Canadian women's water polo team intent on Olympic qualification in Lima

The Canadian women's water polo team has a job to do at the Pan American Games, and so far, so good. Axelle Crevier and Shae Fournier each had four goals, and goalkeeper Jessica Gaudreault stopped two penalty attempts to lift the team to a 20-5 win over Cuba on Sunday. It's a big first win for a team that needs a big result in Lima to earn its place at the Tokyo Olympics.

Team wins physical Pan Am Games opener vs. Cuba

The Canadian women's water polo team prepares for its match against Cuba on Sunday in Lima, Peru, at the Pan American Games. Canada defeated Cuba 20-5. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

LIMA, Peru —The Canadian women's water polo team has a job to do at the Pan American Games, and so far, so good.

Axelle Crevier and Shae Fournier each had four goals, and goalkeeper Jessica Gaudreault stopped two penalty attempts to lift the team to a 20-5 win over Cuba on Sunday at the Villa Maria de Triunfo sports complex.

Canadian head coach David Paradelo was happy with his squad, but says there is work to be done before its next match in this crucial tournament.

"We started a little shaky, which is something to address in the upcoming games, but then we got rolling," he says. "[Also] a bit disorganized at the end, but starting with a win — it's good that we start off with that type of confidence.

That confidence will be important since the team needs a big result to earn its place at the Tokyo Olympics.

It's simple math in Lima: a gold-medal performance equals an Olympic berth. Since the U.S. team has already qualified, the Canadians could still get to Tokyo if they finish with a silver medal, but only if the Americans are the ones who take home gold.

Canada's Kindred Paul scores on a penalty against Cuba goalkeeper Morgan Zunzunegui. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

Paradelo says his team has been waiting for this chance.

"It's our main objective this summer," he says. "We knew that our best, or most optimal chance, of qualifying was through Pan Ams. It's in the back of our minds day in and day out ... this is what we've been training for, this is what we've been planning for. It's the most important thing to us.

"It's been a couple cycles that we've missed [the Olympics] and you can kind of tell with the 20-5 win that we want that so bad," Gaudreault, the team's captain, says.

Second chance at Tokyo

The Pan Am tourney is the second chance in as many months for the team to ensure Olympic qualification.

A spot in Tokyo was on offer at the world aquatics championships last month in Gwangju, South Korea, but the Canadians faltered in a knockout stage game against the Netherlands, taking a 5-4 loss in that match.

They finished strong, winning a penalty shootout against China before beating Kazakhstan to finish ninth overall. Gaudreault says they wanted to carry that momentum into Lima.

"We were really excited," she says. "Ever since our crossover at world championships we were looking forward to coming out and having a really good first game and come out strong and really make a big spread."

The first match in Lima also helped the team get acclimatized to the style of play at the Pan Am Games, which Gaudreault says is known to be quite aggressive.

"Cuba is one our most physical games that we're going to have, they're definitely fighters," she says. "That's one thing I find about the Pan Am Games that are different, it's more physical. In international play you can see that here and there, but you won't miss it in this tournament."

Canada's Shae Fournier (right) battles for the ball against Cuba's Dianela Fria Tellez. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

Gaudreault says to be successful in water polo, you need to put the time in outside of the pool, as well as in it.

"You've got to be fast, you've got to be strong, you've got to have great cardio," she says. "We train a lot in the gym — we had a session in the gym yesterday and … my legs are super sore but that's how we have to go into games. Tired, but you have to push through it."

Canada will look to keep building momentum as it returns to the pool on Monday to face the host Peruvian squad, in front of what should be a loud and boisterous crowd.

"We've been kind of lucky that on past major tournaments that we've had to play the hosts," Gaudreault says. "We're excited to see what the Peruvian fans can come up with."

Paradalo says he's looking forward to his team getting another chance to play in that type of atmosphere — even if it means the players can't hear his poolside directions.

Canada's Emma Wright winds back for a shot during her team's game against Cuba. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

"It's always fun to play the hosts, it's also going to be exciting for [Peru] to play the game as much as it is for us to have the sounds — it's a small facility so it should be very rowdy," he says. "If they cheer the same way they do for soccer, they won't be hearing me very much."

Canada's final group stage game is scheduled for Tuesday against Mexico before the knockout stage begins with quarter-finals on Thursday.

If they don't reach the top of the podium in Lima, the Canadians still need a good showing. Their final placement at the Pan Ams will determine if they get an invite to the Olympic qualifier in March of 2020.

Paradelo says he's confident in his players because of their commitment. Intensity is rooted in their Olympic goals.

"'Practice like it's the day of the Olympic final.' We take that as our motto on a day-by-day basis, and we play like we practice."


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