Russell McKinnon, FINA Media Committee Member from Australia

When your parents build a backyard swimming pool and throw in a goal and a ball, you know they want you to succeed in water polo. When they drive their daughter two hours to training in a nearby town and two hours back again each week so she could further her burgeoning water polo career, that shows commitment.

This happened to Australian country girl Ashleigh (Ash) Southern when she was just 14 years old and trying out for the Townsville 14-and-under team to attend the Queensland State championships.

Little did her parents know that their efforts would catapult their daughter to Olympic stardom and a bronze medal, a street parade, plus have signs erected either side of the town proclaiming:

Home of Cardwell’s first Olympian Ashleigh Southern”.

Ash Southern (AUS) photo credit: Deepbluemedia

I instantly fell in love with the game

Ash grew up in Cardwell, a North Queensland town of about 1,200 people, with her two brothers and a sister.

“I went to primary school in Cardwell and then completed high school in Ingham, a town 45 minutes away by bus. I was a member of the local swim club and swum at multiple carnivals in North Queensland and then trialled for my school flippaball (mini water polo) team and we won the tournament in Townsville,” she says.

Many years later she was to walk in the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympic Games as an Aussie Stinger and returned home a hero with a bronze medal dangling from her neck. Ash had a disdain for swimming training yet was very competitive at sports at school.

“I tried most sports and I found I was good at flippaball as it combined my swimming, but I could also catch and throw. I made the squad to try out for the Townsville 14-and-under water polo team and it went from there."

“I loved making friends through water polo and I instantly fell in love with the game.”  

photo credit: Deepbluemedia

The progression from tiny Caldwell to the international stage was relatively swift.

“I would travel with the Townsville team to Brisbane each year, progressing through the 14-and-under tournaments up until I was playing for Townsville in the 18-and-unders. I first made the Townsville 14-and-under team when I was 10 and then the next year I was playing in the Queensland 14-and-under B team at 11. After that I made all A Queensland teams playing in both 14s and 16s or 16s and 18s, which also included my brother making most of the same-aged teams.”

This brought her to the attention of national selectors.

The national junior tournaments I played at got me selected into my first Australian junior squad in 2007. I remember I made my first senior team for a World League round when I was 16 in 2009. I got injured on about day one of the camp and that’s as far as I got. I then went on to represent Australia at the 2009 and 2011 FINA Junior Women’s World Championships.

“I knew I wanted to go to the Olympics”

Her breakthrough came when she debuted at the FINA World Cup in Christchurch, New Zealand, claiming the silver medal in a pool that was devastated by an earthquake a week later. The pool has since disappeared, as have the hotels in which the athletes and officials resided, but Ash is still around. At what point did the 188cm (6 feet 2 inches) athlete realise she could be good enough to go to the Olympics?

“I remember watching the Sydney 2000 Olympics when I was just eight. I actually didn’t watch Australia win gold in the water polo (I have many times since), but I watched (Australian) Cathy Freeman win gold in athletics (400m track). At the time I loved sport and I knew I wanted to go to the Olympics one day. Living in such a small town, water polo became my passion so quickly as I didn’t have much else happening other than school. I got to travel and make many friends through water polo, so I knew putting hard work into my training would get me travelling and seeing the world.

“I then probably realised once making my first junior world championship team that I was OK at water polo and, as it was a pathway into the senior programme, I had my foot in the door and I just had to keep on improving. I truly didn’t realise I was good enough to go to the Olympics until I went to London 2012 and proved myself at 19.”

In 2014, Ash attracted enough interest from European clubs to be signed by Orizzonte in Italy. However, that deal fell through and she then signed for Olympiacos in Greece. Just making an Olympic team was a hope beyond hopes, but something Ash took in her stride.

On making the team, she says: “I was obviously stoked. I did not think I was even in contention 12 months out as I hadn’t played any senior world championships beforehand and I was quite inexperienced in my eyes. To be able to make that team was such an honour, as I got to play with and against some of my heroes growing up, which made it that much more special.

photo credit: Deepbluemedia

”The way we won showed true character in my eyes”

Playing in London was a dream come true.

“To have my family there in the crowd watching me play every game was amazing. Knowing how much support also from my family and friends at home got me through each game. I loved playing against some of the best players in the world. I came on to the Olympic scene a bit unknown and so I guess I tried to use that to my advantage."

“We had a tough run, winning the quarter-finals against China in a penalty shootout. Then losing the semi-final to USA in extra time and the emotion of knowing the gold medal was out of reach, trying to pick up after a hard loss, was mentally tough. We went into extra time in that game also and to come out on the other side with a win against Hungary and a bronze medal made me feel absolutely relieved, as the final three games were extremely tough. Standing on the podium receiving my bronze medal was one of the highlights of my life and the way we won showed true character in my eyes.”

Fast forward four years and expectations in Rio de Janeiro were high going into the Olympics.

Being my second Olympics I knew what to expect going in. My role on the team had changed from being a junior and being told what to do, to being a leader and having a more decision-making role.

“We started the tournament very strongly against Russia, winning 14-4, which on reflection was our best game, but wasn’t good enough to get a medal. Losing to Italy and then beating Brazil in the rounds set us up to play Hungary in the quarter-finals. We gave up a four-goal lead to Hungary and ended up on the other end of the penalty shootout where we lost the game. I thought it was mentally tough playing a bronze-medal match in London 2012 after losing the semi-final so closely, but actually having to get up and play for fifth-eighth position knowing you weren’t playing for a medal was actually the hardest game I’ve played in.”

“Seeing my family and all the other Australian supporters in the crowd at the next game and feeling like you have let them down really upset me, but also got me through the next two games knowing we had the support. My second Olympic experience was very different to my first.”

“I still have a lot to bring as a player”

So, why did Australia not make the podium in Rio?

“I believe we were too inconsistent. To come out and play so well against Russia really showed how well we could play as a team. To then back up in two days and start the game so poorly showed we were up and down. We fought back hard but ended up losing. To be up against Hungary in the quarter-finals by four goals and then to let them back into the game shows more inconsistency. That’s all I could put it down to.”