Guy Baker is watching the women’s water polo competition closely in London, but he’s not cheering for his own team for the simple reason it’s conspicuously absent. For the second time running, the Canadian women did not qualify for the Olympics.
In the last women’s water polo qualifying event, in Trieste in May, Canada placed a miserable 7th – Spain, Italy and Russia were best in show – and were not issued invitations to London.
Cue the new action plan. In came Baker as the new coach, replacing Pat Oaten, who stays on as performance director.
Baker, 51, is something of a legend in the sport. As head coach of the USA Women’s Water Polo Program for 15 years, he led the American girls to three Olympic medal (two silvers and a bronze), two world championships and 10 medals in 13 events run by FINA, the international governing body for pool sports.
At a press conference at the London Olympic site Sunday, Baker vowed to turn the Canadian women in word beaters. “For me the job was the right time in the right place and the right fit,” Baker, who is from Long Beach, California, said. “I think the future looks really bright.”
Their goal: A podium finish in Rio de Janeiro, site of the 2016 Games.
Baker’s appointment was announced in late July and he’s about to move to Montreal, where Canadian national water polo is based, and has signed a 4-year contact. That process starts next month in Montreal, when 45 athletes turn up for a water polo “camp.” That’s where the potential new hotshots will be identified.
But recruiting new players isn’t the only challenge. The women’s water polo team needs funding and that means tapping into Own The Podium, a government-backed sports funding program. Water polo gets some financial assistance, but needs more (the winter sports tend to get more taxpayer bucks).
“With the non-qualification, we did lose a bit of funding,” Oaten said.
OTP will review water polo’s funding requirements in November and Oaten hopes that the arrival of Baker, one of the world’s top coaches, will convince the money men and women that the sport should not be starved. “I think they’re going to like what we’re doing,” Oaten said. “They have to like this decision [to bring in Baker]. I guess you could say it gives us a little bit of leverage.
Both Baker and Oaten think turning the women’s team into international champions should not be too difficult, because the game scores are not a true reflection of the talent, or lack thereof.
“Canada is one of the top teams in the world,” Baker said. “They were silver medalists in the world championships….The difference between winning and losing is so small. There a lot of one-goal games.”
In London, Baker is watching the techniques of the winning teams, talking to the coaches, learning what’s hot in and what’s not. In few months, Canada could have essentially a new team gearing up for the world championships.