Published Fri 08 Mar 2024

Friday 8 March marks International Women’s Day, with people around the globe recognising the great work of women from all walks of life.

When it comes to women involved in water polo, there are many who have served as coaches, volunteers, players and numerous roles across the sport.

But when it comes to trailblazers, it’s hard to go past the Sydney 2000 Olympic women’s water polo team.

It’s a well known story, about the advocacy for inclusion of women’s water polo on the Olympic program for the first time in Sydney 2000. Perhaps what’s sometimes overlooked is the ongoing legacy of the team, the Olympic Games and the values that continue to shine through in our Ord Minnett Aussie Stingers.

Sydney 2000 Olympic gold medalist Naomi McCarthy said: “It’s almost difficult now to picture the time, prior to Sydney 2000, that we were fighting to get women’s water polo into the Olympics.

“We’ve come so far over the last 20-something years that it seems incredible that women weren’t there for much much longer.

“It was a really, really significant battle to get women's water polo included in the Olympics around the world and really a lot of pressure was put on the organisers from a number of areas, so it’s almost nice to sit back now and think ‘I can’t even believe we had to do that’,” she said.

They say time flies, and for McCarthy that couldn’t ring more true. But with another home Olympics knocking on Australia’s doorstep, the proud Brisbane local said there is a lot to thank Sydney for.

“Sydney 2000 did a massive amount for Australian water polo, in part because of our result but also just because we were able to bring the country along with us on our journey. 

“It was so validating to see that finally, the sport was accepted and equity within the sport was finally realised at the Olympic level,” she said.

“You can really see now how much women’s water polo has flourished. It’s great to see how some of the well known ‘male strongholds’ of the sport have really put time and energy into developing their female programs and how high the level of play is now, both at the national level and generally across the board,” she said.

At the 2024 Australian Youth Water Polo Championships in Brisbane, the Sydney 2000 team had a chance to reunite, but for a different reason.

Majority of the team were involved in the event as coaches, managers or pool controllers, but what was even more special was getting to see all of their children involved in the event.

“I’ve got a daughter that is heavily involved and a son that plays more socially now,” McCarthy said.

“As an athlete you try not to put any pressure on your kids to follow in your footsteps, so I don’t necessarily talk to them about 2032 as a goal, I more so just hope they stay involved in one capacity or another. I think for them really just to be involved in sport generally is the important thing,” she said.

McCarthy’s daughter Ali currently plays water polo for the North Brisbane Polo Bears and was also recently selected into Water Polo Australia’s National Age Group Program.

McCarthy will always be ‘mum’ to Ali, but the 15-year-old said the significance of what her mum’s team managed to achieve is not lost on her.

“It’s pretty surreal, when I think about it, it’s crazy. But I’ve grown up with it, so it is normal in a way,” Ali said.

“They’re super inspirational, and that’s the best the women’s team has done (at an Olympics) and it’s pretty cool that my mum was in that team,” she said.

Reminiscing on that special moment from 24 years ago, McCarthy said she has very fond memories of the Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre. And her hopes are that a new generation will get to have that same experience in eight years time.

“It’s great to see the Sydney pool still being used, I don’t think I’ve ever been there and it hasn’t been pumping. 

“There’s always a whole stack of people there and it’s always great to go back to the place where we played that gold medal game and have it be a part of our history.

“A home Games gives you the opportunity to really invest and I’m hopeful we’ll continue to see growth between now and 2032. 

“Brisbane 2032, I think even more so, will give the community lots of opportunities to be involved and get into sport. Hopefully it will also inspire a whole new generation of athletes, whether they end up in that high performance space or end up just playing a sport like water polo for fun,” she said.