Players forced to turn their back on sport

24 Jul 2014

Many of the British Women’s Water Polo team now face the heart-breaking reality of quitting the sport for good following the end of international careers they had dedicated their lives to.

The lure of the Rio 2016 Olympics coupled with the promise of enhanced funding to take them there has long gone since UK Sport’s funding reversal in February.

And while it may be too late now for many of these players to achieve their dreams, they are joining calls for Sports Minster Helen Grant to support women’s sports so that young players continue to have something to aspire to.

"I would ask the Minster to think again about how we fund sport in this country and particularly women’s team sports”

- Fran Clayton

Their last international appearance ended this week in Hungary and with it the conclusion of a promising rise of one of only a handful of women’s Olympic team sports within Britain.

The team should always reflect proudly on the progress they have made and the impact they have had on the sport. Since London 2012 the national women’s team has helped to raise the standard of water polo in the UK and inspired many young girls to take up the sport, with over 700 under 18’s regularly playing at clubs.

But the removal of funding has meant there is uncertainty whether Britain will be represented in future International tournaments. Players will now focus on finding employment rather than achieving performance goals in the biggest sporting arena.

In 2013 the team qualified for their first World Championships for 10 years. After finishing 13th they went on to stun world champions Spain with a great performance in April that saw them win 9-7.

Eleven members of the team also won gold playing as team England at the Commonwealth Championships. The England Ladies beat Canada, ranked seventh in the World by FINA, 10-9 in the final.

But although progress has been made and a performance programme put in place that would have seen the team centralise next season in purpose built facilities in Manchester, the decision by UK Sport to remove funding has stopped everything.

"When we look at the progress we’ve made it seems such a waste of potential to stop"

- Rosie Morris

Rosie Morris, who has captained the team since 2013, said: “We were all looking forward to training full time as a team. When we look at the progress we’ve made with so little centralised training it seems such a waste of potential to stop just when we had the opportunity to come together and develop.” 

There were high hopes for the British team going into the recent European Championships after a good qualifying tournament but the lack of match preparation due to the cessation of their training programme and knowledge that this was likely to be their last tournament together, impacted on performance.

Kostas Vamvakaris, who joined the team in September as Head Coach and finishes his role at the end of the month, said:  “After the funding was cut all of the team were very disappointed and they knew the European Championships was likely to be the last international competition of their career.

“The impact of ending the centralised programme meant the players have had to alter their lives accordingly, which meant it was all the more challenging to be 100 per cent focused during our preparation phase.” 

For many of the team this meant attending job interviews or applying to return to full time study.

Fran Clayton, who has been playing with the senior team since their gold medal win at the European Nations Trophy in 2009, is one of five members of the team who has had to find a full time job.  

Clayton said: “Having the funding cut has enforced a life change which I wasn't ready for. I was expecting to be part of a centralised team training full time in Manchester but instead I have had to re-think everything.

“I do fear about the impact these funding cuts will have on water polo in this country. Although there is still a strong club network, where is the inspiration for younger players if there isn’t a national team to aspire to join?

“Even though my dream of competing at Rio 2016 has ended I wouldn’t want others to feel like this so would ask the Minster of Sport to think again about how we fund sport in this country and particularly women’s team sports.”

"There’s a real danger that the junior players will drop out of the sport because there is nothing to aim for" 

- Chloe Wilcox

For the younger members of the team there is the possibility of continuing to play water polo with a local team while they return to education. But Vamvakaris warns that without a dedicated programme their talent will be wasted.

He said: “Our recent results have shown that the difference between us and the highest ranked teams is small. A lot of the girls are young and have great potential but this will be lost if there isn’t the political will to support a dedicated programme. Training a couple of days a week will not meet the standard required to break through internationally.”

One of the longest serving members of the team, Chloe Wilcox, added: “There’s a real danger that the junior players will drop out of the sport because there is nothing to aim for, or be forced to move abroad like I am doing in order to continue playing the game we all love.

“I'm still hoping that the Sports Minister will see sense and help to reinstall the funding to enable a GBR Water Polo team to continue competing at the highest level.”

Earlier this year Claire Nixon won a four-year scholarship at the University of Hawaii but the 21-year old is concerned she will never be able to represent her country again. She said: “I was devastated when I missed out on playing at the London 2012 Olympics but being a younger member of the squad, I knew I had a strong chance of making the team for the Rio Olympics.

“Since then I’ve been doing all I can to make myself a better player and ensure I made the team but after losing the funding I feel like my dreams have been shattered.

“I’m luckier than some of the girls who are being forced to retire, but I can’t believe that everything we have been working so hard for all these years has been taken away.”