Want to See the World’s Greatest Water Polo Players? They’re in New Jersey This Week

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Ashleigh Johnson returns to Princeton, her alma mater, for the Holiday Cup — and she's bringing her US national teammates with her. Photo Courtesy: Mariana Bazo

PRINCETON, NJ. The first-ever USA Water Polo Holiday Cup international women’s tournament opens today at the De Nunzio Pool in Princeton. From Monday through Saturday some of the world’s best female players, including the U.S. Senior National Women’s Team, will be competing  in a showcase that for some of the participants — Italy, the Netherlands and Russia — is a run up to the European qualifications for the Tokyo Olympics, to be held next month in Hungary.

usawpTwo teams that are already qualified for 2020 are here as well. The Canadians, like the Americans, are going to the Olympics. Unlike their southern neighbors, who have been to the five previous Games, Head Coach David Paradelo‘s squad is returning for the first time in almost two decades. The last time Canada’s women’s team qualified was in 2004 for the Athens Games.

All five national teams are virtually certain to be playing Olympic polo next year, making this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see some of the best teams in the world, all at a fantastic indoor venue on the East Coast. Italy was a Silver medalist at the 2016 Olympics in Rio; Russia got Bronze in the Rio Games.  The Netherlands missed out on qualifying for the Olympics three years ago, but the owns something the  Italians and Russians don’t: a Gold medal, which they earned in 2008 by beating the Americans.

Noteworthy about the Holiday Cup’s location is that Princeton is the alma mater of Ashleigh Johnson, the American goalie who is considered by many to be the world’s best player. Johnson played for the Tigers from 2013 – 2017 with a year off to backstop Team USA to Gold in Rio.

Admission to all matches is free, though Friday night’s matches including the U.S. team, as well as Saturday morning’s third-place and championship matches, will be packed. Attendees should RSVP; the link for this is here.

If you cannot get to Princeton to see the live action, all matches will be streamed via Facebook. The link for streaming is here.

Swimming World will cover all the exciting action from De Nunzio, including interviews with various national team players and coaches.

Canadian Senior Women’s Team (Head Coach: David Paradelo); the Canadian team travels to Princeton from Montreal, where this past weekend they hosted the China, Holland, Russia and the U.S. in the 2019 Canada Cup. Paradelo and his squad owe a debt of gratitude to their North American neighbors; by virtue of qualifying at the FINA World League Super Finals last June, Team USA made a spot available to a finalist at the Pan America Games, which took place last August in Lima, Peru.

[USA Women Advance to Fifth-Straight Pan American Water Polo Final, But Canada is Big Winner]

A gold medal over Canada in the Pan Am final ensured that the Canadian women would go to the Olympics for the first time since 2004. Now it’s up to their coach and players including to prepare for the world’s most prestigious polo tournament. There’s a number of faces familiar to American college water polo fans. Goalie Jessica Gaudreault was a stalwart in the Indian Hoosiers’ cage from 2013 – 2018, while the aptly named Kyra Christmas has been delivering for the Pacific Tigers the past three years; she ostensibly is taking a year off to train with her country’s national team.

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Canada’s Krystina Alogbo. Photo Courtesy: Photo Courtesy: Paul Vallejos

Perhaps the most inspiring Canadian of all is captain Krystina Alogbo, who has been chasing her Olympic dream for two decades; now it’s time to get down to business and prove the Canadians belong among the world’s top-five.

Italian Senior Women’s Team (Head Coach: Fabio Conti); consistently one of the world’s strongest sides, the Italians feature a strong core returning from the 2016 Olympics. There’s also exciting newcomers such as 23 year-old Silvia Avegno. Even though Conti’s squad has not yet qualified for Tokyo, there’s little doubt that they will be there. After a sixth-place finish at the 2019 FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, Italy is a strong medal contender and will likely take care of the business of qualifying next month, when the European qualification for the 2020 Olympics takes place in Budapest.

Captain Elisa Queirolo will lead a veteran team into Di Nunzio; of the 13 players present, more than half (seven) were on the Olympic squad that dropped a 12-5 decision to Team USA. Don’t be surprised if the Italians are one of the toughest opponent that the American’s face this week.

The Dutch National Team (Head Coach: Arno Havenga); the most intriguing team in Princeton are the Orange. Led by Sabrina van der Sloot, Swimming World’s 2018 Player of the Year, and Maud Megens, a spectacular talent who won an NCAA title in her first year at USC. In his decade-long association with the Dutch team, Havenga has been involved with the some of the greatest and most disappointing moments his country has known. Team manager when the Netherlands upset the U.S. and won gold in the 2008 Olympics, he was the coach in 2016 when they failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics despite being host to the European Qualification tournament.

In the qualification run-up to Tokyo, the situation favors a strong team like the Netherlands. Due to a reconfiguring of rosters, two more women’s teams will be including in 2020, making the total 10. The Dutch, who won the 2018 European Championship behind van der Sloot, should play all teams tough this weekend — though essentially the same team that won gold at the European Championships inexplicably finished seventh at the 2019 FINA World Championships. Goalie Joanne Koenders, who stepped in for Laura Aarts — the best goalie at the 2018 Women’s European Championships who stepped away from the national team just prior to FINA Worlds.

Russian Senior National Team (Head Coach: Alexandr Gaidukov); coming to Princeton the Russian squad sports one of the world’s most prolific scorers in Ekaterina Prokofyeva. Honored in 2018 with the first-ever Total Player award from Total Water Polo, the Russians are also not yet in the Olympics, but they will be. With experienced players like Anna Timofeeva and young talents such as Daria Gerzanich. The Russians will take every advantage of this sojourn in New Jersey to prepare for the qualification matches in Budapest.

December 22, 2018; El Torro High School, Lake Forest, CA, USA; USA Water Polo Women's Water Polo Exhibition Series: USA vs Netherlands; USA Paige Hauschild pressures Netherlands Simone van der Kraats Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

USA’s Paige Hauschild. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Gaidukov’s squad finished a disappointing fifth at FINA Worlds but there’s no question that the Russians can place higher in the world — especially if they hope to medal in Tokyo.

The United States (Head Coach: Adam Krikorian); you can take all the superlatives out of whatever description that might come to mind about the U.S. women, and focus on one thing: they are always striving to get batter. This is a team that for the past five years has won gold in every tournament they’ve entered, including back-to-back Olympic Games. One that has not lost in more than a year (63-straight wins). One whose top players — Rachel Fattal, Ashley Johnson, Maddie Musselman, Kiley Neushul and Maggie Steffens — are as recognizable as any water polo players in the world.

And, all you have to know about why the Americans continue to win is that all the entire U.S. Senior National Team — all 18 players on the roster are here at Princeton — are entirely devoted to the system that Krikorian has installed, one which continues to produce spectacular results.

Monday, December 16
#1 5:30pm Canada – Netherlands
#2 7:00pm USA – Russia

Tuesday, December 17
#1 5:30pm Italy – Russia
#2 7:00pm USA – Netherlands

Wednesday, December 18
#1 5:30pm Italy – Canada
#2 7:00pm Netherlands – Russia

Thursday, December 19
#1 5:30pm Italy – Netherlands
#2 7:00pm USA – Canada

Friday, December 20
#1 5:30pm Russia – Canada
#2 7:00pm USA – Italy

Saturday, December 21
#1 10:00am – Third place match
#2 11:30am – Championship match

For more information about the Holiday Cup, please visit USA Water Polo’s site; here’s the link.