With the twelve month postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Siren co-founder Alison Smirnoff was keen to find out what impact this was having on Olympic athletes. She sat down with Australian water polo captain, Rowie Webster, via Zoom and discussed the challenges of preparing for an Olympic Games whilst in isolation.
Okay, so this is very exciting. This is our first ever Zoom interview for Siren Sport. I am Alison Smirnoff and I’m really excited to be joined by the captain of the Australian water polo team, Rowie Webster. Rowie, welcome to Siren.
Rowie Webster: Thanks so much for having me. It’s exciting to be on Siren. This is cool.
So, how does an Olympic athlete deal with being in isolation?
RW: It’s been an interesting transition, that’s for sure. I was actually in Sydney when the COVID stuff first hit and so I had to make a pretty quick decision whether I was going to stay in Sydney or come back home. The transition looked like; pack up, I trained that morning, drove to Melbourne, and I’ve been in Melbourne ever since.
So we’ve basically gone from thinking we were eight months out from the Olympics—training as an Olympic squad, doing heaps of study and analysis on teams, 14 sessions a week with the same group of people, to at home with not too much other stimulus around.
So, it’s definitely been a memory I won’t forget in the near future.
That must have really impacted your training and that team dynamic. How have you adapted to that?
RW: Yeah, definitely. I think the cool thing about athletes is we’re really resilient. Whatever is thrown at us, we go ‘alright, let’s just take it in our stride’. I think [it’s] a credit to a lot of athletes that have semi had some of their dreams shattered or taken away or put on hold now.
It was definitely an adjustment period. We were trying to stay together as a national squad, via Zoom and via phone calls and things like that, and we actually found that a lot of us wanted a complete break. We kind of had to reset and so that’s what we did. We basically had four weeks off of ‘do whatever kind of exercise you want’, and once the call had been made that the Olympics had been postponed exactly a year, we started to reboot from there.
So, just trying to stay active and fit but also not trying to stress about being ‘ready’. You know, there’s going to be time.
Every athlete around the world is in the same position realistically. So, we’re lucky that we have access to great pathways and we can run and I’ve got the bay locally, I know the Sydney girls and the Queensland girls have been swimming in the ocean. So, just trying to stay a little bit fit but also just giving yourself a mental break. And you kind of get the opportunity to relive the last 16 months of the Olympics lead-up and oversee and think what can we do better, what did we do that we thought was right.
So just just staying active, staying interested, staying positive. I mean, there are tough days sometimes. It’s really boring and sometimes you don’t want to train and things like that, and to be honest, I’ve accepted that and just let myself take every day as it comes.
I’m always really interested in the psychology of athletes, probably because I’m not one! But I find that there’s almost two sides to an athlete. There’s the training athlete, where everything is meticulously planned, especially in the lead up to an Olympics you have four years planned out. But then there’s the athlete in competition mode, that really just has to improvise and be ready for anything. Have you had to adapt some of that competition mode to this period of time even though you have slowed down and taken a bit of a break?
RW: Definitely, definitely. I think that’s a really great point you make. We’re meticulous, we’re perfectionists, we know exactly what our plan is. This is a four, eight, 12, for some, 16 year progression.
I think in a way, one of the things that I’ve taken is, no athlete has ever been here before. There’s no research, there’s no studies, there’s no one to tell you ‘this is what I did in this situation’. We’re all tackling it on a first time basis. So you kind of have to allow yourself to feel anything that you want to feel.
Every athlete approaches that differently. I’m pretty good at being able to switch on and switch off. That’s something that I’ve learned being an older athlete. I really think that if I was a 21 year old athlete, this would have affected me a lot differently to being a senior athlete and dealing with things that, as you said, in competition constantly change.
I’ve been at the forefront of a lot of the meetings with the coaching staff, with the CEOs, things like that. So, I think that’s kind of kept me present in the moment of ‘this is what it is, this is the situation, let’s just work with what we’ve got.’
I’ve been privy to a little bit of information, but I think – as you said – you just have to be resilient, but you just also have to think on your feet. To be honest, I don’t know if a lot of us have actually addressed that the Olympics isn’t now. I think we’re in this little holding pattern of let’s just get through COVID as the first hurdle and then from there, what does the next training phase look like?
But it’s definitely interesting going from being the fittest, the most mentally resilient, the most prepared you can be six months out to, hang on, go back and sleep in and, be disorganised and stay in your pajamas if you want to and things like that. It’s definitely a unique situation.
We’re at an interesting point now where some restrictions are being lifted, and it is different in different states around the country as well. Personally, where are you at? Are you going to be able to access the gym and a pool again soon or is that still a bit up in the air?
RW: I definitely know that for good or for bad, Victoria is kind of a little bit slower to come back than a lot of other states. I know the Queenslanders, the Western Australians and the New South Wales girls have gone back to some sort of structured training. And when I say some sort of structured training, it’s minimal numbers and minimal timeframes and things like that, but it’s a step in the right direction.
I think Victoria will, although certainly the VIS will open for the elite of the elite as of next week. So, I’m looking forward to getting back into some sort of routine with the gym coaches and things like that. We have been lucky that we’ve been given some equipment, so I’ve turned my garage into a home gym. In some way, shape or form, I’ve stayed in a little bit of shape, but I’m definitely looking forward to getting back to structured programs with people overseeing what I’m actually doing rather than me just fluffing about.
I think the next four weeks is going to be really positive in terms of moving in the right direction for training. It’s gonna be a slow process, though.
So, getting back to the Olympics. We’ll just backtrack a little bit. London – bronze medal. Probably had some expectations heading into Rio. Fair to say it was probably a bit of a disappointing campaign.
RW: Definitely, very fair to say. Yeah.
Has there been a bit of a changing of the guard of the team post-Rio?
RW: We’ve kept about 50% of our players. However, we’ve changed coaches twice within that period. So we’re onto our second new coach for the cycle. There’s been a lot of change implemented into our training and the way the game is played. So definitely, I feel like it’s a reboot.
As you said, disappointing result in Rio, there’s no shying away from that. There’s some of us that have those scars that have had to work through that. Having an expectation, as we always say, you don’t go to the Olympics to participate, you go to win a medal and to try and be the best team in the world at the pinnacle of your sport. So definitely, I think it’s been a real driver to not get complacent.
I think four years is a long time to start to feel comfortable as a senior athlete, or now five years, but we’ve definitely made sure that that Rio result has been in the forefront of our mind, for those who have experienced it and in hope that no one moving forward has to experience being knocked out prior to the medal round.
So, as I said, change of coach, different approach. The coach we have currently who will take us through to the Olympics has never coached an Olympic event. Actually, none of our staff have been coaches in the Olympics, so they’re fresh as well. That comes with its positives and negatives. We’re just trying to slowly, I guess, mold together what we look like culturally as a new group, and also the results we want to get and not putting too much pressure on ourselves to have that end result in sight. Just working through the processes of how do we get better each day.
So it’s a different approach. I’ll talk to you in 12 months and see if it worked. But it’s new territory and it’s refreshing.
From an external point of view, it feels like you were building again. The 2019 FINA World Champs – bronze medal. And then a rather exciting result in January in Brisbane in a test match series. I think it was a 69 game winning streak the USA had that you broke. Now I know from interviewing you previously that they really are the arch nemesis. How was that?
RW: Firstly, the USA are rightly the best in the world, they hold all four titles – Olympics, World Cup, World Champs and World League final. They’re the best of the best and they hadn’t lost this cycle. So purely just to go on that winning streak and every single country trying to beat them, and then still win was just phenomenal.
To have a tournament where they were at full strength, and we were at full strength in January, and to play on home soil. It was unbelievable to get a win against them. Yes, it’s only one one win. But the fact that I think we showed ourselves and the rest of the world that on any given day any team is beatable, if you bring your best.
Even game three, we were in front by two goals going into the fourth quarter. So it’s not necessarily about being in front at any stage. It’s about being able to close out a game against the best team in the world. We had a little bit of a sniff at that and we got a result but certainly, they’re still the best we haven’t knocked them off.
But to be the captain of the team that beat the best team in the world on home soil was a pretty special time. For 2020, it’s probably going to be a highlight of 2020, now looking back. I thought the Olympics might be a highlight. Saving that one for 2021!
It’s amazing what is becoming a highlight of this year.
RW: Seriously, me completing a Lego set in isolation is a highlight.
Actually, I’ve been very impressed with your Lego Technic expertise. I’m looking forward to the next build.
RW: Yeah, it just arrived yesterday. So stay tuned for my third COVID build.
Just going back to what you’re saying about a lot of the staff and their first Olympics. How does that affect you as captain and your leadership?
RW: I think it’s a real blessing in one sense, because they do ask you for your opinion. You know, it’s one of those things where they say well, you’ve been there before.
We have a coach – our only female assistant coach – she’s a dual Olympian. She was in Athens and Beijing. So from a playing perspective, we’ve got someone in the coaching lineup that’s been there before as a player, but it’s certainly, as you know, it certainly is different not being able to contribute in the water to the result.
So as I said, it’s a bit of a blessing that we can have those raw conversations and say, ‘what do you think and what do I think’ and let’s try and come up with a best opinion based on all the facts rather than a coach standing at the side saying, ‘I’ve been there before I know best. This is how we’re going to roll.’
It’s definitely a collaboration. I guess the downfall of that is, it does put a little bit more pressure on my shoulders in terms of am I giving the best opinion or am I seeking the advice of my players and putting our foot forward. So it’s kind of toing and froing and now more than ever.
I view my leadership as though I’m the middle of the hourglass. I have the coaches at the top, the body of the athletes at the bottom and then I’m that little centre. So the more I can expand that and get things flowing, I think the better this team looks and certainly we’ve built a good leadership team around me all with very differing opinions, which I think is a real positive so we clash heads a fair bit. But it is for the good of the team.
Looking ahead to the Olympics, are there a couple of players that we should be keeping our eye on that might be making their Olympic debut? Which newcomers to the team are you most excited about?
RW: Two girls that I’ve had the honor of playing a lot with, Amy Ridge and Bronte Halligan. They’re two of our younger players. They’re 24 and both will make their – touchwood – debut in the Tokyo Olympics.
Bronte was our reserve going into Rio, so she’s seen the process before and she’s an incredible workhorse and ball carrier. You won’t see her score too many goals, but you’ll see her go up and back in defence, she’s just a really hard worker.
Amy is one of our tallest players so defensively pretty solid. And again, I think another one to watch out for would be our younger goalie Gabby (Gabriella Palm), who is a Queensland player, who I think has the ability to be the best goalkeeper in the world, come with a little bit more experience.
I’m really excited to stand beside those girls, and I guess experience their first Olympics with them and see how they are on the big stage. But all three have started this cycle really strongly and just continued to grow their game and have bigger roles within the team. I think that’s important for the future of Australian water polo.
There’s obviously usually a lot of lead up tournaments and warm up games. Do you have any idea of how any of that is looking?
RW: No, the answer is no.
There’s ten teams that will be playing at the Olympics and only five countries have qualified. So I think first and foremost is for the Europeans to have the ability to qualify. That was postponed to January 2021. Fingers crossed that everything with COVID kind of works itself out. They’ll be playing in Italy.
We were meant to be going to Italy and Hungary to prepare the European teams for that tournament. We’ll look to do the same if and when we can travel overseas and certainly to a country like Italy who are in a little bit of trouble at the moment. We’ll see what happens.
We’re not too sure what competitions are going to be held. Also, it’s going to be up to countries whether they’re willing to travel, but I think we’re all going to be in a similar mind frame of let’s try and get as many international games as possible, knowing that this year has almost been a write-off of international games.
Usually you play around 50 international games a year, to put it into perspective we’ve played three. There’s going to be a lot of water polo fitness to build up and a lot of friendly games rather than tournament’s necessarily, that are going to be played around the world.
Potentially, maybe a lot of games between Australia and New Zealand.
RW: Exactly, exactly. So, who knows? We will look to host America again in that January tournament, but again, it’s so up in the air. It could be, I think, the most unbelievable Olympics that’s ever been. You know, some people are kind of comparing it to the times of the war when the Olympics were being played or not played.
But I think every single athlete will have their own story, and every single country and team will have their own story. I think walking out, whether you walk out in the opening ceremony or not, I think that’d be a really special moment. Knowing every athlete, who expects so much out of themselves, got their world flipped. And then they still made it to where they are. So I think, regardless, it’ll be one for the memory bank I think in terms of Olympics.
Absolutely right. Well Rowie, thank you for joining us. Fascinating times, it’s been a real pleasure to have that insight into your long-winded preparations now.
RW: Thank you so much, and good luck with everything and I’m looking forward to hearing the other interviews that you do on all the other athletes.
Awesome. Thanks so much, Rowie.
RW: Thank you Have a good one.