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St. Albert water polo players hope silver medal grows sport

Grade 11 Paul Kane students Nandor Voros and Emil Loberg competed at a national tournament last weekend

Two St. Albert teens are celebrating their water polo team’s performance at a national championship tournament and hoping their victories will mean more investment and local interest in the sport.

Grade 11 Paul Kane students Nandor Voros and Emil Loberg play for the Edmonton Tsunami 17 and under (17U) men’s water polo team, which last weekend scored its first silver medal at Water Polo Canada's Senior NCL national championship tournament. The team has been around for 40 years.

“We did what we had to do, and we fought for it,” Loberg said.

“We never gave up,” said Voros, nodding in agreement.

The team faced some stiff odds. Edmonton has only one pool, located in the Kinsmen Sports Centre, that is fit for professional-level water polo practice. The team has to negotiate access with many other groups that also use the pool, meaning practice time is often cut short.

The sport doesn’t garner as much interest as games like hockey or basketball, Loberg said.

“I think that's also because it's considered kind of a peculiar, weird sport,” he said. “Like, you’re wrestling other people in a pool. Nobody knows about it.”

Loberg and Voros both want the same thing: more Alberta players to compete against and enjoy the game with.

“My family is from Hungary, and in Europe it's a very big sport,” Voros said.

Loberg has a love of contact sports like wrestling and karate, and water polo scratches some of that itch.

“I wanted a more aggressive version of swimming,” he said. “Swimming wasn’t intense enough, and I discovered water polo.”

Water polo combines elements of swimming, basketball and soccer. Players must tread water while they attempt to throw a buoyant ball into an opposing team’s net. It demands both physical endurance and strategic teamwork as players navigate the pool's depths to outmanoeuvre their rivals.

The Edmonton Tsunami went to Montreal to face off against teams from Toronto, Scarborough, Saskatchewan, Fraser Valley, Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa.

“The East has really big feel for water polo, way bigger than it is in the West,” Loberg said. “Right off the bat … there's a culture. You just feel that it's game time, and you're ready to go.”

The Tsunami had to adjust to the “Eastern style” of play, where teams have more resources and are known to be more aggressive, said coach Marina Radu.

In their third game, the Tsunami faced the Toronto Mavericks, the top-ranked team coming into the tournament — and the Tsunami won.

“Everybody had really high expectations set for themselves, but I think winning that game against the Toronto Mavericks was the turning point where they were all like, ‘Oh my God, this may be possible.'”

Next came a match against the Montreal Camo, a team whose prowess in the pool and tendency towards “super aggressive” play the Tsunami had been hearing about going into the tournament. The Tsunami won that game too.

In the final game, a rematch against the Toronto Mavericks, the team was feeling “a confidence that I don’t think they’ve ever known or felt before,” Madu said. “We've always been the underdog … All of the last 2-1/2 years of hard work was paying off now in this one weekend.”

Unfortunately, that game ended the Tsunami’s winning streak.

But the Tsunami's new silver medal demonstrates what the 17U Edmonton team is capable of, Radu said.

And it’s something she hopes the City of Edmonton and the province remember as water polo players compete for funding and space to play.

“What I see in the [western provinces] now is that there are zero financial opportunities to help the age group that needs it,” she said. “[Young athletes] are going from high performance to international high performance, and ... they need that extra time, and they need those extra games, which cost more money … There are no bursaries or athletic grants that come out of Alberta that are specifically targeted for that level of athlete, which is sad, because there's so many athletes that come out of Alberta.”

Nandor and Loberg see a future for themselves in the sport.

Nandor has secured a spot on the Canada’s 18U national team and will be heading to Argentina this summer to compete with players from around the world, while Loberg heads back to Montreal as a player on Alberta’s provincial water polo team.

But helping the Edmonton Tsunami reach new levels of success will always be an important memory for both players.

Last year the team didn’t qualify for nationals and “lost almost every game,” Loberg said.

“Our team improved a lot from the beginning of the season,” Nandor said. “It is a bit of a confidence booster … It just proves that we’re good enough to be there.”

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