It’s not often that a player explodes on to the world scene at the age of 36. This has been the case of Israeli stalwart Shunit Strugo, who slammed in 20 goals in three days of the World Aquatics Women’s Water Polo World Cup Division II qualifiers in Berlin, Germany. In the process she spearheaded her team into the World Cup finals in Long Beach, United States of America later next month and will be a key figure at the World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka this July.
Shunit Strugo has surfed the highs and lows of the Israeli water polo scene in her more-than-20-year career, starting at aged 10, stopping only for five years when the national team programme was shut down. She returned 10 years ago and has never looked back, enveloping herself in water polo, from starting a club to managing it and assisting national teams as a coach.
All photos courtesy of: Jo Kleindl/DSV/World Aquatics
Israeli women’s water polo started in 1991 and Shunit belongs to the Hapoel Yoqneam club, which is the current champion of Israel as well as the cup holder and which she formed and now manages.
“I played tennis together with water polo until the age of 16. I chose to continue with water polo because we succeeded in qualifying for the first time to the European championship (division 2). I was excited by this and decided to stop playing tennis, but unfortunately three years later the Israeli national team was closed,” Shunit said.
“I came to this sport following my parents — Dvora and David Strugo — who opened a water polo club in my home town, and me and my two brothers joined it. One, Gad Strugo, went on to become national captain.”
Shunit’s love for the water spurs her on. “I like this sport more than any other because I love the water. I like the challenge in this sport, the fact that you need to think a lot and to play smart and, of course, I enjoy the team atmosphere, outside and inside the water. They are my second family.”
She has been playing in the senior national team since she was 14 years old. “I don't know how many matches I had, but I had a lot, especially in the last seven years,” she said.
There are eight teams in the Israeli league, and clubs play about 15 matches a season. At the end of the season the best four compete in the play-offs (semifinals and finals).
Shunit is proud of the national team’s elevation on the world scene in the past few years.
“We still have some steps to do in order to become better and start to compete with the top teams in the world, and I hope that we will succeed in doing so in the next few years.
“The Israeli federation reopened the team 11 years ago, and we started to compete again on an international level, and more importantly we began to compete in the junior competitions. That forced the clubs to work harder and to produce more junior players, and, as a result, the base and selection became bigger. We still don't have enough girls and players in Israel, but it's much better than it used to be. I believe that for the next step we will have to make the base bigger,” she said.
Seven years ago, the federation, together with the sports departments in Israel, decided to invest more in women's water polo.
“Dimitris Mavrotas came to coach us from Greece, and we started to work like a club but as a national team. We practised together with all the national players for four years — 10 practices in the water and five gym practices every week. After four years and after two Europeans (we qualified for the first time), we reduced the intensity of working together as a national team, and we started to practise more in the clubs, and to meet for intense preparation before the international competitions.
“Happily, the hard work paid off and we succeeded to make better results in each of the last three European championships (finishing sixth in Split last year and qualifying for this year’s World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka), and more importantly to play better as a team, to play for each other in the water and to look more and more as one strong unit. Our national team is young and I believe a lot in the girls and their future in this sport,” Shunit said.
What about her longevity in the pool?
“The truth is that it's not that easy to motivate myself after all these years, and I have many days of fighting myself to practise and to work hard.
“What still pushes me is the fact that we have a few targets ahead; some of them will be for the first time, like the World Championships and World Cup, and I want us to succeed as much as possible and I want to come in my best shape. I believe it will be tough, but a great experience.”
Israel is emerging as a water polo-hosting nation, which will assist in the expansion of the sport.
“The latest events that Israel hosted were an amazing experience for us. We had two junior competitions — U19 European and U20 World Championships — and it was great to see the atmosphere in the pool, the way it looks, the home crowd that filled the stands and to host all these countries here in Israel. The fact that these games were broadcast in the sports channels and the promotion for these events brought more kids to water polo, and especially made the existing players more motivated and to have something to strive for.
“We are looking forward to hosting the next senior Europeans (later this year) and to play for the first time both women and men teams, in front of our home crowd.
What about qualifying for the World Aquatics World Cup finals in June?
“We were very excited to be qualified for Long Beach, to have the opportunity to compete with the top-level teams in the world, and to meet some of them for the first time. We came to the qualification tournament with this target. We knew we had a good chance and we were very happy to make it and to see that we made another step forward by beating these teams with great results.
Shunit is married to a Serbian water polo coach — Milos Bradic. “We met each other as two coaches in European championships and today we are living together in Israel. He is a coach in our club, and also my coach in the women's team. He is an amazing coach, the best, in my neutral opinion, but it's not easy to have him as my coach (Serbian coaches have special temperament...),” she said.
Shunit is also a coach in the Israeli federation. “I was coaching the junior national teams in some competitions, and this year I'll be assisting Dimitris in the U20 world championship. I think I have been able to combine working and playing because my job is water polo, otherwise it would be very hard.”
Shunit Strugo is one of the players to watch in Long Beach, Fukuoka and Tel Aviv this year.