Water Polo, War and the Bond Between a Father and Son

A young man stood by the end of the pool in his lifeguard uniform, quietly observing his surroundings. He walked around the pool, carefully looking at everyone who was swimming. There was something calm about him. You couldn’t tell what it was, but you felt safe every time you looked at him. That was his job as a lifeguard. His duty. It was never having to protect ancestral land. It was never to get caught in the middle of a war. It was never to sacrifice his life. His job was to save lives. But who saved his?

Henrik Hakobyan, Armenia’s national water polo team captain and a lifeguard, was killed by an Azerbaijani missile on the first night of the 2020 Artsakh War. Henrik had been drafted into the army just a month before, and was stationed in Martakert. He was just 18.

Henrik’s father, Gurgen Hakobyan, the vice president of Armenia’s Water Polo Federation and a swim coach, explains the important role the sport has played in his life: it was a way to bond with his son.

“Henrik was interested in water polo from a young age,” Hakobyan recalls. “He possessed strong leadership skills, which led to his selection as the team captain of Armenia’s national water polo team by the federation.” 

Water polo requires skills such as strength, speed and endurance. Teamwork, tactical thinking and spatial awareness are also highly important aspects of the sport. In addition to leading the water polo team, Henrik began working as a lifeguard when he was only 15.

“I trusted him with everything. We had talked about starting a water polo club together because it was our favorite sport. It didn’t matter what he studied at school; he loved the sport. He was well-trained and enjoyed working with me,” Hakobyan says. But without his son in the pool, he felt that the training sessions weren’t the same. After the war, Hakobyan founded the club himself and named it after his son.

The club, called Henri Hills, now actively participates in tournaments. Although originally only played by men, the sport began welcoming women into competitions in 1978 and Armenian women and young girls are now also playing water polo. “He would encourage everyone to play water polo,” Hakobyan says, adding that not only did Henrik love the sport, but it also gave them an opportunity to spend time together.

The first water polo team in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic was created in 1935. Anatoly Kalesnikov and Ashot Piloyan of Armenia became European champions as members of the USSR national team. 

Recently, Omar Bardumyan became the first representative of Armenia to serve as an international water polo referee for the International Federation of Water Sports. This is a historic achievement for Armenian water polo.

Today, Hakobyan continues to honor his son’s legacy by using their shared passion for water polo. Every year since 2021, on Henrik’s birthday, June 17, Hakobyan and loved ones organize a memorial tournament in Henrik’s name. This tournament brings together different water polo teams in Armenia to compete and pay tribute to those who dedicated their lives to their country and sports.

Henrik’s memory inspired other sporting achievements as well. In September 2021, Erik Stepanyan, 18, swam across Lake Sevan in 57 minutes as a tribute to the memory of Henrik. Stepanyan had joined the water polo team, Henri Hills, when it was just starting out and was soon selected as captain.

“When I joined the water polo team, Henrik worked with me personally,” Stepanayan recalls. “The success I have achieved in water polo is thanks to him. I tried to learn from his best qualities as an athlete and friend.” 

Stepanyan said he had always wanted to swim from one shore of Lake Sevan to the other, but everyone thought it was too dangerous. “At first, my parents were against it and afraid, but I trained with Henrik’s father for a long time,” he says. After that day, something changed inside the young athlete. He decided that any kind of athletic success he achieved would be dedicated to Henrik and fallen men like him. Henrik played under the number 9; Stepanyan now plays under that number with great pride.

“After completing my military service, I want to swim longer distances in dedication to Henrik’s memory,” says Stepanyan, who will soon be drafted into the army. His only concern, however, is if he will be able to continue playing sports.

Sometimes, Hakobyan can still see his son in his white t-shirt sitting by the pool. He thinks that maybe, if he looks hard enough, he might be able to spot him. Water polo in Armenia continues to evolve, through the affection of a father for his son, pushing the boundaries of the human body, and showcasing the power of teamwork, determination and the spirit of competition.


Magazine Issue N31


Armenia’s Water Polo Federation was established in 1995 with the mission to encourage a healthy lifestyle and contribute to the development of the sport in the country. Its goal is to bring together and train water polo professionals, coaches, and athletes and it organizes national and international tournaments.

In aquatic sports, water polo, a dynamic and fast-paced game combines elements of football and swimming. Its roots reach the late 19th century with its inaugural international match in Great Britain. Shortly thereafter, it became an Olympic sport. In the 1900 Paris Olympics, Great Britain won the gold medal, solidifying water polo’s place as a prominent sport on the international stage.

Water polo is played between two teams of seven players, including one goalkeeper. The team that scores the most goals by throwing the ball into the opposing team’s goal post within 32 minutes (four eight-minute periods) wins the game. Each team must shoot for the goal within 30 seconds of possessing the ball, or the ball is passed to the other team. 

The sport requires exceptional stamina due to the intense holding and pushing that occurs throughout the game. It is played in a 3-meter deep pool to ensure that players cannot touch the bottom. The ball can only be handled by one hand at a time – with the exception of the goalkeeper, who can use both hands. Research suggests that water polo puts a high metabolic demand on players, making it one of the most effective exercises available.

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