The Aussie Stingers’ preparation for the Tokyo Olympic Games begins this week, with a series of three Test matches against arch-rivals the United States of America.
The last series of games for the Australian women’s water polo team before the Olympics will be held on January 14th, 16th and 18th in Brisbane.
The USA clearly have the edge. They currently hold all four major international titles and are the reigning Olympic champions.
But for Tokyo hopeful Keesja Gofers, the chance to come up against the world’s best is a positive way to start the international calendar.
“We are playing the world number one at home and we want to challenge the current world and Olympic Champions,” she says.
“These Test matches are also on at the same time as our Australian Youth Championships so we want to demonstrate positive water polo.
“It’s a great chance to demonstrate water polo to those junior athletes so we are really looking forward to it.”
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The rivalry between these two nations stretches back at least to Sydney 2000 – when water polo was played at the Olympics for the first time – as Australia defeated the USA 4-3 to secure the gold medal in front of their home crowd.
This series follows a bronze medal at the 2019 FINA World Championships and a silver medal at the 2019 FINA World League Intercontinental Cup.
It was also a significant year for Gofers, who played water polo in Greece for well-known football club Olympiacos.
Despite being Greek myself, I had no idea that the country was so passionate about water polo. Gofers however assures me that Greece is very keen on the sport, with the men consistently ranked top three in the world – and the women not too far behind.
She also got engaged in 2019 to her partner, Scott Nicholson. Some might say this has been a long time in the making, given the two best friends made a marriage pact eight years ago that if both were single by age 30, they would get married.
But while Gofers would like to do some wedding planning this year, she has some other things which will keep her busy this year. Namely, making sure that she qualifies for Tokyo.
Should she make the team, it will be her second Olympic games.
“Rio was absolutely incredible. There is nothing that will compare to that moment when I walked out with the team for the first time,” says Gofers.
“I saw my whole family in the crowd and at that moment, we all thought anything was possible.”
The Stingers disappointingly finished in sixth place in 2016, their medal hopes dashed after losing 8-8 to Hungary in a penalty shootout, then going down 10-12 to Spain in the fifth vs sixth playoff.
But for Gofers, that is motivation.
“The Olympics is an addictive feeling and it is a feeling I want to re-live which is why I am striving so hard for Tokyo,” she says.
“I also want to do better than we did at Rio and push through the hard moments with the team to make sure we get onto that podium.”
What will assist the team is that they are now full-time athletes. Their current training and touring schedule means it is almost impossible to hold a full-time job, so with Government support and assistance from Water Polo Australia, the Stingers are fully supported so they can fully focus on the Olympics.
This professional status began last year and for the last three months of 2019, the Stingers were based in Canberra for a camp.
This meant training, psychology and nutrition were the focus, no doubt giving these women the chance to improve their craft.
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The team operates on a four-year cycle to coincide with the Olympics, so while the Stingers are not full-time professional athletes in the first three years of the cycle, they are at the moment.
For Gofers, this is not necessarily a negative thing.
“We know that the extra time we have as professionals is so precious and we really try and utilise it because we know that potentially next year, if you continue after the Olympics, you don’t have the same opportunity,” she says.
After these Test matches, the Stingers will head back to their domestic teams to play in the Australian Water Polo League, which will conclude in April. From there, the Stingers head overseas to play in the FINA World League Intercontinental Tournament and FINA World League Finals.
The team for Tokyo will be selected and announced in late June, meaning these Test matches are our last chance to see the Stingers at home.
For those interested in watching these games, you can stream all three Tests live.