Water polo is a sport built on family dynasties. Take the illustrious Szivos family of Hungary as one example where three generations of players competed at the Olympic Games with the grandfather, Istvan Senior, and father, Istvan Junior, claiming gold medals and the grandson, Marton, not enjoying that success but still competing on the biggest global stage. There are these families all over the world and today, a group of Australian youngsters is following in the swimming wake of their illustrious mothers.
It's a warm weekend in a normally humid, sub-tropical Brisbane in Australia’s Queensland State capital. It happens to be the Easter long weekend during mid-autumn and the pools of the vast city are brimming with water polo players as they contest the Australian Youth Water Polo Championships.
The tournament has been abridged due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the recent opening of the Western Australian State borders the abolition of mask mandates and the ability for Aussies to travel around the country for the first time in two years.
The AYC normally runs over two weeks with 12s, 14s, 16s and 18s competitions, but the pandemic and the uncertainty of players being available and not quarantining, meant for a five-day event.
There were seven venues and 13 fields of play, more than 130 teams and 356 matches, overseen by a myriad of delegates and referees from all corners of the country. This scribe was busy as a referee delegate at 42 matches and had to travel across the continent and pay the price of an airline ticket equivalent to a trip to Europe.
Present at the tournament was an array of international players and legends who were coaching, managing or just attending as their children were taking part. It was the new generation and it was great to be introduced to the youngsters as they sought to carve out a career of their own.
There were many Aussie Sharks men coaxing their youngsters to greater heights, but the group of women I was most interested to see had turned out with their children hoping that one day they might emulate that night in September, 22 years earlier when Australia beat United States of America for the inaugural Olympic gold medal at Sydney Olympic Park.
Heading the group was captain Bridgette Ireland (nee Gusterson), since inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame for her feats.
Naomi McCarthy (nee Castle, pictured) was there coaching the 16s Polo Bears team and daughter Ally playing in the 14s division.
There was an interesting pairing or two friends who could not get a full team to compete so half the team came from Perth and the other half from Canberra to combine for the gruelling five days. The Perth half was led by goalkeeper Liz Scott (nee Weekes) and the Canberra crew by Olympic assistant coach Sharon Arnold (nee Gist).
On the last day, I bumped into Debbie Watson, the first player to win World Championship, World Cup and Olympic gold medals. She was heading off to the main pool to act as commentator for the live streaming of the finals. Debbie was the first of the Olympic team to be inducted into the ISHOF.
Bronwyn Smith (nee Mayer) runs Water Polo Australia’s women’s programme. She was at the AYC watching her two daughters play for Balmain in the 18s and 16s divisions.
Today marks the 22nd Anniversary of Australia winning the inaugural Olympic women’s gold medal. Since then the sport for women has rocketed worldwide.
Taryn Woods was there coaching her daughter’s 14s team. She is the current Australian junior women’s head coach and one of the senior team’s assistant coaches.
Jo Fox was at the AYC watching play as the current assistant coach of the Australian junior team and works with the senior team coaching staff.
What of the players not in Brisbane?
Simone Fountain (nee Hankin) is based in the far north-western city of Karratha where she is still playing and led her team to the Western Australian Country title in March as a player/coach. Her full-time job, when not coaching and playing, is concerned with regional sport and recreation.
Goalkeeper Danielle Woodhouse — Ireland’s sister — is active in coaching in Perth and her son Griffin has made a national junior team to travel to New Zealand. Danielle also travelled Europe this year with national teams as a physiotherapist.
Yvette Higgins, who threw the golden goal with 1.3 seconds remaining, has been the head of water polo at Scots College in Sydney for some time.
Kate Hooper drifted from the sport in the early 2000s, made a few appearances years later and is now keeping a non-water polo profile.
Much like sporting teams worldwide, legends never stray too far from their sport.