"Part average Australian, part elite athlete, you perform the balancing act of socialite, employee, partner, national representative."
"Cricket, AFL and rugby league are supported by big name corporate sponsors and are watched and enjoyed through mainstream media coverage.
Water polo isn't one of the lucky ones."
The Double Life
Why is it that after each Olympics the female water polo team loses half its players?
Part average Australian, part elite athlete, you perform the balancing act of socialite, employee, partner, national representative. Love of the game has never rung truer.
Women’s Water Polo Wins
Amongst Australia’s rich sporting history, the women’s water polo squad is one of our success stories. While men’s water polo has been an Olympic sport for over a hundred years, the Sydney 2000 Olympics was the first year women’s water polo was included in the program. The decision was brought about by the persistent lobbying efforts of the Australian team to sporting authorities such as FINA in the years leading up to 2000.
It was worth it- gold medallists at the Sydney Olympics. And their streak of success has continued. Greg McFadden, Head Coach of the Australian Women’s Water Polo Team and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) Water Polo Team, is proud that the women have ranked in the top three teams in the world for the past four years.
“In 2005 we… beat the world champions at the FINA World League. Then in 2006 we won the gold medal at the World Cup. In 2007 we won the silver medal at the World Championships and in 2008 we won the bronze medal at the Olympics,” McFadden says.
Yet after the Beijing Olympics, eight of the 13 players who brought home bronze retired. That’s the core of the team. “Virtually after every Olympic Games we’re building a new team,” McFadden says. “We just went to the World Championships, we had eight players retire. It makes it hard for us to then go and get a result. And then because you don’t get the result you don’t get the money. So it’s kind of a two-edged sword. What do you do?”
Professional or amateur?
These high, consistent retirement rates occur because water polo players aren’t professional athletes: they’re not paid a full salary to play in either their league teams or the national teams. Some sports enjoy a privileged position in Australian culture, media and commerce. Cricket, AFL and rugby league are supported by big name corporate sponsors and are watched and enjoyed through mainstream media coverage. Water polo isn’t one of the lucky ones.
“Our sport has sponsors, but they’re not big money sponsors,” says Taryn Woods, representative for the Balmain Tigers League Team and one of the gold-medallists at the Sydney Olympics. “Our club, for example, has a handful of sponsors that give some money but it costs our club in excess of $50,000 a year to enter a men’s and a women’s national league team.” The club has to rely on constant fundraisers to make up the shortfall, and there’s little left to be paying players’ salaries.
It seems Australia lags behind many other nations. Nicole Dyson, 22, has retired from the national team due to injury. She believes that there isn’t big interest in water polo here because the sport isn’t promoted in Australia. “Overseas, in Europe, everybody knows what water polo is,” she says. “That’s where all the boys go to play and lots of the girls go to play and get contracts over there. And they don’t get loads of money, but they get money, as opposed to nothing.”
Behind the Times
According to McFadden, players in countries like Greece or Italy can get 30,000 to 40,000 Euro a year to play for their country, and 20,000 to 30,000 Euro to play for their club team. As a result, a European player would not consider retirement as early as an Australian athlete. “You want to stay there for as long as you can because it is virtually your form of employment,” McFadden says. Missing the organisational infrastructure, a women’s national league for water polo only began in 2004. “We’re very amateur compared to the rest of the teams in the world... [who] have professional national leagues,” McFadden explains. “We only get money if we get results.”
The Australian Sports Commission is making an effort to improve the situation. Funding is allocated to women’s water polo because of its history of high performance and its status as an Olympic sport, says Wanda Sipa, Senior Sports Consultant with Sports Services at the ASC. The women’s team have helped water polo sit within the top 15 sports supported by ASC, as evident in the $2,750,000 it has been allocated for 2009/10. Sipa notes that the women’s team have camps-based programs with the AIS worth about $500,000 that are no longer available for the men’s team. They also received international competition travel funding, which ranges from $50,000-$75,000, in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics.
Woods remembers when this kind of funding began in 1992. “I was probably very lucky. I think the first trip I went on with the senior team was the first year it was funded,” she says. “Previous to that I think they had a little bit of funding but athletes always had to contribute towards paying for their own trip.” Younger players such as 18-year-old Bre Appel, who plays for Balmain and is on the senior AIS team, have benefited from the additional support. When she travelled to Europe with the junior team to compete, the AIS provided money to cover travel and accommodation costs.
Winning Hard Means Working Hard
For most players, training and playing national representative water polo is slotted around full- or part-time jobs or studying. Appel’s days are full to the brim. Completing a one-year diploma of Sports Development, she goes to TAFE for eight-hour blocks three days a week. Training two hours every morning with the New South Wales Institute of Sport team and three afternoons a week for the Balmain Club team, she also manages to coach water polo at a private school two afternoons a week, and then compete herself on Saturdays.
The mix of study and sport means Australian Water Polo Inc. (the national sporting body), educational institutions and workplaces have little choice but to give athletes flexibility in their responsibilities. Appel is grateful that the AWP encourages and helps players balance their education and work with water polo. While the private school understands and substitutes for Appel when she’s away, she doesn’t like having to drop in and out of her coaching role. “I love the satisfaction of seeing the kids get better at water polo. It’s annoying for me because it’s my job and I need the money,” she says. “You want to be a good worker but it’s hard because of the water polo.”
Having played on national teams for 20 years, Woods has also had to juggle work, study and play. She had supportive parents and was able to live at home until she was 26, which eased the economic pressure on her when she needed to travel for training and international competitions and events. “I’ve been quite lucky in the jobs I’ve had as they’ve been happy to let me take as much leave as I’ve needed,” Woods says. “But saying that it was never paid leave, and when you go away for six or seven weeks at a time it’s a long time to not earn any money.” She managed to squeeze in a Masters in Business at the University of Sydney part-time with training, competing and paid work.
Woods grabbed at the opportunity to be in a professional league overseas, and played two seasons in Italy as part of a club team. “It wasn’t a big salary by any means, but it was great to be able to live the life of a professional athlete for six months of a year.” Unfortunately, though, a lot of female players don’t choose this course. Women don’t earn as much as men when playing professionally, so the option isn’t as enticing. You have to leave your comfort zone: your family, your friends, your local club team, your nation. And as Woods puts it: “While it was a fantastic experience and I wouldn’t miss it for the world, you are sort of putting your life on hold for that period of time in a lot of ways”.
Reflecting on her water polo past, Woods recognises the need for further improvement in the sport. “It’s not easy, that’s for sure. I think if you look at some professional athletes in other sports they probably wouldn’t still be playing if they had to do this to survive.” Water polo needs to foster enough media and corporate sponsor interest to have a professional national league or a salary for the national squad, but this isn’t easy when the players don’t wear jerseys, have tiny swimming caps, and play on a field hidden by surging water. So while the efforts by the ASC to assist players has contributed to the success of upcoming players, the lack of funding means water polo is still in deep water.
Tags: water polo; women; nsw institute of sport; australian institute of sport; australian sports commission; beijing olympics; sydney olympics; funding
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