The Spanish women’s water polo team has been a revelation ever since winning the FINA World Championships at the Barcelona 2013 edition, defeating Australia. That tradition of high placements continued at Tokyo 2020 with silver behind the almost unstoppable United States of America. With Budapest 2022 just weeks away, the team is ready to pounce.
When Elena Ruiz punched in the final goal of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games women’s wáter polo competition last year, it was more like a defiant full stop on proceedings, coming 2:04 from the final buzzer and putting an end to United States of America’s rampant run to its third consecutive gold medal — 14-5
It was also a tangible threat that a new, world-class weapon had been unleashed on the wáter polo world, as Ruiz was just 16 years of age and seemingly has the world at her feet.
Spain’s arsenal has always had the revered Anna Espar, Bea Ortiz, Judith Forca, Rosa Tarrago and Maica Garcia firing in a long run of pódium finishes that started with the Olympic silver medal at London 2012; took in the 2013 World Championships gold; bronze at the 2014 FINA World Cup; silver at the 2016 FINA World League Super Final and progressed to consectuive silvers behind USA at the last two Worlds. In Kazan 2015, it was an out-of-character seventh-placed finish.
Head Coach Miki Oca’s team has probably exceeded expectations and by producing a player of the calibre of Elena Ruiz, he hopes the golden sunset — a reference to the nation’s bright flag — will continue for many years to come.
The versatile Ruiz scored once in the Gwangju final, twice in the semifinal, and earlier in the event scored a hat-trick in the losing group match to Netherlands and five in the opener against South Africa. She may not have been in the leading scorers, but she had announced her presence.
About her return to Spain with the silver medal, she said: “For me it was the first time I was going to an Olympics and that I spent so much time away from home and when I arrived I was received by all my family and friends to celebrate.”
Scoring Goals asked how she felt reaching this level so early in her career? “I feel very comfortable, thanks to my colleagues. I love playing and being at this level. It makes me very happy.”
She asserts that the experience has not changed her as a person and she enjoys playing with her team-mates.
It sounds like you're enjoying the role of pitcher, especially looking for the top and bottom left. What is your preference when shooting?
“I have the confidence of my coach and my team-mates. I train all throws to have more resources in a match.”
On how the national team has been performing this year, she said: “Well, so far, we have only played the final of the (European qualifiers) World League in Tenerife and it was a great start coming second, beating Greece, beating Hungary on penalties and losing by one to the Netherlands in the final. The truth is that being able to play at home helped us a lot and it was a good start to the season.”
In a preliminary-round match with Italy, Ruiz threw four goals and Anna Espar five in the 11-10 loss to Italy. In Tenerife her magic produced five goals against Greece; four in the shootout victory over Hungary and just the one in the final loss to Netherlands.
Ruiz plays for Club Natación Rubí and being a student makes for a tough regime. “I start the day going to class at eight in the morning until 11am; at 11am, I go to train to the CAR (High Performance Centre) and I finish at 2-2:30pm. Then I go to eat and at 15:15 to class; and in the afternoons I train with my team-mates at the Rubi Swimming Club.”
Ruiz has been playing water polo since the age of eight and attends school at CAR Sant Cugat and is in the second year of high school (the year before going to university in Spain).
With Budapest 2022 the immediate aim, Ruiz said the focus was on training.
“It started with the final of the World League in Tenerife. Now we are training at altitude for 10 days and when we go down we will train for another 10 days more or less alone in Barcelona and, at the beginning of June, we do a stage with Italy in Italy. When we arrive home we have a few days off and Australia is coming to continue with the rhythm of the games. And between June 16-18 we are going to Hungary!”
How confident are you in repeating Tokyo 2020 or even doing better?
“We train a lot to continue learning and to be able to achieve our goals as a team, which obviously is to always reach the máximum — gold.”
Ruiz’s final words echo her intent and focus on the team goal: “Do the best possible result in the competitions this summer and do my best to bring the best version to the team.”