For Kai Inoue, scoring a goal in his first World Championship encounter — against Serbia on day one of men’s competition — it was possibly a very special feat. The left-hander accepted a ball in the deep-right position and scored on extra for 8-6 behind in a match that was lost by the Japanese 17-10.

In making that score, Kai was just 17 years and 46 days old when he scored, becoming possibly the youngest male goal-scorer at this level of the sport. Even Spaniard great Felipe Perrone was 17 and more than 100 days old when he fired his first bullet.

Inoue is one of two lefties brought into the team by head coach Yoshinori Shiota to help renew his stocks.

Image Source: Kai Inoue/World Aquatics

Family History

So, where did Kai Inoue come from? He has a solid water polo background in a family where grandfather Hiroshi Inoue won gold at the 1962 Asian Games and competed in two FISU events.

Father Takeshi Inoue was a Japanese national team player, FINA Technical Water Polo Committee member from 2013-22 and on the UANA TWPC in 2011-19.

Brother Kent Inoue (right) is a UCLA graduate who played from United Sates of America at the U18 world championships in Perth, Australia 2012 and Istanbul, Turkey in 2014. He won a bronze medal at the FISU Universiade in Gwangju, South Korea in 2015 and went on to play in Adelaide, Australia.

Sister Ann Inoue (centre) is a graduate of the University Of Hawaii and represented Japan at the FINA U18 World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand in 2015; the U20 championships in Volos, Greece in 2017 and the Universiade in Naples, Italy in 2019. She also played at Treviglio in Italy in 2022-23.

Brother Joe Inoue (24, left) is attending UCLA and has played water polo since high school.

The Youngster Blossoms

On being introduced to the sport at a young age:

“I started water polo at the age of five, but I went to every (siblings’) practice and game I could. I had a lot of pressure being the son of Takeshi Inoue, but having an older brother (Kent Inoue) to look up to helped me a lot in pursuing my dreams.”

On his dual nationality:

“I was born and raised in Huntington Beach, California and I’d go to my grandparents’ (Mom’s side) house every summer in Fukuoka, Japan. I really never thought about living in Japan, but when I was 13 years old I moved here because of the Coronavirus situation.

“ It was a really tough and scary feeling when I first moved here. Not being able to speak the language as much and not having many friends at first was very, very hard. But I didn’t lose my best friend, water polo. 

“Playing on a whole new team was difficult at first, but an awesome experience to be able to build a new bond with my new team-mates. After many hard days and nights of training, we had won four major national championships since then. Dream team, I’d say. These guys helped me push myself to work harder to my dream of becoming an Olympian. 

“Having experienced both Japan and USA culture, and meeting many people, it is a connection not every can get. I feel lucky,” he said.

Image Source: Kai Inoue/World Aquatics

Where did it all start?

“I first started playing water polo at the club my dad created (United Water Polo Club). 

While I was in the US I had gone to Italy in the summer from the age of seven to 12 — Habawaba Club, Camogli and United Water Polo Club .

“In Japan, I joined a club team called Kyoto Tousuikai. Last year I played for the Hungarian club team — Ferencvárosi Torna Club, FTC. Now I am playing for my high school Team. Kyoto Toba High School.

“Growing up in the US and having international experience, I was able to do tricks and plays that Japanese players didn’t know or couldn’t do.” 

On his first national team experiences

“It was in 2022, when I was selected to the U16 Japan national team. We went the first U16 World Championship in Volos, Greece. There I was able to achieve the top-scorer award. After, I was selected to the U18 Japan national team, but sadly we did not go to the U18 World Championship. 

“Then I was selected to the U20 Japan national team, where we went to Otopeni, Romania for the U20 World Championship. There I achieved the player-of-the-match award in the game against Germany,” he said.

“After being able to experience so much at a young age, I had a lot of self confidence in being able to play for the national Team. Last Year 2023, in December was my first selection to the Senior National team training/selection camp. There I was very excited and nervous. Being the youngest at the camp, I had so many questions about plays and tactics. 

“After being selected to the Australian training camp, and Doha World Championship squad, I had felt the hope and trust Coach Shiota had for me. Being able to play for such a great coach, I couldn’t be happier,” he said. 

On mixing with older players
I had a special connection with the national team players because of my Dad. Some players knew me very well since I was very young. Others were players I played with in the age group national team, so It is awesome being able to play with players you looked up to. But still being the youngster meant, holding the balls, caps, drinks, etc.

On being a leftie

“I think being a left-hander is the biggest advantage for me. Being able to connect the ball easily for the right side to the left. Being able to see the pool for an angle only left-handers can see from. But the best advantage is being able to shoot for an angle that no right hander can shoot from. Attacking for the left and right side is scary for any team. 

On scoring his first senior goal
The second we got the exclusion, I knew I was going to shoot it. It was so weird. I was so zoned in I didn’t really think about anything when I got the ball. I saw that the shot blocker was far back and I shot it near post and it went it. I didn’t realise my shot went in until I saw the lights flashing above. 

“It was the greatest feeling scoring for my own national team on my debut game. Seeing my parents and coach in the stands, I was so happy,” he said.

On playing against superstars

Nikola Jaksic, Strahinja Rasovic, the Olympic gold medallists and great shooters. It was a great experience actually playing against and feeling how it’s like to play against such great shooters. 

Image Source: Aniko Kovacs/World Aquatics

“But the best experience was when I matched up against the player I had looked up to the most — Dusan Mandic (above right). I had watched all his highlights and games since I was little. His backhand, foul shots, catch-and-shoot shots, everything. Being in the same pool playing against each other was an experience I will never forget. 

“I also matched up against my friend Ryder Dodds on the USA national team. We played together at United when we were very young. It was awesome seeing each other again at the highest level in water polo.”

On the ultimate dream — Olympic Games
“A dream for any athlete. I wanted to become an Olympian since I started playing the sport. Knowing my dad was on the national team when he was younger, and couldn’t go to the Olympics, I wanted to, of course, beat him, but I wanted to take him to the Olympics.

“Watching my brother go to many International championships with the national team, I wanted to be just like him. He created a path that made me believe. Of course, I want to go to the Olympics for myself and my goals, but I want to make my family proud. All the sacrifices they’ve made for me to be at where I am now, it’s crazy. I want to make them proud. 

“Being in a position to be able to fight for a spot in the Olympic squad, it’s something I’ve dreamed about. Now It’s real. This is where it becomes fun. It’s right in front of me and I just need to prove that I am the lefty for the team,” he said.