It was a horrible day in Canadian water polo when the women’s team fronted Italy on 2 February, 2024 in Doha, Qatar for the World Aquatics Championships with the winner confirmed as the final Paris Olympic team and the loser dispatched to history.

The opponent was Italy and it was to be a battle royale.

Canada opened, but Italy went 4-1 ahead. The resilience of the Canadians brought the match level and the match was not seven minutes old. Italy went to the first break 5-4 ahead.

This became 7-4 and 9-5. At 10-8 and 3:29 remaining in the first half, Canada was hanging in there. The 11-8 halftime Italian lead burgeoned to 13-8 and 13-9 by the final break. Italy was in the box seat.

Image Source: Emma Wright of Team Canada scores a goal for Canada against Australia at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

The energy seemed to drain from Canada as the writing was on the wall and it did not include a ticket to Paris. Italy went 14-9 and 15-11 as captain Emma Wright drew the team to within four and a statistical possibility of drawing level. However, Italy scored three straight for 18-11 and a late Hayley McKelvey penalty only meant Italy won 18-12 and it had the final berth.

The scenes of desolation followed as the whole team went through the mixed zone with tears welling or gushing as the reality of the situation — years of hard work destroyed — and no one wanted to speak. Italy chatted as it was retribution for not making Tokyo 2020.

Word came through later that day to say that African qualifier South Africa was withdrawing its men’s and women’s teams from Paris, meaning the next best team from Doha — Canada — would get what was now the final berth.

Much of the Canadian celebrations went un-noticed in the background as word seeped through to reporters and the general public that Canada had gained a cherished berth.

Image Source: Emma Wright of Canada shoots during a preliminary round match between Brazil and Canada at the 2017 World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, Hungary (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Scoring Goals asked the recently married Wright the feeling among the team in that anguished day.

“Going from the lowest of the lows when we lost to Italy to finding out that we got an Olympic berth was definitely a weird experience. I think we were disappointed with the fact that we weren’t able to qualify by winning, but obviously happy that we got that last spot with South Africa’s withdrawal. Now I’m just thankful that our journey isn’t over and we have another chance to prove ourselves and what we can accomplish at the Olympic Games.”


How has the team managed this process since Doha?

“After Doha we took two weeks to recover, and process what happened. I think this was very important for each of us to have the time we needed and in order to come back together refreshed and ready to train. Since then, we have refocused and are making strides every day in order to be ready for the Games.”

As captain, how did you deal with the first situation and then the second situation?

“I’m lucky, because my team makes my role of being captain easy. We have a lot of strong leaders and voices on this team and everyone plays an important part. After the first situation, we came together as a team and we said we stay together no matter what. After the second situation, I think we were all a little stunned and didn’t know how to feel, but again we stayed together. In the end, I hope that this second chance will push us to be our best at the Games.”

What has the team been doing since Doha?

“We have been training a lot. We also recently went to Spain and France in order to get games against other teams, which was really important for us. We are currently in Canada, but we leave again soon for another training camp in Hungary and Greece.”

What will you do in the lead-up to Paris:

“After our trip to Hungary and Greece, we come back to Canada and have about a week and half here, then we head to Italy for a few days and then to Paris for the Games.”

Wright has been a long-time leader in the team, starting her career in Toronto, Ontario and then having her first experience with the national team at the age group level when she was 13. Her first trip with the senior team was in 2012 at the age of 16. Since then, she has been very active, competing at seven senior World Aquatic Championships.

“I received a scholarship to play and study at the University of California, Berkeley. I have been a captain of the senior national team since 2019 and I have been to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. And soon Paris,” she said. 

Image Source: Emma Wright of Canada shoots on USA's Ashleigh Johnson during the Women's Quarterfinal match at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (Harry How/Getty Images)

As a powerful-shooting left-hander, what does Wright bring to her team?

“I think I bring a lot of heart and passion to my team. My team-mates could tell you about how competitive and intense I can get, but I think that shows when I play, as well. I think I also bring a lot of experience to the team, especially for the newest members, but most importantly I think I push the team when we need it.” 

Looking back at Tokyo and some near misses to finish seventh and the possible new-look to your team, how will Paris be different?

“I think Tokyo was a learning experience for a lot of us. It was our first time at the Games and I think that showed in how we played. We had some close games and a lot of missed opportunities, so in Paris we will use that previous experience. Also, this being for many of us our second Olympic Games, we will hopefully be able to help those newer and younger athletes be prepared and perform to their best abilities.” 

Historically, this is the fourth time Canada has made the Olympics; you are now looking at twice in a row, like 2000-2004. How will this compare?

“I think it is exciting for our programme and also for our sport across Canada to be going to our fourth Olympic Games in programme history. Hopefully we will be able to use this amazing experience to grow the sport and inspire the younger generation of water polo athletes.” 

On prospects in Paris, she said: “We are looking to prove to not only ourselves, but to the world, that we are a top team. I think our performance in Doha left a sour taste in our mouths and we have been pushing ourselves to not feel that again. We are excited and ready to fight in Paris.”

The Canadian Olympic water polo team will be announced later this month.