The man widely acknowledged as the United States’ greatest male water polo exponent has been in Blenheim for three days, sharing his unique knowledge with a group of young players.
Tony Azevedo, a five-time Olympian and silver medallist in Beijing, held a three-day camp at Stadium 2000 from Monday to Wednesday, attended by 46 young players aged 14-17, many of who had travelled a long way to attend.
Twenty participants hailed from Marlborough, where the sport is growing at a rapid rate, the others coming from Manawatu, Wellington, Canterbury, Dunedin, Southland, plus one lad from Australia.
Tony has previously staged two camps in Auckland, but this time ventured south.
Marlborough Water Polo Club chairperson Martyn Birch was instrumental in getting the 38-year-old to Blenheim.
“Last year our coach took three kids to his camp in Auckland and it cost them a fortune, so we discussed the idea of bringing him here. Our head coach Alistair Keay talked to the Seawolf club in Auckland, who organised Tony’s previous visit, and came to an arrangement.
“Basically any profits go to them, we get to showcase our great facilities and our parents/kids save money and get to train under one of the sport’s best players and now a top coach.”
Tony, who in 2015 was named the Pac-12 Conference water polo athlete of the century, was only too happy to set up camp in the Mainland for the first time.
Lunch at Lochmara Lodge, waterskiiing in the Sounds, visits to wineries and whale watching in Kaikoura have served to grow his appreciation of what the top of the south can offer.
“It’s my first trip to New Zealand with my family [wife and two children]. My son waterskied for the first time in the Sounds, I was, like, co-pilot when we went whalewatching and the wine tasting of course, it’s been amazing.”
Tony has been impressed by the physical capabilities of the young athletes in his camps, both north and south.
“You have girls here who are taller than me and you have guys that are shooting the ball harder than me … then when you get to that 16, 17, 18 year-old competition you really need to be exposed to higher level competition.
“But what our company [6-8 Sports] emphasises is that anyone from anywhere, if they are doing the right thing and have the fundamentals, then all they have to do is work hard, swim hard and play higher-quality games and they can be as good as anyone else in the world.
“The problem is that we are playing so many games we are missing out on some of the fundamentals … that’s what I have emphasised. How a kid picks up the ball, how they hold the ball, how they follow through … a lot of these kids are doing really well and if they can continue with the small changes [to their technique] I think they can be great players … there is so much talent here.”
Tony suggests that what separates a great water polo player from the rest is the ability to be humble and confident at the same time.
“Confident, because you can’t go into a game or practice thinking ‘oh man, I’m never going to score’, but humble because it is the players who make their team mates better that are the best players. The ones that are humble enough to continuously learn.
“And also humble enough to take all the failures that you are going to have, and there will be a lot of them … you are going to get scored on, make mistakes. Are you humble enough to learn from those mistakes and get better as an athlete or are you not even going to try to fix those mistakes and never grow?
“The biggest barrier to success is your fear of failure … instead of realising, ‘I’m gonna get scored on, it’s OK as long as I learn from it.”
Tony also emphasised the fun aspect of his chosen sport.
“After the 2008 Olympics they did a survey of all the sports and asked ‘if you could hang out with one sport which would it be?’ And water polo won.”
When asked why he thought water polo was voted the most fun sport, Tony recalled his teenage years.
“Before the age of 18 I mowed the lawn in speedos, I ran a marathon in speedos and I went out to a date in speedos … there’s something about us having to wear this tiny little thing that gives us that bit of confidence, right?
“Why I think water polo is so great is that it’s a team sport, which I’m a huge fan of in general because you learn how to interact with others, how to build each other up and leadership. Also, the fact that if you play our sport you are going to be in shape. So physically you are going to become more confident in your body, in yourself.
“It’s the third or fourth-fastest growing sport in the United States because all the parents want their kids to go to universities and there are so many opportunities at good universities, through scholarships or just getting in because you play water polo and have good grades.”
Martyn is hopeful that Tony’s visit inspires the participants to encourage other kids to play water polo.
“We see polo as a sport that could help kids develop their off-season fitness for other sports and also improve their throwing abilities, if you can throw a ball in the water, then you’re going to be able to throw a great ball standing on the ground. It also raise’s water confidence.
Our MGC team is current NZ tier two champions and Marlborough under-16 girls are tier two national silver medallists, but we are keen to have more kids try polo.
“We live in a region that has so much involvement with the water, we need to ensure our kids have the highest level of water confidence. The next Tony Azevedo could be going to a Marlborough school now, so the more opportunities we provide hopefully the more kids will give the sport a go.”
Just for the record, Tony confirmed he no longer mowed the lawn at his Long Beach, California home in his speedos.
“I don’t even mow the lawn any more, I’ve got a guy that does it now,” he added with a broad grin.
If you are interested in playing water polo, term one starts on February 5. Anyone from 7 to 70 is welcome to come down and give it a go. Contact Petra at Stadium 2000, email [email protected] or drop in and see reception at the stadium.