On The Record with Arno Havenga, Dutch Head Women’s Water Polo Coach

Holland's Sabrina Van der Sloot (with the ball) is one of the world's best players — and key to Dutch hopes for the 2020 Olympics. Photo Courtesy: Sherie Key/USAWP

PRINCETON, NJ. One draw of the 2019 USA Water Polo’s Holiday Cup, which concluded last week at Princeton, was the opportunity to watch some of the world’s best female water polo players on the East Coast.

The American team — undefeated in 68-straight matches — boasts Ashleigh Johnson, named earlier this month as a Total Waterpolo Player for 2019. Russia fields Ekaterina Prokofyeva, who in 2018 was the first-ever female Total Waterpolo honoree, while the Italians boast Roberta Bianconi, an Olympian silver medalist (Rio Games) who led them in scoring at the 2019 FINA World Championships.

The Netherlands’ roster at DeNunzio Pool included Maud Megens, a star at USC, and Sabrina Van der Sloot, the 2018 Swimming World Female Water Polo Player of the Year. Like the Italians and the Russian, the Dutch saw the Holiday Cup as ideal preparation for tournaments in Europe that offer berths in the 2020 Olympics. Which is the most important task for Arno Havenga, head coach for the Netherlands squad since 2015 and an assistant for the 2008 Olympics, when the Dutch upset a favored American squad in the finals behind seven goals from Daniëlle de Bruijn.


Dutch coach Arno Havenga. Photo Courtesy: FINA

Qualifying is no easy task. By virtue of finishing second to the U.S. at the 2019 FINA World Championships — the Americans earned an Olympic berth in June — Spain has already qualified for Tokyo. That leaves the Dutch, Greeks, Hungarians, Italians and Russians  fighting for the remaining spots in an Olympic bracket that was expanded to ten teams from eight in 2016. Their battles begin next month at the 2020 European Championships in Budapest and will conclude with the European Women’s Olympic Qualifier in March.

The Dutch have the added obstacle of replacing goalie Laura Aarts, who had been a mainstay of the Dutch backline since a second place finish in the 2015 World Championships. The top goalie of the 2018 European Championships decided to hang up her national cap earlier this year.

Swimming World spoke with Havenga — an assistant to Robin van Galen, coach for the 2008 Gold-winning squad — about his team’s chances to qualify for Tokyo next July, changes to rosters for the 2020 Olympics and why the U.S. women’s team has been unbeatable for almost two years.

– The biggest thing in Dutch water polo is to qualify. What’s that going to take?

We have one plan to qualify, and part of the plan is the qualification tournament in March in Italy. But the first step that we can take in this plan is Budapest [at the 2020 European Championships]. We have a full-time program just to practice together.

We play in [the Holiday Cup] tournament and last week we played the Canada Cup. So, we have nine games in two weeks and we need this game, because we don’t play too many games. This is a very good moment for us to grow as a team, but also to get some rhythm of the games.

The European Championships starts in January [12 – 25]. And then, the second week of March [15-22] there’s the European Olympic qualification.

– If you win the European Championship, you’re qualified for the Olympics. Is that correct?

Yes. If Spain is the winning team, then the number two will go.

– Obviously you want to qualify as soon as possible. Is your team ready?

There are six good European teams that are all equal in quality. It depends on strategy, it depends on the way you play that day, if you feel good you play well.


Dutch goalie Sarah Buis defends against Canada’s Jolie Bekhazi. Photo Courtesy: Sherie Key/USAWP

A little bit of luck, it depends, a lot of different things. But I think if we grow like this, we have a good team where we can play in the final games for the qualifier

– Last Tuesday night your team pushed the U.S. to the limit. Obviously the Dutch women can score. Question is: how well does your team defend?

If you get 18 goals, is too much. We have to change something in this, but we learn from this. These games are very, very useful for us to see what is going well, but also what we need to improve. And from these games, our defense today, our defense was okay [a 7-4 loss to Italy]. We played with a different team than we usually play, but our defense was okay. In attack we missed some power.

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– Defense is an issue because Laura Aarts, the top goalie at the 2018 European Championship, decided she was not ready for an Olympic commitment.

Our philosophy is that we have to train together, we work hard. Her ambition didn’t fit in the team and didn’t fit into the process. So, we had to sacrifice.

– That’s a big deal. She’s been an important performer for you for a number of years.

That’s one of the reasons why we [brought goalies] Joanne Koenders and Sarah Buis. They need to get experience.

They played in the [2019 FINA] World Championships, that was the first big tournament for both of them. And also, Debby Willemsz, another goalie who before was on the team, came back in our group. We have three very good goalies and now we need to improve more, not only the goalies, the whole team.

– You have Sabrina Van der Sloot, one of the world’s best players. She’s 28 and this may be her last chance to play in the Olympics.

Same for [Maud] Megens, She is younger but also one of the best players in the world. And for both of them, this is the moment to shine at the Olympics.


Maud Megens (#2) matched against former USC teammate Haley McKelvey. Photo Courtesy: Sherie Key/USAWP

For the European teams there are probably two spots left and there are four European teams battling for these two spots. So two European teams will not go to the Olympics. For sure, these teams can play for the medal.

It depends who will qualify from the European Championship and then the other four remain for the qualification.

– How many spots remain for European teams?

There is one spot at the European Championship and two spots at the qualification tournament.

– But the expanded field for Tokyo means two more teams get in.

But, for the Europeans, it doesn’t change too much because USA qualified by the World League. Canada, the number two at the PanAm Games, is qualifying automatically.

And China will be the winner probably of the Asian games and Japan there’s a host also there. So you have other teams who take the few spots.

– I spoke to Betsy Armstrong about the 2008 Beijing Games. She mentioned how in the run up to the Olympics, the U.S. had scrimmaged the Dutch and dominated them.

Oh, [the U.S.] were way better. They were way better in preparation.

You [only] need to win one time.

It’s not easy to beat the USA. There’s only one moment you win against the USA in the last four or five years. It’s better to do it in Tokyo than here, so we have to do it like this.

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But this [current American] team is stronger than the team in 2008. The United States team, they were also dominating women water polo, at that time. But, we had a good team. We had some luck in the quarter finals [a 13-11 win over Italy], we played well in the semi’s [8-7 win over Hungary] and played a good game in the final against USA.

It may be talk to easy about us — we had one player who could score seven goals in a game! It’s also something that comes up once [every] ten years. And you need some luck. We prepared for that game of course, but sometimes you need also a little bit of luck.

– There are rule changes coming (again!) from FINA. I believe it’s confirmed that teams will be able to dress 12 players and have a substitute in the stands. How does that help your cause?

The proposal was 11. So it was already went through a 12, so I think, okay, you skip one player, the second goalie can be out of the team. So in the end it didn’t change too much. For me, it’s not a big deal, the 13 or 12 players.

But, in the end, it’s better to have 13. Like the qualification tournament you play with 13 and in the Olympic games you could play with 11 or 12, it’s strange that there’s not more than one line.

– You say this American team is better than what you saw in 2008.

Lima, Tuesday, August 6, 2019. Ashleigh Johnson from the USA goes for the ball during her Women's Water Polo match against Venezuela at Villa María del Triunfo at the Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Paul Vallejos / Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **

USA’s Ashleigh Johnson. Photo Courtesy: Paul Vallejos

They have, I think, very good individual players. They have an extraordinary goalie. Adam [Krikorian, U.S. head coach] is doing a really good job. He creates a good team strategy among the girls. He is a very intelligent coach and all together this makes them almost unbeatable.

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Also, his staff is good. If you look at them, they are calm, there’s a lot of confidence in the team and the players know what to do and they are also in very good shape already.

– A number of your players that have had enjoyed success at American colleges, including Megens at USC, Rogge Bente and Maud Koopman at Arizona State and Kitty Lynn Joustra at Cal. How has that helped your preparation in this Olympic quad?

When they play in the USA, sometimes we supported [this], it depends which college, but the difficulty is that you don’t see them for one year.

When we play every month, they cannot join the team. When they are back, we have to integrate them in our team with the other players, This is a problem for us when all the players go to the USA and the opposite side of this, they get a good experience. They can combine sports and education.

In some [cases] we are a happy and support it. And for some reason we keep the girls in Europe.