The Australian Women's Water Polo team may have a secret weapon as they head to the Olympics next month, with four of the 13 athletes recently selected for the Aussie Stingers squad all graduates of the University of Sydney.
Goalkeeper Lea Yanitsas, centre back Hannah Buckling and left driver Keesja Gofers will make their Olympic debut alongside fellow alumna Nicola 'Ziggy' Zagame, who was part of the bronze medal-winning 2012 London Olympics side.
With a further Stinger, Isobel Bishop, also a member of the Sydney University Lions Women's Water Polo Club, the Australian women's water polo side is almost half-filled by University of Sydney representatives.
The teammates will travel to Europe this weekend for final training and competitions in Hungary and Montenegro before landing in Rio early next month to pursue Olympic glory.
"I definitely think we've got lots of great connections between the Sydney Uni girls, as well as the greater team, and that's a competitive advantage as we all click really well," said Hannah Buckling (BSc '14), who will begin a Doctor of Medicine at the University of Sydney next year.
It's not just about individual greatness, it's about working together, and there are so many talented players in the team
Gofers, Buckling, Bishop and Yanitsas have all trained at Sydney Uni Sport & Fitness under two-time bronze medal-winning coach Alicia Smith (nee McCormack), and assistant coach Debbie Watson OAM, a gold medal-winner in Australia’s history-making 2000 Sydney Olympics side.
"Alicia and Deb are two of Australia’s greatest ever water polo players, and having them as coaches has been invaluable not only in terms of physical preparations but also with the mental side of things," said Buckling.
"They've been unbelievably supportive in teaching us how to cope with pressure, how to be leaders within a team and how to deal with life outside the pool."
"Obviously it's an honour to represent Australia, but when you play for Sydney Uni you can enjoy the atmosphere: it's different in terms of the pressure you put on yourself," adds Keesja Gofers (BDesArch '12).
"When you're training so hard you can lose sight of why you love the game. Our coaches at Sydney Uni Sport & Fitness bring us back to why we're involved and why we're still playing, and that's definitely helped us in terms of selection and ultimately how we'll perform at the Games."
The Sydney University Lions players are poised to capitalise on this club camaraderie in Rio, emboldened by their recent victory taking out the National Water Polo League title in March 2016.
"We have a strong sense of culture, belief and excitement, and real pride in what we're trying to do," said Lea Yanitsas, who completed a Bachelor of Applied Science (Physiotherapy) in 2012.
"You form friendships through seeing each other develop and seeing how much everyone puts in, knowing that your teammates are there beside you giving absolutely everything they can for this common goal. We've all been working for this dream for a really long time now."
Bachelor of Applied Science (Physiotherapy) '12
After representing Australia as goalkeeper in water polo for almost a decade, Lea Yanitsas will make her Olympic debut in 2016 at Rio. She graduated with a Bachelor of Applied Science (Physiotherapy) in 2012, and outside the pool is a practicing physiotherapist.
Doctor of Medicine (2017)
Hannah will make her Olympic debut at Rio with the Australian women’s water polo team, after narrowly missing out on a spot in the 2012 London games. She is a Bachelor of Science graduate (2014) and is due to begin a Doctor of Medicine in 2017, hoping to pursue a career in medicine when she hangs up her swimmers.
Bachelor of Design in Architecture '12
Olympic debutant Keesja first took up water polo to copy her sisters when she was 13-years-old. Sporting prowess runs in her family – her sister Taniele won a bronze medal in water polo at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Another of her sisters, Allira, plays European handball and beach handball for Australia.
Bachelor of Applied Science (MRS) Diagnostic Radiography '14
Nicola made her Olympic debut in London 2012 and helped the side win bronze. She returns to pursue her Olympic dream following shoulder surgery in 2013, which left her sidelined for much of the 2014 season. Outside the pool Nicole works as a diagnostic radiographer and can solve a Rubik’s Cube in two minutes.
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