'It's a fight': The centre position in water polo is no easy task
Canada kicks off the tournament on Saturday at 2:30 a.m. ET against Australia
Wrestling for position in the water. Grabbing of swimsuits. Errant kicking. The odd cheap shot. It's just a day in the life of a centre forward in water polo.
The centre or the hole position is not for the faint of heart.
If you're new to water polo, the centre is the player trying to get open in front of the other team's goal. It's often where the water is turbulent, like a washing machine, which is almost what playing in the hole feels like.
"I would probably say it's a fight. The whole thing is a brawl, if I'm being honest," said co-captain Emma Wright on a recent call from Morioka, Japan, where the team was training ahead of Tokyo.
"You're not actually fighting, obviously, but it's a very physical position. You need strength and anticipation, you have to be able to read your defender, you have to read where the ball is going to go. It's kind of a mix of being able to anticipate the next move and just using your whole body to try and keep position. It's pretty tough."
Though Wright has played centre here and there in her career due to her size — she's one of the bigger, stronger women on the team at almost six feet and 185 pounds — as a driver, she would typically play on the outside and take opportunities to drive to the goal. It's about having speed, running plays and knowing where the ball needs to go.
"The best way to describe the centre, you're in the middle of the play and if you can get position, it's kind of a way to allow the offence to actually happen," explains the Lindsay, Ont., native, whose sister Claire is a goalie on the team.
WATCH | The Olympians: Women's water polo:
If a centre can get in position, they draw the defence's attention back and that allows the rest of the team in the water to move, pass the ball or make shots or look inside to pass to the hole if the player is open.
Lemay-Lavoie started the sport at age 15 after leaving competitive swimming. Unlike Wright, the 23-year-old has almost exclusively played in the middle.
"I came to my club [CAMO], they saw me and said 'you're pretty tall, you're pretty big, we're going to put you there,' so I started right away playing as a centre," said the 26-year-old native of Montreal who stars for the University of Hawaii. "I started learning about water polo from [that position] and it wasn't until after years playing national team and doing national junior, I got the chance to play other positions."
It's been about six years that Lemay-Lavoie has been back as a full-time centre and like many athletes on the national team, she was greatly impacted by Alogbo.
Krystina Alogbo 'an idol' for Lemay-Lavoie
"She took me under her wing. When I first came into the national team she really helped me build the player I am today," said Lemay-Lavoie. "I have my own style but I learned a lot of what I do in the water from her and what she told me. She was an idol for me when I came in."
Water polo itself has a reputation as a rough and tumble sport and the centre position is the epitome of it.
"There's a lot of wrestling face-to-face, lots of pushing, lots of legs, lots of grabbing with the suit, lots of hits. You're going under the water, over the water. Usually as a centre, our neck gets pretty sore because we're getting jumped on. There's always someone over our shoulders or over our head getting very aggressive."
Despite the bruises and the black eyes, playing centre is still a lot of fun.
"Now, as a centre, just being able to use all of my strength and not being penalized for that … it's been nice. Water polo is a tough game, but I like it."
Canada kicks off the Olympic water polo tournament Saturday against Australia (2:30 a.m. ET) before meeting Spain on July 26, South Africa on July 28 and the Netherlands on Aug. 1. The top four teams in each of the two groups advance to the quarter-finals.