Winning Olympic gold is something youngsters dream about when they first dip their toes in the water. It’s something that older people still aspire to, especially when the top step of Olympism has never been attained. The desire is finite and the will to succeed never tarnishes, especially when someone has been so close for so long. Aussie Stinger Bronwen Knox is one such person.
Twice an Olympic bronze medallist, once a World Cup winner, twice a losing finalist at FINA World Championships and three times silver medallist at FINA World League Super Finals level, she still aspires to gracing the top step at the Olympics. If she is selected, it will be her fourth Olympic Games.
Bronwen’s career reads like a who’s who of someone famous – which she is. With 16 major medals from an international career spanning an incredible 15 years, Bronwen is still making her mark, and not just as an occasional player off the bench.
Her career has included overseas stints with club teams, winning the LEN Trophy with Olympiacos in 2013-14,collecting bronze in the Greek League with Ethnikos in 2008/09 and time with Hartwick College in the USA in 2005-06.
After years spent in the Australian National Water Polo League, she finally collected gold with Queensland Thunder in 2018. Previously, with Queensland Breakers, she secured two silvers and two bronzes.
She is still punching in goals and making a difference to a defiant Stingers team that has promised so much and delivered not so many of the golds expected during the United States of America-dominated era of thewomen’s game.
Bronwen rates as one of the better players of her generation and her resilience, strength, speed, skills and agility make her one of the best centre-forward/centre-back players in the world.
Testament to her durability is the 384 international caps she has amassed –probably more than anyone else in history – and certainly more than her nearest rival in Australia, fellow Olympic bronze medallist Mel Rippon (312), the only other Australian player to top 300 matches played.
I am level-headed in most pressured situations
Knox’s first contact with the sport was as a 14-year-old making the 12-hour journey south from Queensland with her family to attend the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
“I remember watching the women’s team win their semi-final on TV and I was straight on the phone hoping to get tickets to the final. Being an avid swimmer, I was intrigued by the sport. Although I didn’t know the rules, and had never seen a game live, I knew I wanted to be in that stadium.
“Swimming had always been my Olympic dream – I grew up watching the greats, such as Kieren Perkins, Susie O’Neill, Michael Klim and Leisel Jones, just to name a few. It took me a few more years before I fully committed to the sport of water polo. I eventually made the switch and started training for water polo when I was 16 years old.
“Water polo wasn’t officially offered at my school for girls, but there was a boys’ programme, so I joined the boys’ team, playing against the boys’ schools around Brisbane.
“I also joined a club (North Brisbane Polo Bears) and played in the local club competition. Since making the move at 16 I have never looked back. I’ve had an amazing career, plenty of opportunities around the world and have made some amazing friends,” she said.
As a youngster, Bronwen had speed at her fingertips and could move well in the water.
“I still remember my first club game; the coach saying ‘just swim the ball the way the ref is pointing all the way into the goals’. I learned more rules with every game that I played. Eventually I learned the positions and seemed to find an affinity with the position of centre back.
“I was tall and long and this seemed to help my development in the sport. I think the skill I had the most trouble with was passing and shooting, being one of the weaker shooters growing up. And, if my memory serves me, I believe the one lesson I ever failed at school was where we learned treading water or eggbeater kick.
“I’m patient, yet stubborn, and I believe these attributes have suited me well in my development. Stubborn in that I refuse to be told I can’t do something. This attribute helped me see past disappointments and setbacks and be able to work out how I could get better and improve, constantly building my resilience in the sport.
“Patience in that I am level-headed in most pressured situations and can break down complex problems into smaller steps,” she said.
Asked if she could remember her first international match, she replied:
“I don’t remember my first international match very well at all. I know that it was in 2005 against New Zealand in Canberra, where there were 18 girls vying for three spots in the upcoming national women’s tour in the lead-up to the Montreal World Championships.
“Having only really spent two years training in the sport, I didn’t know any of the senior girls very well and had no expectation that I was moving forward.
“I remember being called into the coach’s office after the last test match and being told that I was going to take one of those spots. I remember being so ecstatic with making the team, and then the enormity of the situation hit me. I was going away with the national team and I had barely met all the girls in the team. I was nervous to say the least. I had never heard of the FINA World Championships and had no idea what I was walking in to.”
Racing forward to 2019, 14 years later, and Bronwen recalls what it was like playing her most recent – and 384th:
“It was bittersweet playing my last match in Gwangju. It was a tough match against a fierce competitor, Hungary, with a nail-biting finish. It was fantastic to walk away with the bronze medal, having had a contentious year within Australian Water Polo – with leadership changes and not knowing where the programme was heading next.
“But I was so proud to be there with some girls I have played with for a majority of my career and some who were at their first World Championships. We work together as a team and were awarded with the bronze at the end of it.”
Walking off the World Championship stage in the knowledge that it could possibly, probably, be her last, was emotional.
“I’ve now played seven World Championships, only missing 2017. I remember standing on the podium next to Rowie Webster and had one of those rare moments where we knew what the other was thinking and we were glad we were there together, side by side. The camaraderie is something I love about team sports and this moment highlighted this aspect yet again.”
My nerves were at an all-time high
There have been plenty of highs and lows in her long career.
“My first Olympic Games in Beijing was an incredible, emotional highlight. It was a tough road getting there, being selected in the squad and then surviving cut after cut until the final team was named. And then things got harder – preparing for the Games, trying to understand what it was going to be like.
“It’s an overwhelming experience from start to finish, eclipsing the two weeks that the Olympic goes for. There is little time to switch off. You see others achieve their dreams, but more often than not you see those who walk away disappointed.
“It was a tough two weeks, ending with overtime and a penalty shootout versus Hungary. I remember stepping up to take my penalty after seeing the first two shooters miss their shots. My nerves were at an all-time high. Taking a long deep breath as I swam out to the 5m line, I readied for my shot. After that everything was a blur.”
Hungary had also missed one of its first two attempts and Bronwen levelled at 10-10. Kate Gynther took the team 11-10 ahead after Mercedes Stieber missed and Mia Santoromito went to 12-11. Rita Dravucz then bounced her ball into the outstretched arm of Aussie goalkeeper Emma Knox, who deflected for the bronze medal.
It was not all sweet at the penalty-throw line.
“In stark contrast, one of my biggest lows was missing my penalty attempt in the Rio Olympics quarter-final play-offs against Hungary. I still remember the sinking feeling of letting my team and the Australian water polo community down. I remember the sound of the ball hitting the inside bar and seeing the ball rebound out of the goals.
“It is still hard to describe everything that follows this game. While I have experienced disappointments in my sporting career, I’ve lost games, missed out on medals, been dropped from teams and have played poorly. But this loss was one that hit the hardest.”
Then I knew I wasn’t done with the sport
Hard times lead to hard decisions and the hardest came after her third Olympic Games, in Rio de Janeiro 2016.
“After a disappointing performance in Rio, where we finished sixth, I needed some time to get the other aspects of my life in order. Vying for Olympic glory often comes with sacrificing other areas of your life. I also was lacking in my love for the sport and needed to take some time to rediscover this. I had just started law school and wanted to explore this career path and see if it was for me.
“I like to refer to it as my ‘gap year’ – my year of professional exploration and development. I took time for my studies. I spent six weeks in Indonesia working for an NGO; I networked wherever and whenever I could with past athletes to see how their end-of-sporting career transitioned worked. I was amazed to see how many athletes, across multiple sports, suffered post their retirement. It became important to me to make sure my path transitioning out of elite sport was as supported as I could make it.
“It wasn’t until last year that I decided to work towards being selected for my fourth Olympics. I had never planned on a fourth, I had barely planned on a third, but after Rio I didn’t want to walk away being disappointed or scared of future failures.
“I knew I wanted to take a break to get other areas of my life together and I knew that I then wanted to get fit before I made any decisions. If I was going to walk away from a sport I love, being challenged by the best of the best, I wanted to know that I was done.
“So I decided to get fit and make myself available for camps and World League in 2018, continuing to build throughout the year with the Super Final and eventually the World Cup. I knew that if I enjoyed the year – it being longer than our normal international seasons – then I knew I wasn’t done with the sport."
Already being one of the most capped players in women’s water polo history, Bronwen tried to explain what makes her one of the best.
“I’m not sure that there is anything that sets me apart. I think I have been lucky in surrounding myself with a great team that helps me day in and day out to get through the ups and downs that is sport – the coaches, support staff, the medical team, science and administration staff who all step up and answer my questions, deal with me hounding them about training, scheduling or treatment.
“My family has been another huge support. I come from a large family, being one of five kids. While we are all spread out in different cities or countries, they are the first to be by my side cheering me on. Without these support networks there is no way I would have continued in the sport.
“It is a shame that our sport of water polo does not allow for us to solely make a career out of playing. In order to play year after year, I have had to rely constantly and build my networks of support. The credit goes solely to these support networks that I keep returning game after game.”
She began her career as a centre back, a position that she moulded into seamlessly.
“It came naturally to me. Being a control freak, I naturally enjoyed being in control of our defence, working with the goalkeepers to set the tone and pace of what we wanted to play as a team. I spent years refining my skills and understanding of the game from this position; learning the weaknesses, what teams like to play and how we can force them to play outside of their comfort zone.
“I like to think that I am a level-headed player and bring patience and control to the game – starting in our defence and transferring it into our attack. However, I believe that I have developed a reasonable understanding of the game and can adapt to playing most positions. This allows me the freedom and versatility to move about the pool.”
I took ownership and control
Her first major FINA competition was the 2006 World Cup in Tianjin, China, where Australia beat Italy for the gold medal.
“I think the single most important match in my career was the first game at the 2006 World Cup. By that stage in my sporting career I knew that I wanted to excel, I wanted to be a part of the national programme and contribute.
“That year our defence was suffering and in preparation for the game I sat down with the coaching staff and discussed how, as a centre back, I wanted to run the defence. It was the first step to me finding my voice and spot in the team. I took ownership and control. Lining up before the game, it was the first time I had a hand in making the decision on how we were going to approach our defence.
“This game gave me confidence in my ability to read and play the game. It made me accountable and raised the stakes of the game entirely.”
There is life away from the pool and Bronwen enjoys nothing better than catching up with friends or family over some great food and good coffee.
Then there is the future – after playing water polo.
“Having recently completed my law degree, I am currently working towards my admission to the profession. I am also currently working with a private girls’ school in Brisbane to develop their water polo programme at a junior level. I am also working with the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority in their education sector – informing other athletes of their rights and responsibilities when it comes to keeping integrity in sport and keeping it clean and fair.
“Also, I have been working with the International Women’s Forum in conjunction with Ernst Young (professional services firm) as a part of the Women Athletes’ Business Network mentoring programme. This is a year-long programme that selects 25 female athletes worldwide for a high-touch mentoring and training experience.”
Bronwen has one final thought on the state of women’s water polo.
“Women’s water polo is in an interesting flux at the moment. The USA has had a strong hold over the past few years or so, but every other team is pushing closer and closer.
“In earlier years there was a greater divide between teams; now there are about nine-ten teams that are separated by a goal. And on any given day either team could come out the victor. It’s exciting!
“The recent rule changes have picked up the pace of the game for the most part. While their implementation is still being ironed out, I believe they will add pace and excitement to the sport. I am interested to see how the rule of 11 players (for the Olympics) will be utilised by teams. This rule hasn’t really been trialled enough to know exactly how teams will attack this,” she concluded.
I had never planned on a fourth, I had barely planned on a third, but after Rio I didn’t want to walk away being disappointed or scared of future failures.
*This article can be found in the FINA Magazine. To access the online version of the magazine (2019/6) click here.