Three University of Cape Town (UCT) players were among the South African women’s and men’s water-polo teams who are back from the International Swimming Federation (FINA) World League Intercontinental Cup competition in Australia having acquired some valuable new skills.
The students, Nicola MacLeod (final-year BSc in anatomy and genetics), and Liam Neill and David Rom (both completing a BCom in finance and accounting) all did their best for South Africa, even though the teams turned in less than stellar performances.
The men’s and women’s teams both placed eighth out of eight teams, with Australia and the United States (US) bagging gold medals in the men’s and women’s divisions respectively.
The South African team have a lot to celebrate, however, according to MacLeod.
“It’s always tough coming from a South African standpoint. We are not professionals, we are students who take out of our own time, and we are not funded at all. All the other teams are professionals who are on a completely different level,” she explained.
In addition, most of the international water-polo championships take place in June or July, which is South Africa’s off-season.
While the results don’t immediately reflect it, there have been improvements in the teamʼs performance, MacLeod said.
“We try and train in our off-season but usually it’s very difficult to stay fit. We go in there and get pummelled. But this time we could keep up with [the other teams]. It was hardly ever them beating us on pure fitness, which was really cool.”
It was also a great experience for the players to compete against Kazakhstan and New Zealand, who are on a similar level to the South Africans.
“Usually when you go to the big tournaments you would play the US, Hungary and Australia, and they are just going to pummel you the whole time,” she added.
The other benefit of the Intercontinental Cup is the practice it afforded the South Africans.
“This was also like a warm-up for the World Championships which we don’t usually have,” said MacLeod, adding that they gained valuable experience and skills to bring back home.
“This year we competed a lot more than we have in the past. It doesn’t show that in the results, but as a water-polo player, you know if you’re watching the games that it is all getting better.
“We went in, both teams, a lot fitter than we have been in the past because we came from our local nationals and we were the fittest we should be. Going in there, it showed.”
“It doesn’t show that in the results, but as a water-polo player, you know if you’re watching the games that it is all getting better.”
MacLeod said it was an amazing experience for them to represent South Africa.
“I always enjoy these events. I feel so privileged to be selected and able to represent … with people who I have watched play my whole life. Now I get to play with them.”
MacLeod believes that with the proper funding, things would be very different for the South African teams.
“We have improved dramatically; we are starting from a much earlier age than we used to.
“If we had funding and time, and if I could play water polo and only come to two courses a day, trust me, I would. I can’t make a career out of the sport so I have to study, and that’s always going to have to come first.”
Friendly South Africans
The team definitely felt the love at the event too.
“We felt a warm welcome from Australia. There were quite a number of people who also randomly came to watch us, because they were from South Africa or because we knew them,” said MacLeod.
South Africa, she said, is generally considered one of the friendliest water-polo teams. Teams from other countries are always “super serious” when they warm up.
“But we have music going, we are always jumping around and laughing and we always greet people. We are known for being a more approachable team, so people tend to support us at the end.
“We are known for being a more approachable team, so people tend to support us at the end.”
“When we were in Russia last year we actually had people go out and buy flags so that they could sit in the stands supporting us.”
MacLeod, who is originally from Johannesburg, started playing water polo at age 11 on the advice of her cousins.
“At that stage there was no junior [team] and my primary school didn’t even have a pool. I played [for a] club and just got thrown in the deep end.”
By the time she reached grade 7, MacLeod was playing at high school, first-team level. She quickly went on to represent Gauteng and then South Africa in the national under-18 team.
“When I was in matric we had a tri-nations tournament against Australia and Zimbabwe. That was interesting; I think that was one of the worst tournaments I have ever played in my life. But I pushed through and then started playing for UCT and I absolutely loved it.”
UCT water polo, she said, is a combination of competition and fun.
“All my mates are there, we go and we play, and everyone’s on the same page. We all know studies come first but that’s okay. We work hard and play for each other.”
MacLeod’s priorities lie with her studies, but after graduation she plans to continue playing water polo as much as possible.
“There’s a big club set-up in Cape Town, and I can also play for UCT at club level. I think I will always play, and I’m heavily involved in coaching too.”
The FINA World Championships will be held in July this year in South Korea, where 16 teams will compete for the title of World Champions.
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