In the words of Australian women’s water polo goalkeeper Gabi Palm: “I have heard that there is a stereotype that goalkeepers are crazy, and deep down, there is a bit of truth to that. You do have to be a little crazy to want to be a goalkeeper, since it is our job to use our body to stop balls thrown at us from going in a net.”
Gabi Palm hails from the Sunshine State of Australia — Queensland — and now plies her trade in Spain, where her sun-bleached hair makes her stand out from the crowd, much like playing in goal.
Palm plays for Club Esportiu Mediterrani in Barcelona, which has been involved in the Champions League, reaching the quarter-finals for the first time. At the time of the interview, the club was sitting third in the Spanish league.
From starting her water polo career at Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School as a 12-year-old, Palm has progressed to the Aussie Stingers squad via the Queensland Academy of Sport and Brisbane Barracudas national water polo league team. She represented Queensland at national championships in various age levels, before being selected to the Academy as a 14-year-old.
Palm’s induction to goalkeeping came after finding out that she was not good at freestyle. “At my high school team trials, it was evident that freestyle was not my strong suit. But I was tall, good at breaststroke and there was an opening for a goalkeeper. So, the director of water polo, Chris Moore, pulled me aside and asked if I wanted to give goalkeeping a go. And the rest is history.”
Palm earned her first national team berth in 2014 at age 16 and then competed in her first FINA World Championship at youth level in Auckland, New Zealand in 2016.
“I debuted for the Aussie Stingers in 2017 at the (FINA World League) Intercontinental Tournament in Sacramento, USA, where we came away with a gold medal. It’s safe to say that it was an ideal introduction to the national team. It was a good break for me as it was the first tournament of the new Olympic cycle, after the Rio 2016 Olympics and following the retirement of several senior players. After my debut at 18, and subsequently being one of the youngest and most inexperienced players on the team, it then became my goal to cement my position in the Australian team.“
This she has done — competing in the FINA World League Intercontinental Cup, FINA World League Super Final and FINA World Cup of 2018; the FINA World League Intercontinental Cup and FINA World Championships of 2019; having the Covid-19 hiatus before coming back to the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and then the FNA World Championships and FINA World League Super Final last year. At Tokyo, she reached 60 senior international caps and by the close of 2023 will be shooting towards a century of international matches.
At the Queensland Academy, she came under the goalkeeping guidance of Jack Lusic; with the Barracudas she gained assistance from dual Olympic bronze medallist Mel Rippon; and now at Mediterrani she comes under the coaching sphere of legendary Spanish goalkeeper Patricia Del Soto.
On the current, shortened Olympic cycle, Palm said: “I have transitioned into a senior member of the Australian team. Many of our senior and experienced players retired from the sport after the Tokyo Olympics which made way for me to step up and take on more of a leadership role both in and out of the pool.
“It’s a shorter cycle due to COVID-19, but I’m really excited with where we are at as a team. I’m very fortunate to be working alongside a great bunch of girls under the guidance of our head coach Paul Oberman. We’re gaining momentum as a team in our preparations as we build towards this international season and into the Paris Olympics.”
On the prerequisites of goalkeeper training, Palm said: “Some would say that goalkeeping is an individual sport within a team sport. In terms of fitness and conditioning, our training is very different to that of the field players because the physical demands of a goalkeeper and a field player during the game are entirely different. Our training is predominantly legwork strength, power, coordination, as well as agility and fitness in the goal. This is one aspect of goalkeeping that I really enjoy as I’m able to do this different kind of training, but then I am still able to come together with the rest of my team and train as a unit.”
So, what it is like for an Aussie girl to uproot her life in one country and shift to the other side of the world to work?
“The lifestyle between Australia and Spain is completely different. Compared to Australia, everything in Spain is later. In Spain, they wake up later, they start training later, they eat dinner later. In Australia, we normally train early in the morning at 6:30am, whereas in Spain, our first session isn’t until noon. It is a change that I have welcomed, and I feel like I have adjusted well.
“My coaches and team-mates at Medi were also important in helping me adjust to the new lifestyle and my life here in Barcelona. They welcomed me with open arms and made the transition really smooth. Another aspect of living and playing in Spain this season is that I’ve been able to form friendships with people from other countries as this year, the Spanish league has attracted so many international players.”
Then there is the language. Palm takes Spanish lessons once a week, “But it can be challenging at times, because most people automatically speak to me in English as they assume that I’m not Spanish — the biggest giveaway being my long blonde hair. I also think it’s because most people living in Barcelona have a proficient standard of English and so they want to speak to me so that they can improve their English.”
With the constant high level of Spanish water polo and a professional training environment, Palm will be well placed to handle the international pressures when she joins the national team for the upcoming World Aquatics World Cup Division 1 rounds in Rotterdam, Netherlands and Athens, Greece and the World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka in July-August.