With the Tokyo Olympic experience fresh on their minds, the Canadian water polo women can’t wait to get a taste of international action again as the world aquatic championships get underway in Budapest, Hungary.
After their first Olympic appearance in 16 years, where they finished seventh, the Canadian squad is brimming with new-found confidence.
“We’re at the world stage, we want to win every single game and go one game at a time,” head coach David Paradelo said on a recent call from Karpenisi, Greece, where the team was putting in its final preparations ahead of the worlds.
“We have the means to do it. We’ve been building the program for two and a half years now. We have a good returning squad from the last [Olympic] quad. We wouldn’t be at the world championships if we weren’t going into it trying to win every single game possible.”
Full coverage of the world aquatics championships begins on Saturday on CBC and CBCSports.ca. The Canadian women kick off their event on Monday against Italy at 3 p.m. ET.
Canada (ranked No. 6 in the world) is in Group A alongside two other top 10 nations, Italy (No. 10) and Hungary (No. 1), as well as Colombia. The winner of the group gets a bye directly to the quarter-finals. The second-place finisher in Group A plays the third-place team in Group B, while the third-place finisher plays the second-place finisher in Group B.
In the 10 months since Tokyo, it hasn’t been all go-go-go for the Canadians. The team gave players flexibility to take time off after such an intense two-year Olympic preparation period under COVID protocols.
That doesn’t mean the players aren’t ready for Budapest.
They’ve had extended training camps in November, February and May leading up to the world championships. Plus, half the team plays professionally in Europe, while the other half is still in university, playing at the NCAA level or playing with Canadian club teams.
Canada’s medal record in the women’s event includes two silver and two bronze, the last one being a silver in 2009 in Rome.
Pair of lefties lead Canada’s team
Leading the Canadian team will be a couple of lefties and members of the Tokyo 2020 team: Kyra Christmas of High River, Alta., who is fresh off winning the Euro League title with Olympiacos in Greece, and centre Emma Wright of Lindsay, Ont., who just wrapped up her NCAA career with University of Califronia, Berkeley.
Canada heads into the world championships without a couple of veterans. Joelle Bekhazi and goaltender Claire Wright have retired, while captain Monika Eggens has taken the summer off.
New players on the block include San Jose State alum Rae Lekness, a centre who played on the youth national teams but took time away from the sport, as well as 22-year-old driver Verica Bakoc, who finished her senior year at the University of Southern California and has shown promise in exhibition matches against the Netherlands.
“It’s a team game. We want a solid performance. Everyone is going to be key. Some teams may see our players differently so we’ll have to adapt as we go,” Paradelo said. “It’ll be interesting to see how the teams react to all the tools that we have.”
Of all the lessons the team learned from Tokyo, how to deal with adversity was the biggest. Two years of training in a pandemic, a postponed Olympics, living in a three-month bubble prior to the Games were all intense.
“The whole two years prior to the Olympics was like a roller coaster, adapting to any situation possible even this summer is super important,” said Paradelo. “It was the first Olympic Games for everyone in this quad so bringing that experience to the world championships is key. We all come in with so much more confidence, leadership and knowledge going into these next Games [in Paris 2024].”
It’s a shorter Olympic quadrennial with the postponement of the Tokyo Games, which means the road to Paris 2024 is already underway. This year is being used for evaluation.
“We had to rebuild the program not only for the next three years, but the next eight years [into Los Angeles],” said Paradelo. “We have to make sure that we’re not just thinking about today but thinking about tomorrow. In the meantime we need to perform at all the important events like these world championships.”
Canadian men return after absence
The Canadian men’s team is making a return to the world championships after an absence from the competition in 2019. The world No. 19 Canadians earned a ticket to Budapest with a fourth-place performance at the Intercontinental Cup in Lima, Peru in February. The Canadians, under new coach Pat Oaten, are currently in Budapest for their final preparations.
Canada is in Group C with world No. 6 Spain (fourth place at Tokyo 2020), No. 8 Italy and No. 15 South Africa. Canada’s best result at the worlds was eighth in 2009.
“This is really going to be the first event where the complete roster of 13 guys is together,” said coach Pat Oaten, from Budapest where the Canadian team is training with Olympic bronze medallists Hungary before the tournament.
“The team is starting to come together and gel at the right time. I think this is going to be a really good opportunity to see where we’re at versus the top teams in the world. “
The men begin their tournament against Spain on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. ET.