By Stuart Miller-Davis
Her team was one of the first groups of Canadian athletes to snag a spot at the Tokyo Olympics, but the goalkeeper for Canada’s women’s water polo squad sees competing at the Games a year late as potentially a blessing in disguise.
Ottawa’s Jessica Gaudreault was part of the national team that qualified for the Olympics by winning a silver medal at the Pan Am Games last summer. The 26-year-old can still recall the feelings of euphoria she had in the moment.
“I was kind of caught between crying and like freaking out,” she told the Sportspage in a recent interview. “It was definitely a cool experience and to see how happy everyone was after not having qualified for so many years. It was definitely worth it, going through all the ups and downs with those girls.”
The last time Canada’s women’s water polo team qualified for the Olympics was at the 2004 Games in Greece.
While they’ll have to wait another calendar year to return, Gaudreault thinks the delay presents a positive opportunity to her team.
“We get to redo our last year of the cycle,” she said. “Anything we thought could’ve been better, that’s something that we’re definitely looking at doing. So, that’s the silver lining – just do everything that we didn’t think was optimal the last year and do it way better. It also gives us more time to get to know each other in and out of the water.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges to water polo players – largely to do with pools being closed – but Gaudreault has found ways to work around them.
In less bizzaro times, she would train with the national team in Montreal and Capital Wave, her local club, here in Ottawa.
“At the beginning (of the pandemic) it was really tough because we were told we couldn’t practice anymore and it was in the middle of the winter,” she said. “Luckily, I’m (staying) at my parents’ house and they have a gym. So, I was really lucky to come back home and train.”
Spring and summer presented better opportunities to return to a sense of training normalcy because outdoor pools reopened. Aided by the adaptability of Capital Wave, Gaudreault’s finally been back in the water – the natural domain of the self-described “water baby.”
There are still significant restrictions to deal with, like a ban on scrimmages and too close of contact, Capital Wave’s head coach Rodrigo Rojas explained.
“At least they’re able to get in the water, do some passing, do some shooting and work a lot in there,” said Rojas, who’s worked with the soon-to-be Olympian since 2007.
Away from the pool and home-gym, Gaudreault’s also picked up new ways to keep active, including paddle boarding and running.
“Apparently I’m a runner now,” she said with a laugh. “As a water athlete that’s not something we usually like to do but given the circumstances, that’s something I’ve become.”
In Tokyo next year, Canada enters as an underdog behind teams like the high-power Americans and other usually competitive European nations. To Gaudreault, that’s motivation.
“I think that it can definitely benefit us especially with the extra year to perfect our craft,” she said. “We’ve done really well in the past and I know that we can do really well again since this is our first Olympics in a long time. People might brush us off, but I think we can surprise a lot of countries.”
Rojas was keen to point out that after qualifying for the Olympics, Gaudreault returned directly to Ottawa, where she spent a week helping with Capital Wave’s younger athletes.
It’ll take another year, but the club “role model,” as Rojas described her, could be in for a hero’s welcome if Canada is able to shock the world next summer.