On its website, the Australian Institute of Sport describes elite water polo players as “having the accuracy of a baseball pitcher, the toughness of a hockey player, the endurance of a cross-country skier and the strategy of a chess player”. And if you’ve ever seen water polo in action, you’ll know that underwater, players are more like wrestlers. Beneath the surface, water polo is a frenzy of kicking and grabbing. It’s a miracle no one drowns.
I’m so scared of drowning, I never put my head under water without a snorkel. (The only thing I’ll dive head-first into is a glass of wine.) At school, I was the geeky kid in a hand-me-down cossie, perpetually in the “shallow-end” group. Hey, I lived two whole hours from the beach, OK?
But here I am – in the pool at Sydney’s Olympic Aquatic Centre, where the national team, the Aussie Stingers, won gold in 2000 (the year women’s water polo debuted at the Olympics). Stinger Nicola “Ziggy” Zagame is teaching me the water polo basics. Gulp.
Step one: tread water. I thought I’d be able to touch the bottom. Wrong! I egg-beat like I’m making a mega-sized pavlova, while Nicola instructs me to lift my knees to my armpits. Easy to say: Nicola’s been treading water since she was a nipper at NSW’s Cronulla Beach. It’s not long before my legs turn to jelly, so I rest on a ball while Nicola demonstrates the passes.
My jaw drops as she propels herself out of the water, waistline skimming the surface, and shoots the ball into the goal. Apparently, water polo players can throw at up to 60km/h.
It’s my turn. I’m told to lift the ball with my preferred hand, while “treading” water with my other hand by making figure-of-eight circles under the water and egg-beating with my legs.
I need to lift my torso out of the water, ensure my right elbow is high and... throw! It’s a lot to coordinate. My ball rockets over to Nicola at about 2km/h.
To catch the ball, my right hand needs to meet it in the air. In water polo, Nicola says, you’re not allowed to hold the ball with two hands. Which is just as well, because I need the other one to keep me from drowning.
We try some defence moves. Nicola plays centre-back; her job is to stop the centre-forward from getting near the goal. Not always easy, as centre-forwards can be, um, intimidating. “I have to mark a girl from Italy who’s tall and weighs 115kg. She’s amazing,” says Nicola, who’s 174cm and weighs around 70kg. But players come in different sizes, she explains. “You don’t want to be stick thin; it helps to have a bit of fat to help you float. As long as you’re healthy and fit, it doesn’t matter what size you are.”
There’s hope for me yet, as I learn to block a pass. “Make sure you can always see your arm in front of you; if it’s behind your ear you won’t have any power,” calls Nicola. As much as I want to catch the ball and cling on to it, I slam it away with my palm, while furiously treading water. My chest burns. This is a serious cardio workout and it’s about to get... interactive.
Pool for scandal
Nicola puts me in centre-forward position (three to five metres from the goal – which looks just like a netted soccer goal floating on water). She shows how a centre-back might force me away from the goal, by literally grabbing my sides and pushing me back like a rag doll. In a gentle way. It’s not unlike how a goal defence sticks to the goal attack in netball, except contact’s OK. Crucial, in fact. Since most of the game happens underwater where the ref can’t see, that contact isn’t for the faint-hearted.
“See that scar below my eye?” Nicola asks as we dry off. “In Canada a competitor elbowed me and (my cheek) split open. I had to go to hospital to get it glued back together.” There’s more. “I’ve had five black eyes. Our cossies get ripped. See the scars on my chest? They’re scratches,” she adds.
Don’t you get scared? I ask in disbelief. “No way! It’s fun. You give as much as you get; you do whatever you can to stop the ball going into the goal.” I must look shocked as she adds reassuringly, “It’s not that rough until you’re fighting for gold medals”. So if I ever make a local team, I won’t need my brass knuckles. Thank God.
Going for gold
The Aussie Stingers are ranked second in the world, behind the US women’s team, though they beat their rivals last August in Sydney. “But there weren’t that many people there,” says Nicola. “We would like to be more recognised for our achievements.”
A gold medal in London might score the Stingers more well-deserved headlines. To get it, they’ll be training for up to six hours a day – a combination of on-land ball skills, gym, training games and laps. “In the off-season we swim between 4 and 5km; during the season it’s just 2 to 3km,” says Nicola.
In an average game, water polo players will swim around 4km (the court in women’s competition is always 20 to 25m long and around 10m wide.) Coach Greg McFadden expects the Stingers to be able to bench press their body weight, do 10 chin-ups and squat 1.2 times their body weight.
I’m not surprised that water polo burns 2300 kilojoules per hour, minimum (games comprise four 15-min quarters, but you can sub out). It makes Zumba look like Tai Chi.
For me, water polo proves physically challenging, laugh-a-minute-fun and super refreshing on a hot day. Above all, it’s the team factor that sells this hard-arse sport. There’s 12 women supporting every single move you make. And that’s rather nice.
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Nicola Zagame demonstrates how to perform a winning pass