Why a Canadian legend walked away on the verge of her Olympic dream
Injuries and a delayed Games conspired against water polo star Krystina Alogbo
Missing the certainty of yesterday but emboldened by the potential of tomorrow, Krystina Alogbo is embracing a new challenge.
At her teammate's house in Verona, Italy for the sake of better internet — a site known most famously as the setting of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet — Alogbo is relaxed and seated with a Monet-like setting behind her, a sailboat calmly floating along the river. Her playing career heading off into the sunset, with many dreams accomplished and injuries having taken their toll, a normal life and financial security in the afterlife of an athlete is top of mind.
Now acting as a player-coach for CSS Verona in the twilight of her playing days, Alogbo's glittery 16-year international career at water polo's highest level ends without an Olympic appearance. After guiding the Canadian women's national team to a spot in the Tokyo Olympics as captain in 2019, health and COVID-19 emerged victorious as the postponement due to the global pandemic saw Alogbo suddenly announce her retirement in August, a month after she was supposed to achieve that dream.
"It wasn't a relief because it was still a shock," Alogbo said after revealing she spent months debating the decision. "It is 15 years of my life, it took a couple months to even come to that decision and actually realizing it was another thing because I was here [in Verona], the relief — it didn't happen for a while. I can't even tell you if I'm okay yet because I've talked to many ex-teammates of mine and it took a lot of time for them to get back on the saddle and getting into their new life and careers so I don't think it's that easy. No matter what way you go, there's always that part of you that is missing."
How does one of the best players in the game move on from missing out on her biggest goal despite accomplishments that can fill a room? Alogbo staked her claim as one of the future faces of women's water polo when she won MVP at the 2003 FINA world junior championships where Canada won gold, won MVP of the senior world championships in 2009 as Canada were forced to settle for silver, was named Water Polo Player of the Year by Swimming World Magazine in 2011 and steadily pushed the nation to greater heights over the past decade. With all the accolades she's received over the years, there will always be one dream she cherished that will remain unfulfilled.
It seems a cruel and abrupt end to an illustrious international career, but in the life of an athlete, Father Time is a constant whose reality has only been accelerated by a global pandemic.
In Italy they call her Il Coccodrillo, which translates to the crocodile: ferocious, powerful, and always ready to pounce. She has only been there the past couple of years, but the traits with which she began the pursuit of a water polo career are the ones that hold true to this day.
"All my kids have been very athletic," Simone, Alogbo's mother, said about her three sons and two daughters who she raised as a single mother in Montreal working as a credit manager. "The boys were really good and they played soccer – she's also very good at soccer, by the way. If they ever had to pick between her and any boy, they would pick her, they never feared picking her and they were older than her. To them, she was one of the boys."
Alogbo developed a love for water polo right from when she began playing at the age of eight, providing early signs of the aggressive, energetic, and vocal leader she would become. Always looking to make an impression, she quickly began training at CAMO — a water polo club for Canada's best in Montreal. The senior national team used to train there as well, and so she soaked in all she could as they prepped to qualify for the first-ever women's water polo Olympic event in 2000.
Signing up for every event possible as a goal judge or ball girl to be as close as possible to the action and to stars such as Sandra Lize and Cora Campbell, Alogbo made a point of being the first one there and the last one to leave. She grabbed every opportunity to absorb lessons from the players, but it was the teachings of Daniel Berthelette that guided her from passion and raw talent to the complete player.
'Born to play this game'
Regarded as one of Canada's great coaches in the sport, Berthelette was a former head coach of the Canadian women's team and led them to qualification in 2000, won gold at the '99 Pan Am Games, and silver at the '91 world championships, not to mention several national championships with CAMO. He had a gut feeling about Alogbo from the first time he saw her and so when things weren't easy, he made sure to fight for her.
"When she was young, I told her mom, 'Your daughter was born to play this game,'" Berthelette said.
In 2001 and 2002, Alogbo had a bit of a struggle connecting with some of the coaches on the junior national team. They didn't take kindly to her strong personality, but Berthelette fought to convince them that it was all part of what made her tick and would also help the Canadian team find a new level.
"We had to sell that that personality she had could put a gold medal around the neck of the coach," Berthelette said. "You saw right away that her game sense was there at a very, very young age. These are the type of athletes when you coach as long as I did, they're born once every 10 years."
These are the type of athletes when you coach as long as I did, they're born once every 10 years.- Daniel Berthelette
Alogbo was demanding of herself from a young age and so did the same of everyone around her. Perhaps that wasn't for everyone, and Patrick Oaten, a former head coach of Canada, was the man who needed some convincing. Fortunately, Berthelette's words proving prophetic would be all the convincing he'd need.
Alogbo was a girl possessed at the junior world championships in Calgary in 2003, scoring at will and playing her best when it mattered most. After a strong team performance against Spain in the semifinals, Alogbo virtually single-handedly kept Canada in the hunt for gold against the U.S., scoring all three Canadian goals to stay level in regulation. With nothing left to separate the two sides, it was a shootout that would be the difference, where Alogbo converted the winning shot. MVP was a foregone conclusion, but Alogbo's lasting memory from the tournament is what everyone around her, including the fans, made her feel.
"Right then, the country made us feel like we were already at the Olympic Games," Alogbo said. "We were at a high level where it didn't feel like it was just a junior worlds. When you look back as a 35-year-old you say, okay, junior worlds and senior worlds are completely different, but at that moment, the whole community, all of Canada did not make us feel like it was just a junior worlds …
"Winning against the Americans and everyone jumping in [the pool]. All the staff, the subs, the alternates, the three coaches including my mentor, Dan, they were all in the water. I think that was the best feeling knowing exactly what it meant. It wasn't one person that won, it was all these people in the water that made this moment happen."
That was the perfect beginning and after all the personal accolades and team accomplishments along the way, Alogbo's international career looked set for the perfect ending as well. After bitter disappointments in failing to qualify for the Olympics in 2008, 2012 and 2016, Tokyo was set to be the last stop after Canada claimed their spot with a silver medal at the 2019 Pan Am Games.
The last time Canada's women qualified for the showcase event was 2004, but her passion for the Olympics stemmed from hours upon hours sitting and watching everything from the opening ceremony to the different competitions to the closing ceremony with her mother. Simone can remember her daughter had "Olympian" as her dream accomplishment in her high school yearbook. It's all she's ever wanted within the prism of her athletic career.
"The word 'Olympic' to me started way before even knowing what sport I chose," Alogbo said. "I was a kid and my mom is like the biggest fan of the Olympic Games. Her favourite is the opening ceremonies, from the get-go she's all about it. We were mainly watching the Winter Olympics at that time because I know figure skating was a big one that my mom loves to watch.
"We were always glued to the TV when the Olympics were on and also the Summer Games, I remember all the names like Donovan (Bailey). My mom made us passionate about those games."
The little kid inside her yearned for the moment, but the world and Alogbo's body said no. In February last year, Alogbo was already confronted with the consequences of the pandemic as Italy was one of the countries hardest hit. She had to fly out to Montreal for training camp with the national team – after initial plans to train in Hungary were scrapped – not knowing what to expect and left behind everything, including her beloved 11-year-old Yorkshire chihuahua.
Something wasn't quite right
She got home before North America felt its first COVID-19 reverberations, and the first ripple toward retirement soon followed. With the chance to be back home and spend time with family, Alogbo made dinner plans with Berthelette. Her mentor for more than two decades, he could tell something wasn't quite right and this was going to be more than a belated celebration of her birthday.
After a long day of helping her mother, Alogbo and Berthelette decided to unwind the best way they knew how. They went to the Boston Pizza in Anjou, Que., around 8 p.m. at night, had a round of beers, uncorked a bottle of wine, checked in on each other's health, both mental and physical, reminisced about old results accomplished together, and what the future may bring. And that's when Alogbo let out a bombshell: On the verge of making her Olympic debut after 15 years representing the nation at the highest level, three herniated discs in her neck had her contemplating retirement.
"Knowing that I hurt myself badly with my neck and having a hard time to grasp all that, and having a hard time seeing my lasting until the end of July," Alogbo said about what led to the discussion. "That point was a very crucial moment for my family, lots of things happened and he was there for me, he's always been like a father to me."
Berthelette detailed the decisions he made over the course of his life and true to his straight-shooting style, asked honestly about how seriously Alogbo had thought about life beyond her playing career. She admitted she hadn't given it too much thought but knew that having a "normal life" was a desire, being able to walk up the stairs or just go to sleep at night without her hands going numb. Berthelette's advice was to weigh the pros and cons of everything and write it down.
Knowing that I hurt myself badly with my neck ... and having a hard time seeing my lasting until the end of July.- Krystina Alogbo on her decision
"Once you finish writing everything down, your mind is going to be clear because when you just think, think, think, it's not the same," Berthelette said. "It's easier for you as a human being. Measure everything because one day when you wake up you'll regret over things you didn't think of before."
Their conversation lasted into the early morning, and Alogbo came away thinking she had what it took to keep battling for another seven months. She spoke with national team doctors at the camp, spoke with her CSS Verona's doctors when she came back, got MRIs done and received three cortisone shots to her neck. There was a shoulder problem as well, but the hope was that addressing the neck would help all around, but the other challenge was that returning to Verona where a lockdown was in place meant that she was rehabbing on her own. There was guidance from trainers on what she needed to do and her roommate would try to help out, but the makeshift rehab certainly made recovery more difficult.
Then in March, the Canadian Olympic Committee announced it would not send athletes to Tokyo if the Olympics weren't postponed by at least a year. Her dream was quickly unravelling but Alogbo – having seen what some of her teammates in Verona were forced to contend with – understood what was happening around her rightly took precedent.
"The fact that Canada was the first of all nations to do that, I think showed a lot of strength and unity for the world crisis," Alogbo said. "I was proud, because usually Canada just follows into big movements like that. It's a weird thing to say, I was proud for that movement. I had friends here [Italy], they were going through a lot of drastic things and grandparents, people dying and just their country being so demoralized and locked down and all that. Just seeing the struggles in the world, it was bigger than just us and our own big dreams."
The eventual postponement of the Olympics by a year crystallized what Alogbo needed to do. In August, she went to the ranch in Montreal where the national team trains with her mind made up and some members of the team already aware of what was coming. After a morning practice, the team was together for a meeting discussing philosophies of the team when Alogbo let them know they would be without their longest-serving member and would need a new captain for the Olympics.
"Emotion, tears, hugs – from her teammates and her," head coach David Paradelo said about the team's reaction. "I shared, I shed a tear, too. She's not only been a part of the program, she's built the program. She's been a builder in this adventure and it's sad when you see someone go."
Paradelo has seen the rise of Alogbo firsthand. He was one of those boys who competed with and against her when he was around eight years old and she was a year younger. They got to know each other better around the age of 12, played together at CAMO until about the ages of 14 (competition was co-ed until then) and had the privilege of coaching her while also being able to lean on her leadership and captaincy. With that tightly knit relationship, it wasn't a total surprise when he found out Alogbo decided her time was up.
"It was a shock in that you always hope it's not going to happen," Paradelo said. "You also hope for the best for each and every athlete and at that point in time that was the better option for Krys in terms of her physical and mental health."
A superstar's legacy is often defined by leaving the sport in a better place than where it was when they first arrived, and a big part of why Alogbo feels some comfort in making her departure from the international scene is seeing the current crop of talent that's ready to take Canadian women's water polo forward. Young stars like Elyse Lemay-Lavoie and Emma Wright have emerged to play key roles in helping the side qualify for the Olympics, and while both have been presented the challenge of filling the void left by Alogbo by playing the centre forward position now, Wright has had to transition from the left side of the pool.
"We have a lot of shooters, a lot of great shooters," Alogbo said. "But when the tough gets going, you gotta get some people playing in the centre, the hole as we call it. It was a lot of, 'Listen, you gotta push through it, push through the pain, fight harder,' and they worked hard. They're ready for it, I know they sometimes underestimate themselves, but who doesn't at that age?"
Wright's first interaction with Alogbo came as a 13-year-old at her first national team tryout in the summer of 2011. Hoping to make the junior Pan American team, the senior team was also in the building preparing for the world championships and their pool times had aligned for a scrimmage. Alogbo guarded Wright at one point, and like any inexperienced athlete, Wright was terrified and consumed by how little she knew compared to the face of the senior team.
WATCH | Alogbo and Canadian team vs Netherlands:
It wasn't long, though, before the two were on the same side as Wright – a teenage star herself – joined the senior team a couple of years later. At 16, she was the youngest member of the 2013 world championships senior squad and became a fixture thereafter. With the added experience under her belt and now being able to observe and learn from Alogbo on a regular basis, Wright could genuinely appreciate everything Alogbo brought to the table.
"I realized that Krys was just a very, very smart player, she just had a really amazing sense for the game," Wright said. "Not only was she strong and fast, she had very good game awareness and that was pretty impressive for me to see."
Wright – naturally left-handed – saw herself as more of a driver and favoured playing out wide, thinking it helped the team that she could change passing patterns and present a different challenge to the goalie with her handedness at that position. But Alogbo saw a different future for her, letting Wright know from the very beginning of their association that a time would come for her to play centre forward. Until her retirement, Alogbo was the only senior team captain Wright knew, and true to the leader Alogbo has been, she was there to help Wright understand the demands of the role.
"Especially during the beginning when I was starting to transition more into playing that role," Wright said of Alogbo's guidance. "She was definitely there to correct me and give me pointers here and there. She's done that for a long time for Elyse. She's kind of been Elyse's mentor and been there to help her along the way so when I transitioned to that role she was definitely there for me. I've always looked up to her but definitely as a centre – she was the best centre in the world at one point. You obviously want this person to give you as much of that information and experience as they can."
The early days of the national team practising without Alogbo took some getting used to and, with a lack of competition because of travel restrictions, they can't yet be sure of where they stack up without her. Knowing there's no going back, though, the team has steadily continued to adapt and move forward as best they can.
If there is one thing they hope to carry forward from the Alogbo days it's partying just as hard as they play. Whether it be teammates, coaches, or family, Alogbo has always made a point of making others feel special. When health and safety restrictions are such that a proper celebration can be had for Alogbo and her career, they intend on ensuring it happens.
"She's big about celebrating," Paradelo said. "She's invited the team to her house so many times, she made sure that every chance, every birthday, even if we weren't together on that given day, we celebrated at some point in time before or after.
"Krystina showed how to appreciate life, how to appreciate the moments you're spending on the road with your teammates, how to spend the moments that you're at home and that you're still able to be with your teammates as family or friends, not just co-workers."
The time has come for Alogbo to appreciate even more of the lighter side of life, like her new dog Enzo, a Lagotto she picked up in light of the international retirement that made her realize she'd have time to care for two dogs while still getting a feel for coaching. Throw in spending more time with family and hobbies like soccer, volleyball, wind surfing and yoga and it's a start to acclimatizing to life without Team Canada.
Is Alogbo completely comfortable with the idea yet? She's getting there.
"Just being with my family, being there for them and also them giving me that approval was huge," Alogbo said. "My sister saying, 'You'll always be our Olympic champion no matter what' and my mom and her saying to leave it to the younger ones because I have six nieces and nephews made all the difference."