Olympics

Canadian water polo teams show progress at Pan American Games, one year after Morioka camps

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Holding training camps in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, have helped Canada’s men’s and women’s water polo teams achieve some of their loftiest goals.

This past weekend, both squads demonstrated their steady improvement over the past few years as the Pan American Games wrapped up in Lima, Peru.

The Canadian women, guided by head coach David Paradelo, defeated Brazil 19-5 in Friday’s semifinals to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It will be the team’s first Olympic appearance since the 2004 Athens Games.

Water polo legend Giuseppe “Pino” Porzio guided the Canada men’s squad to an 8-7 triumph over Brazil in the semifinals, a breakthrough in the current era.

For Porzio’s team, the silver-medal result equaled the Canadian men’s best-ever finish at the Pan American Games. Canada also finished second at the 2011 tourney in Guadalajara, Mexico.

In Saturday’s finals, the United States claimed a pair of gold medals, topping Canada 24-4 in the women’s final and 18-6 in the men’s title match. The U.S. women had already locked up an Olympic spot by winning the 2019 FINA World League.

With a target of reaching the 2020 Games, Porzio’s men will compete in a 12-team Olympic qualifying tournament in March, with four nations securing the final spots. Canada aims to book a spot in the Olympics for first time since 2008.

In September 2017, Water Polo Canada finalized an agreement with Morioka for the city to serve as a training center for its national teams in the run-up to the 2020 Olympics. This arrangement is a part of the Host Town program, which features hundreds of towns and cities across Japan hosting various nation’s teams in dozens of sports.

After the opening day of the women’s national team’s training camp in Morioka in June 2018, Water Polo Canada tweeted, “First day in Morioka = Definitely a success! Thank you @moriokashi!”

Weeks later, the Canada men’s team staged a training camp in Morioka, planting the seeds for the countdown to various key events, including the Pan American Games. During the men’s training camp, Porzio’s charges competed against Poseidon Japan in practice sessions and also held an exhibition match against the 2020 host nation in Morioka.

Fast forward to the post-victory euphoria after Canada beat Brazil in the women’s semifinals.

“Honestly, words can’t really express what I feel,” Joelle Bekhazi, who scored three goals in the semifinal match, told reporters. “It’s been a really long road and we worked really hard.

“This team has really helped with keeping us motivated through all the hardships and the heartbreaks, having them with their fresh minds and their hearts and how much they have wanted it as much as we do, it’s really refreshing and it’s good to have your dreams come true.”

Team captain Jessica Gaudreault was equally ecstatic.

“It means so much to me. In my head, it’s eight years on hard work that we’ve all put together as a team,” Gaudreault said afterward.

Despite the lopsided loss to the United States, Paradelo said his team is headed in the right direction.

“We had a very difficult game, and we lost our composure early in the game, and it slowed us down for the rest of the match,” Paradelo told reporters on Saturday. “The Americans showed that they have greater game speed and we will need to improve on that in the coming year. With that being said, we reached our objective in this tournament, and we know we have a lot of work ahead of us before the Olympics.”

Men’s national team goalkeeper Milan Radenovic said the Pan American Games exhibited Canada’s potential.

“We had some good games like (our game against) Brazil and some of the earlier games we played pretty well, solid and showed what we can do,” Radenovic said after the final. “Overall we’ve shown that we can do a lot of this really good quality water polo. We just have to pull it out under pressure and when it matters and things aren’t going 100 percent, but you need to make it 100 percent.”

Porzio acknowledged that he had hoped for a better performance in the final.

“I think we could do better,” the Italian mentor said. “I knew that the U.S. in this moment were a little bit stronger than us but we could do better with our approach. “Maybe we had too much pressure and I know that we played three matches in a row that were really tough so maybe we spent a lot of mental energy and we paid.”