27 Mar 2014
Water polo is known for its violent streak. Dirty tactics. Cheap tricks. A kick here, a scratch there — maybe even the occasional punch.
Before games, officials do the rounds to make sure players have filed their nails. But despite these efforts, it’s simply not water polo unless a couple of players leave with a bruise or five, a tattered swimsuit or a broken limb.
These are often the only trophies they take home.
With such a wealth of grievances to choose from, you’d think Australian Olympian Nicola ‘Ziggy’ Zagame wouldn’t have a problem answering the question, ‘what do you like least about your sport?’
‘You’ll probably think this is really lame …’ she says after a pause. ‘Sometimes the pools have really bad chlorine, and because we don’t wear goggles your eyes can get really irritated.’
The confession reduces Zagame to giggles. But what of the broken noses or the bruises, I ask in exasperation?
Zagame, like others before her, has learnt to love them.
There’s no other choice.
A new voice
In many ways, Zagame is Gen-Y to a tee. The 23-year-old from Cronulla oozes confidence and sports an unceasing optimism about the future.
‘We can definitely win gold in 2016,’ she says with a smile, not unlike the cereal-box grin that made Samantha Riley Australia’s golden girl in the 1990s. When Zagame speaks it’s mostly at breakneck speed — her words spill past me like a wave — and it’s tough not to be swept up by her enthusiasm.
But unlike the Gen-Ys of Channel 10’s The Shire — who gave her hometown such a bad rap — Zagame displays none of the excess that is pinned (usually unfairly) on her generation. There’s no hint of pretence, and her inexperience in the media realm gives her answers a freshness that is exciting.
This is a voice Australia hasn’t heard from — and probably should.
To date, Zagame — like all of her Aussie Stingers team-mates — is largely unknown to the Australian public. This is in spite of her boasting an Olympic bronze medal, world championship silver medal and a reputation as one of the finest pure athletes on the national team.
A lack of appreciation does, however, affect water polo as a whole. It’s one of the toughest Olympic sports — an odd hybrid of basketball and football played in six metre-deep water — and the level of talent it demands of those brave enough to play is immense.
This makes water polo’s relatively low profile rather baffling. And it’s toughest on the women’s team. The sport’s most famous game was, of course, the ‘Blood in the Water’ match — an all-male affair between the Soviet Union and Hungary at the Melbourne Olympic Games.
It’s a situation Zagame is aware of. ‘Off the top of my head, the sporting personalities I think of are male — which is ridiculous! There are so many female athletes achieving such great things. But that’s how we’re conditioned to think. It’s all to do with the media,’ she says with a sigh.
Zagame wasn’t supposed to be a water polo player. When she was growing up, she participated in surf lifesaving at her local club and dreamed of tackling the Nutri-Grain Ironwoman challenge. It was only when a friend coaxed her to a game in her early teens that Zagame discovered water polo.
And, true to the sport’s form, it was like a knock to the head.
‘I loved it! It was so different to swim training, which I find really boring. It’s good to get some balls in there and shoot some goals — and it’s great to be part of a team. Training is always fun.’
By the age of 18, Zagame was in the national team. She quickly found herself promoted to the position of centre back, the main defender who is tasked with marking the centre forward. It’s a tough gig — particularly as the centre forward is, according to Zagame, ‘pretty much the strongest, most dangerous person on the team’ — and one she juggled while studying to become a radiographer.
To date, Zagame’s greatest achievement remains the Olympic bronze her team won in 2012, though last year’s silver at the world champs comes close. ‘I’d still put the Olympics before it,’ she admits. ‘[In London] to lose in the semi-final and be able to bounce back and win the bronze meant we ended on a high. It was an amazing time. And we were so close to gold!’
Of course, Zagame’s London exploits were helped by her being in the best shape of her career — which is a far cry from her current predicament.
In December Zagame underwent shoulder surgery to correct an injury she’s been carrying since 2012. It’s one that has reduced her to a frustrated bystander. ‘The National League season has started and it’s so hard not being there and competing,’ she says as the conversation reaches a rare low point.
‘I still train each morning out at Homebush, but all I can do is leg work because I can’t use my arms. It can be a bit punishing on the motivation. You kind of feel you’re not really in it …’ Zagame pauses, and it’s as if she’s replaying one of those sessions in her head.
‘But yeah, up and down,’ she adds with a laugh, quickly returning to form.
It is Zagame’s positive outlook that makes her — and those around her — confident she’ll be ready to return to competition in August when her rehabilitation is complete. From there, it will be all about negotiating her way through the tough selection process for the Olympic team — one she is already talking up.
‘The team is ready to step up. We’re all focused and there’s a fantastic group of girls coming up. We’ve got everything we need. It’s just a matter of putting in the hard work.’
Hard work, and no doubt a few bruises along the way.