Mon, September 23, 2013

Men's water polo pooling their hopes

By SCOTT MITCHELL, QMI Agency


Calgary's Scott Robinson, right, and the rest of the Canadian national men's water polo team are hoping to lock up an Olympic berth. (Stuart Dryden/QMI Agency)

CALGARY - With four months to go until the Olympic flame arrives in London, the national men’s water polo team is in deep.

At a time when most teams around the world are putting together rosters of 26 and 27-year-olds at their athletic peaks, the 13-man Canadian squad is toting a bunch of baby-faced waterbugs in their early 20s up to Edmonton for the Olympic qualification tournament, April 1-8.

It’s a gruelling eight games in eight days, with eight out of the 12 teams in attendance earning berths at the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Three 20-year-old Calgarians — Jared McElroy, Scott Robinson and Oliver Vikalo — are in tow, and they’re among the youngest of the bunch.

“We’re the youngest team there by far, so our youthful charisma is going to help us out, for sure,” Vikalo said after a training session Tuesday at the Talisman Centre. “We’re the best conditioned team, by far, at the tournament, so I think that works in our favour.”

Not surprisingly, the young squad uses its speed to navigate the six-on-six (not including the goaltenders) game played in a two-metre deep pool.

Most were competitive swimmers as kids but grew fond of the physicality involved with the sport of water polo.

“Under the pool (surface), something’s always happening,” McElroy said with a grin. “We’ve been playing for years, so we can brush it off. But it can get rough — there’s some injuries and some dirty play, but we get past it.

“It’s a wrestling match in the water. It’s just a fight, and I absolutely love it.”

After an 11th-place showing at the 2008 Beijing Games, this year’s goal is to first qualify and then finish inside the top-eight in London. In 2016, the goal is medal, according to head coach Dragan Jovanovic.

But first, they need to make a splash in Edmonton.

“I think playing in front of the home crowd, even though it may sound weird or strange, I don’t think it’s to our advantage, just because of the age of this team,” Jovanovic said. “It’s really a really young and inexperienced team, so if we’re able to overcome that and stay focused on the task, we’ll be completely fine.”

While the head coach is concerned about his inexperienced team’s mental state, Robinson isn’t concerned at all.

“It’s going to be a gruelling tournament, absolutely, but we’re just going to take it a game at a time and not get ahead of ourselves,” Robinson said.

Team captain Aaron Feltham, of Lindsay, Ont., is considered the greybeard at age of 29, and after moving to Calgary in 2001 to take up the sport full-time, he’s seen a number of teams come and go.

Feltham likes what he sees in this version, and he feels they could accelerate the coach’s podium timetable.

“I expect this team to win a medal at a major competition in the next four or five years,” Feltham said.

That’s music to Vikalo’s ears.

“That’s my dream. Ever since I started this sport, that was my goal — to go to the Olympics — and not only to go, but to perform well at the Olympics,” Vikalo said. “It would be a dream come true if it happens.

“It’s everything to me right now.”

On Twitter: @SUNMitchell