Saturday, February 4, 2023

Quarantine Family Collaboration: How Olympian Jesse Smith Brought Water Polo to a Children’s Book

What started as a series of bedtime stories quickly grew into a family collaboration and COVID-quarantine project, resulting in the world’s first illustrated children’s book on water polo. Wally the Water Polo Walrus, written and self-published by local Olympic medalist Jesse Smith (Coronado High School Class of 2001), heads to print soon, and is available for pre-order on his website here.

“There isn’t anything out there like it,” says Jesse Smith, a husband and father of four who heads to Tokyo next year for his fifth Olympics on the USA men’s water polo team. “My family loves to read; it’s so powerful and cool, and I really wanted to put a kid’s water polo book out there. I’m really fired up.”

Jesse Smith’s first book introduces children to water polo with simple concepts, bright illustrations and endearing characters. Image courtesy of Jesse Smith.

Smith says he wrote the book to introduce kids to water polo and explain it in a way that kids could understand. Beautifully illustrated by Smith’s 15-year-old niece Lilah Yektai, the story depicts Wally the Walrus as he plays water polo with his friends. Other characters include Rufus the Rhino, Freddy the Frog and Shelia the Snake. The gentle and playful messaging is suitable for kids of all ages, and the vivid pages come to life—painted in watercolor, of course.

“Water polo is more approachable if it’s fun, and that’s the idea,” says Smith. “I try to use simple concepts. Like, there’s a dog that’s trying to go from doggy paddle to swimming freestyle. I think it helps connect the sport to a younger audience. A lot of people that aren’t swimmers don’t know what water polo is, and it’s tough to start, but if you look at this book and see it at pool, then you start to get it.”

Smith heads to Tokyo in 2021 to compete with the USA Water Polo team. It will be his fifth Olympics. Image courtesy of Jesse Smith.

Smith says that a huge percentage of Americans don’t even know how to swim, so this book sheds light on a water-based sport some kids might not otherwise be exposed to. (According to a 2014 survey by the Red Cross, more than half of Americans, 54%, either don’t swim, or don’t possess the basic swimming skills.)

Smith first got the idea for the book when he was telling bedtime stories about water polo to his four kids–Brooks, Sam, Sawyer and Amelia. He says his children, along with his wife Brittany, gave him feedback and inspired him to craft an actual book out of the stories.

“The whole family was involved in the evolution of the story,” says Smith. “They for sure gave me lots of feedback.”

Smith with wife Brittany. Image courtesy of Jesse Smith.

Smith’s sister-in-law, Worthy Dye, who works in New York City as creative director and assistant to fashion designer Alexander Wang, played a key role in concept and creative design.

“Water polo is such a random sport, and it can be hard to describe,” says Smith. “[Worthy and I] would text back and forth, and set the scene, and she sketched all of it out. Luckily, during the quarantine, she had some extra time. She’s usually super busy with her job.”

Jesse Smith USA water polo
Smith representing Team USA. Image courtesy of Jesse Smith.

But then things started opening up again. Worthy had to go back to work and couldn’t continue with the project, so they passed it off to Smith’s niece, Lilah, to finish and illustrate with watercolor.

Although he spends much of his time training, Smith is actually an avid reader, a pastime that was encouraged by his father, a Naval Academy graduate who later captained the US Mercy hospital ship as a merchant marine.

“I grew up reading, and my Dad prized hard work and a good work ethic,” says Smith. “He encouraged his kids to shoot for the stars, and read on a daily basis.”

Smith says he wants to pass down the love of reading to his children, and they read together often. Some favorite children’s books include everything from Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, and Oh Say Can You Say by Dr. Seuss to Moo, Baa, La La La! by Sandra Boynton.

Smith and his wife love reading with their kids. Image courtesy of Jesse Smith.

Although Smith graduated with a degree in economics from Pepperdine, he says he took creative writing classes in college, and “really enjoys” writing, so the book is not as much of as a stretch as you might think. Smith says that he’s already sold more than 100 copies of Wally the Water Polo Walrus just from sharing to friends and family on local Facebook pages.

“That’s what’s amazing about living in Coronado,” says Smith. “Everyone’s like, we’ve got this Olympian, he’s from here, let’s support him. Everyone is so enthusiastic.”

Two of Smith’s biggest fans. Image courtesy of Jesse Smith.

Smith says that he’s learned the most successful people are the ones that reach down to help other people up, describing them as the “shining light that will show you the way.” He hopes that by publishing this book and sharing these messages, Smith will pass on some powerful lessons learned from sports…lessons that aren’t necessarily taught in school.

For example, one of the pages of Wally the Water Polo Walrus illustrates the importance of good sportsmanship, showing the characters lining up to shake hands.

Starting with introductions, the two teams line up to greet
And show their good sportsmanship by shaking hands
New friends, they will meet

“It’s really interesting that you shake hands,” says Smith. “It’s a simple but challenging concept: look them in the eye and shake their hand. Sometimes it’s tough to do that. There is so much emotion in sports, and so many extra-competitive moments.”

In Wally the Water Polo Walrus, the characters shake hands before the game. Image courtesy of Jesse Smith.

He hopes his book will help inspire a new generation of water polo players, one that will cheer on the USA Water Polo team in 2021 for the Tokyo Olympics, and for years after.

“I think Olympians learn some really valuable lessons from their journeys. The ultimate goal is to win a medal, but you can also apply it to kids when you talk about distilling your values. It’s a fun way to do it,” says Smith. “Even through conflict, we are all human. We are all brothers and sisters.”

Learn more about Jesse Smith and pre-order Wally the Water Polo Walrus at

Image courtesy of Jesse Smith.



Christine Van Tuyl
Christine Van Tuyl
Christine was born and raised in Texas, but moved to Coronado with her family as a teen in 1993. Although initially horrified by surfers, flannels and skateboards, she ultimately grew to love all things So-Cal. A graduate of UCSD, Christine got her first writing job on the KUSI ten o’clock news while simultaneously juggling a reporter position at the San Diego Community News Group. She worked as a public relations professional, a book editor, real estate professional, and a freelance writer before eventually succumbing to motherhood in 2008.A decade later, Christine resurfaced to start the Island Girl Blog, a Coronado lifestyle blog. In addition, she writes a monthly page for Crown City Magazine. Christine loves hanging out with her husband, Ian, and their two spirited daughters, Holland and Marley, who attend Village Elementary and Coronado Middle School. When she’s not working, you’ll find her practicing yoga, spilling coffee at school drop off, meeting friends for sushi, or sailing the Bay with her family and English Bulldog, Moshi. Have news to share? Send tips, story ideas or letters to the editor to: [email protected]