I recall watching my first water polo international test match between Italy and Australia. As a 12-year-old I didn’t know a whole lot about water polo but during that game I fell in love with the Aussie Sharks and their tenacity as they took on the reigning Olympic champions and didn’t back down.
I quickly learnt that we had our own stars of the game, many who have since given back to the game in varying and valuable ways and were also influential in my career and that of a generation of Australian water polo players.
This is what makes our sport great; we are a tight-knit community who punches well above our weight. We have high expectations on ourselves and that of our national teams who we want to see succeed on the international stage. We equally want to see growth of our sport across Australia. But we can only continue to achieve beyond what we think is possible if we are all committed to working together to support our athletes from young to old and support the game we all love.
We have a proud history. Many recall our Aussie Stingers famous victory in Sydney 2000; the pride of a nation when our women defeated the USA and Yvette Higgins scored that final goal.
Yvette now heads up water polo at Scots College in Sydney and runs successful junior academies. Yvette’s captain was Debbie Watson, whose coaching and mentoring influence to a generation is worthy of her Hall of Fame status. Their teammates Bronwyn Smith (nee Mayer) and Taryn Woods are now integral members of the current Aussie Stingers support squad as they continue to push the legacy of an Olympic gold medal. Other proud squad members surprised our Rio 2016 Olympians with a call letting them know of their selection. Our women enjoyed top four rankings for two decades including back-to-back bronze medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.
Our Men have also punched well above their weight. In 1993 the Sharks enjoyed a World Cup bronze and finished just out of the medals in the 1998 World Championships. In 2003 they stunned European silver medallists Croatia on the way to the quarter-finals and in 2004 they were the only team to beat Hungary with a 14-10 drubbing at the World League in Budapest in front of a stunned crowd just prior to the Athens Olympics. The year prior they stunned Serbia and Montenegro in the same way. In 2007 and 2008 the Sharks enjoyed back-to-back bronzes at the FINA World League Super Finals.
While we’ve rarely celebrated their top eight finishes, the reality is that the Aussie Sharks’ competitiveness amongst the professional titans over many years and victories along the way should be celebrated for what they achieved. In Beijing 2008 just one goal in the preliminaries kept them from the top six and as recently as 2015 at the World Championships they painstakingly fell short in a penalty shoot-out against eventual bronze medallists Greece.
We rightly want more and want our teams to win medals at major events. Australia is a proud sporting nation; we want to see both our Aussie Stingers and Aussie Sharks on top of the world. The above is to illustrate that it has and can be done by both our teams and we will do it again when it counts. But we can’t wait to watch it happen. We all must play a part in making it a reality. We need to bring our fiery passion together for the good of the athletes, the volunteers and the tragic lovers of our great game and carry the teams to victory so we can all own the gold at the end of the road.
What are we doing at Water Polo Australia (WPA) to make that a reality?
It starts with development and we’re facilitating growth through vital tools to increase capability across the sport. We’re investing heavily in a new membership and competitions database in collaboration with our State and Territory members who are in turn encouraging take-up by our clubs across the country. We need to know who’s playing our game and how we can serve them better through communication, education and pathways development.
We’re investing in an integrated online education and accreditation platform for our athletes, coaches, referees and officials. We can’t grow the sport without growing the capability of the sport which means more and better referees and coaches.
FlippaBall is successful in pockets but we don’t have consistency of delivery and quality across Australia. After an informative pilot program last year, we’ll be supporting a newly branded roll-out in 2018/19 for delivery by clubs to increase participation and importantly allow kids to join and love our game from an early age.
Planning for the Australian Youth Water Polo Championships to be held in Brisbane in January 2019 is well underway and we are confident that this will be a game-changer for the delivery of our junior national water polo competitions. More than just a sporting competition, the event will bring together thousands of participants, coaches and referees with the ability to provide a festival and celebration of water polo, accompanied by senior test matches and other educational initiatives.
We have a team committed to growing our sport and delivering sustainable success on the world stage. It’s a big ask for a small team however the board of Water Polo Australia has faith that our executive team, led by CEO Christian Renford is on right path to delivering against our Strategic Plan together with the support of our members and all of our key stakeholders.
Our new High Performance Manager, Aleks Osadchuk, has hit the ground running and is working collaboratively to refine our Towards Tokyo National Teams plan along with strategic planning towards Paris 2024. We have confidence in Aleks’ ability and his success will be determined by our collective commitment to support him and his team as initiatives are introduced to better support our highperformance pathways.
I was recently privy to one of the first high performance planning sessions led by Aleks with the State Institute coaches which included open and honest dialogue with an underlying commitment to do what is necessary to achieve success in Tokyo and beyond.
Not long ago, WPA also hosted the annual Australian Waterpolo League (AWL) season review where there was a shared commitment across the clubs and from WPA to work together in supporting our Australian representatives and raising the standards of training and competition environments for elite athletes. We experienced a very successful league this year with increased quality in many key areas and we’re working with the AWL clubs to continually improve each season.
The challenges are varied and we do continue to address issues throughout the sport which require others to help resolve but our ambitions are high and we can only achieve them in an environment open to challenging the norm, with new initiatives if we are to achieve different outcomes.
The importance of Unified Behaviours
One of WPA’s priorities is leading a culture of unified behaviours at all levels of the sport to make the best use of our combined resources to ensure we can continue to grow and strengthen water polo in Australia.
From time to time opinions are shared throughout the water polo community with differing intentions. We encourage the positive sharing of ideas to work together transparently in support of our shared vision of growth and success.
Recently the generous support of a donor to an individual athlete was questioned via an opinion piece presented as fact. The opinion was incorrect in the amount claimed and the circumstances. An individual donor with a connection to one of our Aussie Sharks and with a love for seeing our teams succeed on the international stage, sponsored an athlete. The sponsorship was requested to be via Water Polo Australia to ensure the funds were aligned with an Athlete Agreement, which ensures accountability for our national team members.
Our athletes do it tough financially from the commitment required to achieve their and our (collectively the sport at large) high expectations. The commitment of a national senior team member can include up to three months per year of dedicated full-time training camps and tours on top of other ongoing commitments to ensure they are meeting their personal and team obligations. The commitment required in Olympic years is even greater. All for minimal financial support.
Several WPA athletes recently received generous financial support from another benefactor tied to educational requirements and WPA athlete agreements to encourage tertiary educations throughout their playing careers and we are unashamedly appreciative of this and any support which directly benefits our athletes financially and/or towards their career goals and overall wellbeing.
WPA is extremely thankful for the generous donations and sponsorships from benefactors and we are working on ways to encourage direct athlete support in addition to what the Australian Sports Commission provides and would encourage our alumni and lovers of the Aussie Sharks and Stingers and Junior National Teams who would like to be involved in supporting this initiative to contact the CEO or myself.
Ideally WPA will be in a position where all our representative athletes can enjoy significant sponsorship and direct athlete support to ensure they can achieve their and our deserved goals of international success.
I would ask that everyone who loves our sport and wants to see our athletes succeed both in Australia and internationally to ask what they can do to support the journey.
We are deliberately moving forward at pace and some of the examples above indicate the level of delivery of major projects across the sport by the executive team. I ask that you join our team and celebrate the success along the way and support us in delivering a gold medal team performance.
Water Polo Australia