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Canada’s national water polo squad forges new bonds during trip to Japan

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Half a world away from home, quality competition is a top priority for the Canada men’s national water polo team.

The city of Morioka, in Iwate Prefecture, is playing a vital role in making this happen, including with in-pool workouts and games against Team Japan.

As part of the nationwide Host Town program being held and planned in numerous prefectures for various sports, Morioka is now an integral part of Water Polo Canada’s mission to achieve success at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and beyond.

The Canadian men still need to qualify, but they used a recent two-week training camp, including some work at Tokyo’s National Training Center, as a springboard for the future. The Canada women’s national team also held a training camp in Morioka a few weeks before the men’s team set up shop in late July. Water Polo Canada, the sport’s national governing body, considers its three-year agreement with the Iwate city, which was finalized in September 2017, a significant development.

At the time of the signing, Justin Oliveira, WPC’s high performance director, commented: “Leading up to the Olympic Games, it is critical for Water Polo Canada to take the appropriate steps to prepare our athletes and staff. Those steps include familiarization to a new environment, embracing and understanding a new culture and to find a home away from home while competing. . .”

The Japan Times caught glimpses of this tie-up during a two-day visit to Morioka in early August: observing an exhibition match between Canada and Poseidon Japan (Canada jumped out to a big, early lead en route to a 13-7 victory on Aug. 5 at Morioka Municipal Pool) that showcased the growing enthusiasm for the sport in the Tohoku city; a welcome reception for the two national teams, which was attended by a few hundred folks and local dignitaries at Hotel Higashi-nihon that evening, including a wanko soba speed-eating competition pitting both teams against one another with a live audience; and a hard-fought practice scrimmage the next afternoon.

Fans cheered loudly and often during the festive exhibition. Water polo, a high-paced, action-packed, seven-on-seven sport, places a premium on offense, which the 20 goals in the aforementioned 32-minute duel delivered. For many spectators, it was an introduction to what they can see over the next few years in Morioka as it becomes Canada’s home base.

In short, the Host Town programs provide opportunities for municipalities big and small to get involved in Olympic-related preparations throughout Japan. This vision is embraced by the Japanese Olympic Committee and the government. By July 2017, Kyodo News reported, over 250 local governments had already expressed interest in serving as hosts towns for foreign athletes before the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics — and this number is expected to grow.

Example: Murayama, Yamagata Prefecture, hosted the Bulgarian rhythmic gymnastics team for a two-week training camp in June 2017. Here’s another: Kyōtango, Kyoto Prefecture, is registered to host canoe teams from Australia and South Korea.

“The central government will offer some financial support for the host towns, including a portion of the costs of improving local sports facilities, implementing training camps and supporting local Olympic public relations events before the games,” The Japan Times reported in December 2016.

A Morioka city official, who requested anonymity while stating the city’s “general view,” discussed the impact of sports, specifically water polo, as a promotional vehicle.

“From the economical point of view, (with) this hosting town project right away you won’t get too much out of it,” the official said in an interview. “The thing for Morioka is to get Morioka’s name out to the public. Morioka is a city getting known, getting more popular, and then after that, hopefully in the long term the economic (impact) will come back. . . . This project will also get people to act with the culture of Morioka, education and internationalizing Morioka’s citizens to more open-mindedness.”

In February, Morioka staged the Japan-Italy Davis Cup tie, “and the economical value of that was tons of money,” the official said. “From this project, the Host Town project, not so much (money) right away, but in the long run we see this as a good opportunity to get Morioka’s name out there, out into the world.”

In turn, a positive impact is expected in the coming years. “As a whole, this project has become a trigger for future economic growth within the community,” the official said.

Morioka Mayor Hiroaki Tanifuji and Japan national team coach Yoji Omoto were among the officials to address the public after the Aug. 5 match. Beforehand, the Japanese and Canadian national anthems were played, and Tanifuji spoke for about five minutes, highlighting the partnership between the city and Water Polo Canada and the mutual benefits of international exchanges.

The mayor called the exhibition a “(good) challenge for Japan” and also congratulated both teams for their effort.

Positive experience

The 15-player squad that trained in Morioka and Tokyo (along with Australia and Japan) consisted of young men from four Canadian provinces: Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta.

What they witnessed was a window into a different culture when they trained and hosted a water polo clinic for local children on the first weekend of August. They also attended the Morioka Sansa Odori, wore traditional yukata and took part in the annual parade. The Canadian women were involved in the Chagu Chagu Umakko (horse festival) in June.

Local residents watched the international visitors display an appreciation for their culture, which created a chance to establish ties. The soba-eating contest, for example, delivered good-hearted laughter, clapping and numerous cellphones recording the delirious one-minute action, and then the follow-up rounds.

As a result, “the citizens were able to deepen their sense of affinity towards the Canadian teams,” the city official said. “For many of the citizens, this was the opportunity to come in contact with the ‘world’ closely and to increase admiration of the Tokyo Olympics.”

A week after the men’s team’s July 30 arrival in Morioka, Oliveira said the decision to travel from Montreal to Tohoku had started to pay dividends. The players and coaching staff had become comfortable with their surroundings.

“Since this will be our staging camp, and creating this ball of momentum, to say, ‘OK we’ve had a really good training camp here. We really want to come back. We felt great,’ ” he said. “We had a connection with the community, so let’s work ourselves hard in the pool and get back here so that we have this experience again to build up for the Olympic Games.”

At the conclusion of the reception party, Junior Chamber International Morioka chair Michiko Nakano said the Canadians made a positive first impression.

“It was a pleasure for us to see local children interact with players at the festival,” Nakano said, referring to Morioka Sansa Odori.

Nakano’s closing remarks also included the following: “We hope we will deepen our friendship between Japan, Canada and Morioka and bring smiles to our lives.”

A coach with gravitas

Giuseppe “Pino” Porzio has accomplished great things in the sport. The 51-year-old was one of the driving forces on Italy’s gold medal-winning squad at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Throughout his illustrious career, he amassed a reported 43 titles as a player and coach, including at the European Championships, world championships, Mediterranean Games, Italian League, Adriatic League and European Super Cups, among other crowns, on his splendid CV.

Author Franco Esposito, who penned a book on great Italian sports families, has described Porzio as “a tactical leader, the organizer of the defense.” Esposito likened the legend’s impact to an icon on the soccer pitch, drawing this parallel: “(Franz) Beckenbauer’s water polo.”

He joined Water Polo Canada as the senior men’s national team coach in January 2016 with the goal of putting his own stamp on the team and elevating the program on the global stage.

Which, of course, means he’s tasked with developing the plan to lead Canada to the Tokyo Olympics. The national team has not qualified for the Olympics since the 2008 Games in Beijing (and previously competed there in 1972, Munich; 1976, Montreal; and 1984, Los Angeles).

For Canada, the camp in Morioka set the foundation to build toward important qualifying events next year.

“It’s important for this team because it’s a young team,” Porzio said of holding camp in Japan. “It’s a new team. Most of them, they are 17, 18, 19 years old.”

Unlike in Europe, where geographical proximity to a number of water polo-playing nations is plentiful, Canada doesn’t have many nearby options. Which made the trek to Tohoku absolutely essential.

“We practice a lot in Montreal, but we miss a little bit the game. That’s our problem,” Porzio told The Japan Times. “When we have a chance like now to come here against a very good team as Japan, it’s good for us to (test) our system.”

First and foremost, inspiring his players to greatness is Porzio’s mission. No one said it’ll be easy, but he can always remind them of his glorious experience at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

“It’s the best memory for me, for everybody,” Porzio declared, “because the Olympic Games are the target of, I think, every athlete in the world. It’s just a dream to go. When you win the gold, it’s the maximum; it’s the best record, the best memory of your life as an athlete, as a sportsman.”

‘A promising future’

Defender Scott Robinson, who hails from Calgary, Alberta, was appointed captain for the team’s camp, which wrapped up on Aug. 14. He is one of the elder statesman on the squad.

The current average age on the national team is 22. Oliveira noted the average age of the world’s top trio of teams — Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro — is about 28.

Which gives Canada an opportunity to keep building the nucleus of the team for its prime, roughly age 25-29. “Some of our guys are reaching that peak and some of our guys are really just starting,” Oliveira said.

To reach that goal, Robinson values the chance to lead by example. He knows what he needs to do: “In the water talking, running defenses, running offense, helping out as much as I can.”

The Morioka training camp gave the Canadian players a chance to bond, work hard and gain an appreciation for a different culture.

“It’s great to kind of get out of the norm and experience new things as a group and as a team,” Robinson said.

“Even just training against new teams (is important), because in Canada we are very far away from a lot of teams,” he added. “So for us it’s always a big trip to go anywhere to get valuable game experience. So it’s awesome being able to come here and kind of get acclimatized to Japan, the food, the culture and everything.

“So when we hopefully come back for the 2020 Olympics we are able to feel at home and feel comfortable.”

Some of Robinson’s teammates echoed similar sentiments, including goalkeeper Milan Radenovic. Radenovic also expounded on how camp served as a vital learning experience, including video review.

“A lot of the mistakes we do are because of our own miscoordination,” Radenovic said, “so right now we are really working together as a team against a really difficult opponent.”

Before the team departed for Canada, Radenovic summed up the experience this way: “Right now I think every game is like a chance to basically fix all our mistakes…We are slowly getting together.”

For Canada, better team unity became one benefit of its trek to Tohoku.
After all, getting away from one’s comfort zone is important for a sports team, the goalie from Toronto insisted.

“It’s definitely helpful because when we train in Canada what we do is a lot of playing amongst ourselves, so we split the team in half and play like that or we maybe have some club teams that come and scrimmage against us,” Radenovic told this newspaper. “But in general when we go overseas we get a lot of better competition, so that’s No. 1. And No. 2, it’s a really bad habit I find to be constantly playing against the same people over and over again because you tend to relax in some aspects because you can get away with it. And when you play overseas, there’s a lot of different things that you’ve never seen going on, and so you have to learn to expect kind of everything, and you can never get away with cheating in any given area.”

In Morioka, teammate Gaelan Patterson appreciated a diversion from the normal routine.

“As a building block, this is an important training camp for us. This is kind of the off year – the Olympics, the world championships, nothing. So this year is kind of special because we are just training. We are training to get this kind of little reward,” said Patterson, who is from North Vancouver, British Columbia. “We get to go to an amazing country, an amazing city at the end of our season. And it’s good, I think, for morale. It’s hard to train 10 times a week for a year and not get anything out of it. This is big for us.”

Reuel D’Souza, who lines up at driver, agreed that traveling to Asia energized the team.

“In my opinion, it’s a good training camp because Japan play a very different style than traditional water polo in other countries, and a lot of their play is based on their speed, their mobility, their agility,” D’Souza said. “It’s good for us as a team to play against a team like Japan, who has a completely different playing style than the other countries we are used to playing.”

* * *

Here are additional notes from training camp, Team Canada’s tie-up with Morioka and more…

Morioka and Victoria, British Columbia have been sister cities since 1985. Dr. Inazo Nitobe, one of the most famous individuals born in Morioka, died at age 71 in Victoria in 1933.

The noted diplomat, statesman and author (“Bushido: The Soul of Japan”) helped build future strong ties with Canada and Japan during his distinguished life. (A small statue of Nitobe is on display in front of JR Morioka Station.)

And when Water Polo Canada was searching for an overseas locale to set up camp, a Victoria-based consultant, Mark deFrias, suggested Morioka. That helped pave the way for WPC officials to make an official visit to Japan last year as they scouted five potential sites around the globe for training camps. …

In Porzio’s mind, one essential building block for the team is 17-year-old center Bogdan Djerkovic, a talented youngster from Ottawa, whose international experience is vital for the team’s future.

Team star Nicolas Constantin-Bicari, one of the world’s elite players who helped Canada win the 2010 Junior Pan Am Championships title, missed training camp while continuing his overseas playing career in Malta with Sirens Greentube. But that gave Djerkovic a chance to have a more prominent role on the Japan trip. …

A closer look at the Olympic qualifying process: Canada has a few opportunities to secure a spot in the Tokyo Games. It starts next spring with the FINA Water Polo World League Intercontinental Cup, and a top-four finish would give it a spot in the super final. The No. 1 team at the super final next June receives an automatic berth in the Olympics.

In July 2019, the top-two finishers at the world championships will also punch their tickets to Tokyo. Later next summer, the Pan Am Games will also be contested. As a final-chance opportunity, an Olympic qualification tourney is set for the spring of 2020.

“Our goal is to lock up that spot at the Pan American Games. That’s pretty much our target,” Oliveira said. …

Before Porzio and his squad flew halfway around the world, the Italian mentor expressed excitement about the challenging workload to come.

“This camp is a great opportunity for our team to train and compete in a new environment,” he said in a news release. “It will be interesting to see how the players adapt to the climate and time change as we continue our preparation for Tokyo 2020.” …

Like in other sports, specific skill sets are also necessary in order to to succeed in water polo. Oliveira provided a primer on some key skills in water polo.

“You need to be able to do a lot of these technical abilities very well and at a high pace,” he said at the pool, while mentioning that the ball travels at speeds up to 70 kph. “You need to have a good endurance but you also need to be able to have a short burst of speed to be able to counterattack and swim very fast. Obviously shooting the ball very well is a really important one, so good strength and flexibility in your shoulder and your arm to be able to create some inertia to throw the ball.”

He continued: “A lot of the technical abilities are in the water, so you are trying to gain as much force to either get out of the water to throw the ball, or to get out of the water to block the ball. So having flexibility is important. … It’s something that helps you generate some force.” …

Patterson and other Team Canada members this reporter spoke to repeatedly said they were impressed with Japan’s overall speed in the pool. What’s more, Poseidon Japan’s mental focus grabbed their attention.

“If you turn your brain off for half a second, they are going to beat you,” Patterson observed. “They are going to score a goal on you. They are going to steal your pass, block your shot.”

Because of that, the young Canadian players were reminded again and again that there’s no time to drop the intensity in the pool.

“Mentally, always be present in every single game … every single second you are in the water,” Patterson said, offering words that Porzio might say at any time. …

Learning from a legend: “I don’t think you can have a coach like Pino Porzio and not raise the level of your program,” Patterson stated. “He is in the top level of coaches in the world. There’s no doubt that he’s raised this program to a new level…”

In global water polo, Patterson went on, “he’s one of the most respected coaches in the world. We go anywhere and everyone’s coming up to him saying hello. It’s just not something that every coach in every country gets.” …

Oliveira, the high performance director, took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to explain some team goals for the summer and beyond. He also revealed a bit about how he and his coaching colleagues set up short- and long-term targets.

“We’re trying to get our athletes up to a critical number of games every as a team and as individuals,” said Oliveira, who joined the Canada’s women’s team as an assistant coach in 2010 before assuming his current post in 2016 for both teams. “We’ve been pushing athletes to play professionally and find a lot of good professional teams for them.”

Some of Canada’s top players compete in Europe and a few more may join them in the professional ranks by heading to Australia next year, according to Oliveira.

So how does Water Polo Canada map out some of what it wants to accomplish? The basic focus is a “plan from a quadrennial perspective,” he said, citing key targets.

“Each year we review that and set a plan for each year. During that we will plan training camps or competitions or training phases that will accomplish certain things that we know the athletes need to achieve in those moments in preparation for either major competitions or to target our gaps.

“We do a gap analysis pretty much every single year, or we review a previous gap analysis on what we feel are areas that we need to really target, and then build some mitigating strategies that usually includes training camps, specific preparation or physical conditioning.”

Such as?  “Trying to get our athletes a critical mass of games,” Oliveira said of the 60-game target each year. …

The last word: “We are really enjoying seeing them (the fans) come out to the games and enjoying the sport. I like to see that the sport is growing a bit, even across the world globally. Water polo is not the biggest sport, but I like to see the excitement in such a small place like Morioka, that water polo is usually not the first thing that comes to mind.” — Reuel D’Souza