Discover Masters World: Bernice Orwig (USA)


2000 Sydney Olympics. Women’s water polo is played for the first time at the Olympic Games. Atop the podium stands Australia, second is the USA and third Russia. American silver-medallist Bernice Orwig was among those to write the first page of water polo Olympic history.

Ten years later, we meet her at the FINA Masters World Championships in Boras (SWE, for water polo only), where she takes some time to talk about her fantastic Olympic experience and how her passion for the sport has continued to exist since.

What was your feeling at the time, being at the Olympics and reaching the finals?
The Sydney Olympics overall experience was amazing since it was the first Olympics for women’s water polo; it was a tremendous honour to be a part of that first Olympics and as the US team, we were not expecting to do very well. They were other teams much more decorated and much more experienced than us. That we were able to come together as a strong team and to advance so far and make it to the gold-medal game, that was amazing!

In water polo, like other game sports, it is often perceived that second-place finish is the worst because you lost the game, whereas with a bronze, you won the game. At the time and retrospectively, was it a loss or a victory?
Yes, there is definitely the component of ‘you just lost a game and you now have to go and stand on the podium and be happy about losing’. At the moment, it can sometimes be very hard but once you look back and think about it, you are on the podium at the Olympic Games and no one can every take that away from you. So at the time, it was a struggle but at the same time I was very proud.
At that time, no one has ever experienced [a water polo final] so no one really warned us about how you might feel winning or losing. For me personally, I didn’t have that kind of preparation because we were winning and winning and suddenly we lost, I just felt awful. It took some time and now I realise this is amazing. The experience now that we are able to pass on to teams that go to the Olympics is very valuable.

What’s the first impression when being at the Olympics?

Amazement... shock! You have all these tremendous, professional athletes and I am a part of them! How am I a part of this bigger picture of sports? But everyone comes together and we all realise we are on the same level, because we are all Olympians. And once Olympian, you’re always Olympian.
For example, ‘Luc’ Longley [Lucien James Longley is a retired Australian professional basketball player], who played for the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan, we met him and he would just talk to us. But aside from the Olympics, I would probably not have talked to him.

Do you think World Masters is a good competition for water polo players in general and women in particular?

On the women side, I think that this would be a great continuation of international play. This year we only have three women’s teams that are part of it and as we go I hope that it grows because there is something special about international water polo.
For Americans, it’s a great experience because we don’t get to play against other countries very often. And to have that opportunity as we get older, we might not be at the Olympic level of play anymore, but here we can still compete internationally, so it gives that avenue.

Will the competition level increase with more teams entering the Masters field?
The competition will increase as we go through the years. Right now, it is a little bit different because we only have 30 year-olds and 54 year-olds on the women side, and it’s great that we get to play against each other but as we add more teams in the future, we’ll stay within our age groups and each age group will be able then to have more competition.

What would be the incentive for teams to compete at World Masters?

The number of women’s teams will increase because it becomes more popular since its inclusion on the Olympic programme. This international recognition is still very new. The trouble for some countries will come from women who as soon as they are done playing with their national teams, want to have a family. But the great thing about coming here is that you can bring your baby, you can bring your family!

Is transition easy from elite level to Masters?
It’s a different transition. When you are competing on your national team, it is almost a business or it is a business, whereas here, of course you want to compete and win, but there is also an aspect of fun. So we’re doing this because we love to play. There’s less pressure; pressure is more within your time and not external. And so we are able to go in, play competitive and do our best but as soon as the game is over, we’re able to also have fun.

What’s the most important at World Masters?

First, friendship, second competition and third the fun. Because if we play well during competition, we have more fun!

What else do you do?
I am a water polo coach in 10 and under and 12 and under programmes in California. I’m around the pool and I’m around the sport. Most people go and have careers so they maybe train one or two days a week with their club team opposed to when you’re training full time, you train every day. So it’s a different mindset because you know that you’re not going to be able to play like you used to. You have to be OK with that and accept the level you’re able to play at.

What’s the biggest challenge for women water polo players at your age and older?

It’s probably family. But one of our teammates has a seven-month old baby, her husband and daughter are here, so family, training and competing can definitely work together.

Do you think water polo is a life-sport that can be practiced at any age?

Yes, and I think World Masters is an example of that. We have 65+ age groups (for men) and there is a chance maybe to even increase that in a couple of years to have 70+! If your mind is still strong and you can still swim a lap, I think you can continue.

Have you ever competed at World Masters?
This is my first World Masters and I am enjoying it.

What is it that you like the most about it?
Be able to travel and be with my teammates – some of them are very close friends – for an extended period of time and playing on top of it makes it more worth it. And yes, I enjoy the international aspect but it’s more to be here with my friends.