Millions of athletes all over the world dream of one day representing their country at the Olympics. This weekend, 21 local water polo players will be one step closer to achieving that goal.
Boulder’s local club, the Rocky Mountain Neptunes, will be sending the athletes to the Olympic Development Program’s regional championships in San Antonio. The tournament will be divided into zone teams, which represent various regions from around the country: Southeast, Southwest, Northwest, Hawaii and Mountain. The Mountain Zone team draws athletes from Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada.
“Water polo is a very small sport in Colorado. Since then, we have produced players on the national team and many players on the zone team,” Neptunes coach Manu Ghaffari said. “Once a year, the Olympic Development Program brings all the zone teams together to compete. During that competition, they pick the top players for the national team. First, they pick 70 of them to the national team selection camp and then they cut them to 35 and then the final 14.”
The Neptunes will be sending Brayde Patik, Sarah Temu, Emma Ruzic, Alexis Kilgroe, Codi Ortiz, Rebecca Bijld, Ava Berry, Tornike Bakradze, Gray Lewis, Justin Cady, Jackson Nightingale, William Perrotto, Wesley Schlachter, Logan Waldron, Nate Starbuck, Shane Conroy, Luke Corson, Colton Lewis, Lucas Becker, Jack Klein and Carson Pete.
Utility player Ruzic, 16, is no stranger to the regional competition or the national camps. She’ll serve as a resource for the teammates who will be making their first trip to the ODPs.
“You know everyone is pretty high-level, so there’s really good energy there and it’s really fun to be in that kind of atmosphere,” Ruzic said. “With the Neptunes, we have a lot of talent on the team. I think we’re a really strong club together, so I think we run pretty close with the ODP talent.”
The competition will be divided into three age groups: development (born 2007-2009), cadet (born 2005-2006) and youth (born 2002-2004).
Thirteen-year-old attacker Patik has played the sport for four years and has made the zone team twice. She believes her teammates will perform well as long as they keep a level head about the national team coaches that will be in attendance.
“(The newcomers) need to just pay attention and be on top of everything,” Patik, 13, said. “(The tournaments) are really fun. It’s a little bit stressful because everyone is there and they’re all watching you to see how you do.”
Throughout the past year, the Neptunes had to practice like a fish out of water. Due to COVID restrictions, the team couldn’t gather to train in the pool. The players got creative, and that only helped them improve in the process.
“I got better with training more on dryland and more swimming. It was heavy balls and throwing them into the wall, simple jumping jacks,” goalie Bakradze,13, said. “It was very exciting because I’ve never made it into the team. It was really hard for me to make it in because I train so hard.”
Others, like 14-year-old attacker Schlachter, are just thrilled to be able to show their talents on a bigger stage. He’s even a relative newcomer to the sport, having only joined the Neptunes in late 2019.
“I’m super good at swimming and I like team sports in general. This is a really fun team sport, and I think it’s one of the only ones you can play in the water. I kind of just put those two together,” Schlachter said. “This is the next step to getting better at water polo and keep going along the actual Olympic team pipeline.”