NEWS
04/14/2012 10:42 EDT | Updated 06/14/2012 05:12 EDT

Canadian women have point to prove in Olympic water polo qualifier

The Canadian women's water polo team launches its final Olympic qualifying bid Sunday, looking to put recent heartbreak behind it.

Pat Oaten's team opens play against Kazakhstan at a tough nine-team tournament that runs though April 22 in Trieste, Italy. Four countries will book their ticket to London for the Summer Games.

The Canadian women fell one win short at this stage prior to the 2008 Games, losing 5-2 to Greece in the decisive game of another qualifying event in Italy.

A painful memory still?

"Huge. Huge," said Oaten. "But also a great motivator."

Two weeks after that loss, the Canadian team met at the pool and Oaten asked them to commit to the next four years.

"We trained actually during the Olympics in 2008," Oaten said.

He admits it was "really hard" having to watch the Beijing Games from afar, while teams the Canadians had beaten were competing on the sport's biggest stage. But the women were looking ahead to London.

There was more heartbreak last October when they missed out on qualifying for London in a gut-wrenching shootout loss to the Americans in the final of the Pan American Games.

So now it is do and die in Italy, once again.

Almost two-thirds of the current Canadian squad was at that 2008 qualifying tournament in Imperia, Italy

"I felt we had the talent level to qualify in 2008 but the experience and decision-making against a lot of experienced players and teams was probably the difference in that year," said Oaten.

"And I think this year is our turn. We have the same talent, better talent, but we also have experience now."

The Canadians also have a long memory when it comes to that costly loss to Greece.

"Every time we play Greece, the players are pumped up for that game," Oaten said.

If the Canadian women needed any more motivation against Greece, they got it earlier this month when the Greeks ended the Canadian men's Olympic dreams at a qualifying tournament in Edmonton. Greece defeated Canada 10-6 in the quarter-finals.

"Obviously we wanted them to qualify," said Oaten. "At the same time, we're trying not to let that affect us. Of course, we know those players and the coaching staff — and it will have a little bit of an effect (in the immediate aftermath) but the reality is we've got to focus on what we have to do now."

Making the women's Olympic field isn't easy. There will only be eight teams in London — unlike 12 for the men's tournament — and even world champion Greece has to go through the qualification process.

"Women's water polo, in my opinion, has got to be the closest team sport in terms of the 10 teams in the world, said Oaten. "Any one of those teams can be the world champion on any day.

"We recently beat Greece in February and they're the world champions. In January we beat China two times in the same tournament and they're second in the world.

"This tournament, every game's going to be a tough game — within the group and of course the cross(over game). No one will bet money on who will qualify and who will win this tournament."

Canada, ranked No. 8 in the world, is in Group B with Brazil, Greece, Kazakhstan and the Netherlands.

Group A is made up of Hungary, Italy, Russia and Spain.

Like the men's qualifying tournament, the four winners of the quarter-final matches will qualify for the Olympics. That will be determined April 20 in the crossover matches between the top four in each group.

Canada finished eighth at the world championship won by Greece last July in Shanghai. Other top teams bidding for London include No. 3 Russia, No. 4 Italy, No. 7 the Netherlands, No. 9 Hungary, No. 11 Spain and No. 13 Kazakhstan.

Only the host country gets an Olympic automatic berth in women's water polo.

"That's a bit of a sour note with the majority of the coaches, because England is just not there at this moment," said Oaten, who took over the women's team in 2003. "That's not to say they're not going to be there at the Olympics but with only eight teams, that's a tough pill to swallow for a lot of the eight teams."

Another sore point is the small size of the Olympic women's field.

"If you could find the answer to that, tell me," said Oaten. "We don't understand it. We don't understand why we're the only women's sport that has only eight teams."

"And it's crazy, for this not to happen with the top 10 teams being so close," he added

Like the men, the Canadian women just missed out on qualifying via the Pan American Games. The women lost 27-26 to the U.S. on the 39th shot of a penalty shot.

Canada led 5-2 and 7-4 before the Americans rallied to tie the game at eight before the end of the fourth quarter. After two scoreless overtime periods, the U.S. won the shootout 19-18 with a Maggie Steffens goal coupled with a Canadian miss deciding the marathon match.

"I think if you ask many people, they feel we were robbed in that game," Oaten said. "Just the luck wasn't on our side that day. There's nothing really more you can say. We played a hell of a game."

But he says the team has moved on. "What's done is done."

Oaten describes his side as a veteran squad that also features some talented youth.

Key players include Krystina Alogbo of Riviere-des-Prairies, Que., and Victoria's Rachel Riddell.

Oaten describes the hard-working Alogbo as "the heart of our team" and calls Riddell "the best goalie in the world."

Like the Canadian men, Oaten's squad is always looking to make a point.

"A lot of people try to say this is a European game. And it's kind of like a slap in the face for the players and obviously for the staff.

"There's a few things the team wants to show. That we deserve to be seen as a top-level team in the world. That this nation is not a one-sport nation, that there are a lot of good athletes and a lot of good teams in this country besides hockey.

"And the work, the sacrifice that they've made the last four years — they just want to show everybody that you put the sacrifice in, it's going to pay off."

Oaten has been pleased with the team's preparation, which included a camp in Spain before the tournament.

Prior to that, there was a mini-tournament in Europe in March against the Netherlands and Hungary, and a tournament in California in February with the U.S., Italy and Greece. In January, the team played in events in Australia and China.

The women's team has been centralized in Montreal, with NCAA players having to redshirt their 2011-12 season to focus on Canada's Olympic push.

The women are excited for the Olympic challenge, Oaten says.

"The team looks good. We've had some fantastic performances this year and we've had some great practices. I like the way the team looks out of the water and in the water."

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Canada

Krystina Alogbo, Riviere des Prairies, Que.; Joelle Bekhazi, Pointe-Claire, Que.; Serena Bredin, Winnipeg; Tara Campbell, Baie D'Urfe, Que.; Emily Csikos, Calgary; Carmen Eggens, Maple Ridge, B.C.; Monika Eggens, Maple Ridge, B.C.; Whitney Genoway, Regina; Katrina Monton, Dorval, Que.; Dominique Perreault, Montreal; Marina Radu, Pointe-Claire, Que.; Rachel Riddell, Victoria; Christine Robinson, Lachine, Que.; Rosanna Tomiuk, Beaconsfield, Que.; Stephanie Valin, Pointe-Claire, Que.

Head coach — Pat Oaten, Pointe-Claire, Que.

Assistant coaches — Justin Oliveira, Pointe-Claire, Que., Gyula Toth, Calgary.

Manager — Jon Clarke, Beaconsfield, Que.