The road to the Olympics, almost always a tricky, uphill grade for the Canadian men’s water polo team, just got a great deal tougher.
The window was open for them a crack Monday night. A win over the U.S. in the Pan Am semifinal in Markham would have punched their ticket to Rio. With Brazil already qualified as the host country, it would take only an appearance in the final against the South Americans to get that automatic entry.
But in a passionate, physical showdown, at a raucous Markham Centre, the Americans did the equivalent of slamming that window down on the Canadians’ fingers. The U.S. led 9-6 with 98 seconds on the clock. Canada pushed hard at the end but could only close the gap to 9-8.
“We left everything out there,” said Ottawa native John Conway, who led Canada with three goals. “It’s disappointing for sure. A ton of work went into this but we got to keep our heads up high.”
When it was over, veteran Canadian goaltender Robin Randall had difficulty reconciling the joy he felt at playing in front of passionate partisan fans and the heartbreaking sting of letting an opportunity slip away.
“It’s a strange feeling,” said the 35-year-old from Drinkwater, Sask. “It was the most fun I’ve ever had losing a water polo game. The crowd, the pressure. It will be my 28th year in August to play in water polo and I’ve been waiting my whole life to play this game. We have a long, long relationship (with the U.S.) and I’m very tired of it. I’d like to change this relationship before I retire.”
Before this tournament began, Canadian head coach Alex Breslin described this Pan Am tournament as one his team’s best chances to get to Rio.
“Not the only, but one of the best chances,” he said.
Now that chance is gone.
Canada will play for the bronze medal on Wednesday against Argentina, but already the team was thinking about its next opportunity to get to next year’s Olympics. There will be a chance at the upcoming world championship at Kazan, Russia, but that will be a tough task with only two spots available and the world’s best water polo nations in attendance. Then in April, 12 international teams will gather in Italy for a last chance. Three teams will advance from that tournament.
“We’ll lick our wounds tonight but we’ll definitely start concentrating on getting ourselves qualified for the Rio Olympics,” said team high performance director Roger Archambault. “They gave it everything tonight. They knew what was on the line.”
The Canadian men’s team has only qualified for one Olympics out of the last eight. They went to Beijing in 2008 and finished 11th.
That an Olympic bid was on the line — the assumption was Brazil would beat Argentina in the later semi, which it did easily — and it was a rivalry not unlike what exists between these two nations in other sports was obvious from the way they players mauled each through the game. No one could suggest this isn’t a tough sport after this showdown.
“I’m sure people were putting a little extra behind every shot that they took, be it with the ball, an elbow or a knee,” said Randall. “There’s a lot of pride on the line whenever you play your rival. There’s a lot of stakes on the line.”
To say it was a scrappy contest was a bit of an understatement according to U.S. captain Tony Azevedo.
“Canada came out and played their style of game — super heavy — and (the referees) pretty much let them do whatever they wanted. To me, it was a horribly reffed game. It was really ugly to watch and really ugly for our sport.”
“There was no beauty in the game because the game was allowed to be just a fighting, punching (kind) of game.”
Added Conway, when asked about the rough stuff: “You just try to stay afloat basically.”
The same could also be said of Canada’s Olympic hopes.