhood has a senior center which will offer different programs and classes. Look for something you might like. Don’t worry about being good at it, just think about the good you’re doing for yourself.

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Knicks vs. Bulls prediction: NBA picks, odds

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The NBA’s longest win streak is finally over after the Knicks suffered their first loss in nine games on Wednesday. Expect New York to start a new streak Friday against a team it dominated the last time they faced off.

The Knicks were playing like the best team in basketball during their lengthy win streak, posting the league’s best net rating (+17.3) with six double-digit victories in that eight-game run. That included a 23-point beat-down of the Bulls exactly a week ago, when New York drained 17 3s and saw three players score at least 22 points in an easy win.

Knicks vs. Bulls (7:30 p.m. Eastern) prediction: Knicks -5.5 (Caesars Sportsbook)

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That game marked the worst offensive showing of the season for Chicago (91 points), which has struggled with chemistry and spacing issues all year long. The Bulls rank dead last in 3-point attempts per game (28.8) and third-worst in offensive rebounding rate (23.6%), which leaves very few easy scoring chances for one of the NBA’s worst offenses.

Betting on the NBA?

It’s the opposite story for the Knicks, who boast three legitimate shot-creators and also rank among the league leaders in points in the paint. Julius Randle (31 points) relentlessly attacked this Chicago defense in their first meeting before allowing RJ Barrett (27 points) to lead the way in the second affair — his fourth of five straight games with at least 22 points. 

I don’t see this Knicks attack slowing down against one of the league’s most inconsistent defenses. And until Zach LaVine returns to his All-Star form, I’m skeptical of the Bulls’ offense showing up on Friday, too.

Knicks vs. Bulls pick: Knicks -5.5 (Caesars Sportsbook)

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Devils vs. Bruins prediction: Bet on New Jersey to end slide on NHL Friday

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After starting the season 21-4-1, it looked like the New Jersey Devils were going to run away with the Metropolitan Division as one of the very best teams in the NHL.

Not only were the Devils cruising, but their underlying metrics were elite. New Jersey was the best 5-on-5 team through the first quarter of the season.

Three weeks and one six-game losing streak later, and the Devils have fallen back to earth and are now two points behind the Carolina Hurricanes in the Metropolitan Division. 

The Devils were able to get off the schneid with a win over Florida on Wednesday, but the task doesn’t get any easier with the league-leading Boston Bruins in town.

New Jersey is a slight +102 home underdog against Boston starting at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN+ and the NHL Network.  

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Tomas Tatar #90 of the New Jersey Devils
Tomas Tatar #90 of the New Jersey Devils
NHLI via Getty Images

Bruins vs. Devils prediction

Even though the Devils have struggled to get results over their last 10 contests, their underlying numbers don’t suggest there’s all that much wrong with how they’re playing. New Jersey isn’t posting the pace-setting numbers it did through Thanksgiving, but it’s still skating to the fifth-best expected goals rate and high-danger scoring chance rate in the league over its last 10 contests.  

Those numbers should help ease any sense of panic that New Jersey could continue to fall back further into the pack as we head toward the New Year. 

So if New Jersey is still tilting the ice in the right direction, what is the issue for the Devils? 

For one thing, the Devs are struggling to find the back of the net like they did when they were rolling. New Jersey has scored just nine goals in its last five games, and four of those tallies came in a 4-2 victory over Florida on Wednesday. Over their last 10 games, the Devils rank 25th in the NHL with a 6.56% shooting percentage. 

Additionally, the Devils are not getting the goaltending needed to stabilize them. New Jersey’s netminders were always thought to be the team’s biggest weakness, and that has started to show lately as the Devils rank 23rd in the NHL in 5-on-5 save percentage over the last 10 games.

Hampus Lindholm #27 of the Boston Bruins
Hampus Lindholm #27 of the Boston Bruins
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Betting on the NHL?

The Bruins, meanwhile, continue to roll. Boston is 7-1-2 over its last 10 contests and ranks third in the league over that span in expected goals rate and fourth in high-danger chance percentage. The Bruins pace the NHL with a +54 goal differential, which is 25 goals better than the team in second (Toronto). 

But as impressive as Boston has been over its first 31 games of the season, the Bruins are playing on a back-to-back on Friday, while the Devils were off on Thursday night. 

The Bruins are the better team in a vacuum, but this is a good buy-low spot on the Devils, who are still playing solid hockey but are just not getting the results.

Devils vs. Bruins pick

New Jersey Devils +102 (FanDuel)

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At the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, a Female Crew of Two

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Kathy Veel has come a long way since 1989, when she first sailed in the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race with an all-female crew on the Belles Long Ranger.

“It started off with four of us women — we figured, let’s give it a shot,” said Veel, 70, a retired teacher who lives in Bullaburra, about 60 miles west of Sydney, Australia. “We didn’t have a boat. We didn’t have any money. It was a real start from scratch. No one took us seriously.”

Not anymore. Veel is now back for her third Sydney Hobart, which starts on Monday, this time also breaking ground. She will be part of the only all-female crew competing in the race’s two-handed division on the Currawong, at 30 feet long the second smallest boat in the fleet. She will be sailing with Bridget Canham, 62, of Sydney, a veteran of several Sydney Hobart races.

Veel said that in 1989, there were doubts the crew of women could handle the grueling conditions of the race.

“We were kind of a token gesture,” she said. “There were a lot of people who didn’t think we were up to it. They would ask, what we were going to do when it’s blowing 30 knots and the boat is swamped? We’ll be doing pretty much what they’ll be doing — putting up sails and racing the boat.”

Their goal was to simply finish the race, which they did. “It opened the door for us,” Veel said.

“Women in sailing have come so far,” she said. “Most boats these days have got women on them. And that’s great.”

Canham, a retired nurse who volunteers as an emergency boat pilot, said sailing had indeed changed.

“Sailing is more of an integrated sport now,” she said. “Now, it’s just by coincidence that we are just two women on a boat. We’re just sailors. We don’t think of ourselves as anything different.”

The two-handed division, where a boat is raced by two sailors — as opposed to a large crew ranging from 6 to 25 — is now in its second year at the Sydney Hobart. For Veel and Canham, the draw of two-handed racing is access.

“Having a fully crewed racing yacht was way outside of my resources,” Veel said. “I’m retired. But now that they have the two-handed, we can do the race. It gives people the opportunity to sail in the race who aren’t on a fully crewed yacht.” Yearly maintenance on two-handed boats might be $10,000, while much larger yachts require millions of dollars to maintain.

Canham also said the sailors in the two-handed division were a tightknit group. “The two-handed community is just so supportive; it’s like we are all on the same team,” she said.

Veel and Canham generally split duties on the boat, taking turns on the sails and at the wheel, with Canham focusing on sails and Veel on navigation and race tactics.

“Bridget knows the wind and is good at getting the best out of the boat,” Veel said. “She’ll have every sail tweaked and tuned. She never takes her eye off the ball. She’s also extremely gutsy and strong-minded and determined.”

Veel and Canham have prepared for the event by sailing in four other races this year. Over that time, they realized the boat, a Currawong 30, built in 1974 with beaten 20-year-old sails, needed upgrades, but they’ve accepted its limits.

“We’ve been able to test out our boat in these previous races, but it really has felt that 90 percent of this race has been just getting to the start line,” Veel said. “We’ve just been focused on getting the boat ready. Now that we are there, and there are no more obstacles between us and the race, that’s when I’m starting to wonder what have I got myself into. Now it’s real.”

Canham heads into the race committed, but knows their limitations.

“No one is expecting us to do anything,” she said. “But I don’t think they realize just how determined we are.”

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