For Lea Yanitsas, 32, the long-serving goalkeeper of the Australian women’s water polo team, the Aussie Stingers, the form book for this year’s delayed summer Olympics in Tokyo is redundant. The medal placings will be for the teams that best adapt best to a tournament that will be unlike any other in history thanks to COVID restrictions that are yet to be finalised.
The last big international water polo tournament was as part of the of the FINA world aquatic championships in South Korea way back in July 2019. Australia won the bronze medal behind Spain and the United States which won gold. Since that time there has been no major tournament to gauge which are the teams that are peaking as contenders. Australia currently ranks seventh in the world.
“No one will have seen the other teams (since then) and everyone will bring their best game to Tokyo. Everyone will have to adapt to the new environment for these Olympics. So many details are still to be finalised: Will we be wearing masks at all times? How far can one person be from another, how far can we travel (within the Olympic village and beyond)” Ms Yanitsas told Neos Kosmos on Wednesday from the Gold Coast where she is in training.
It will be her second Olympics but the preparations for Tokyo are quite different to what she experienced for the Rio games where Australia finished sixth.
Last year the team could not meet because the COVID-induced travel restrictions as well as lockdown restrictions that affected normal training.
“We went into a training camp after the world championships to prepare for the Summer Olympics in 2020. It was devastating when the games were postponed and it took a while to get our head around the changes,” she said.
The difficulties fuelled her determination to keep training under any circumstances.
“If the swimming pools were not open, we swam in the ocean, we trained at home and held spin sessions and regular team meets through Zoom.
“We all came back to training with even more fire inside us. We are stronger, more resilient than ever before. While there have been some changes, the group has been together for five years. It is a strong group of girls and support staff who are leaning on each other in these difficult times. It will help us through any challenge that is to come,” said Ms Yanitsas.
Ms Yanitsas the daughter of a New Zealand-born mother and Czech father is married to Andrew Yanitsas who appropriately enough she met through water polo. Mr Yanitsas is a coach of the 16 and under Australia male team and at club.
“He understands (the pressures of preparing for Tokyo) and he has supported me especially with our young son Constantine (Dino). He is a saint.
“I am married into the loveliness of a Greek family, I am an ‘honorary Australian-Greek’ and we want to live and pass on the traditions to our son,” said Ms Yanitsas who qualified as a physiotherapist from the University of Sydney.
“We have training camps scheduled for the start of July and we are waiting for the official date to travel to Tokyo,” she said.
The first game of the tournament will be against Canada on 24 July. Ms Yanitsas thinks the US and a number of European teams are the ones to watch out for.