Chances are you haven’t thought much about water polo if you live in the East Kootenays, but a Cranbrook teacher is putting the sport on the map in the region.
Angela Johnson Linardic, 35, is a Grade 2 teacher at T.M. Roberts Elementary School. Originally hailing from Victoria, Johnson Linardic has been involved in water polo for more than 20 years, having first started playing the sport in 1992.
“You make relationships with not only coaches, but players and you watch them grow,” Johnson Linardic said. “You want to follow [the sport] and stay with it. Even internationally, the relationships we have with coaches in other countries, you always stay connected.”
The tight-knit community feel of the sport drew Johnson Linardic from the players side into coaching in 1995 when she got her feet wet at the community level. Eventually, Johnson Linardic advanced to coaching at the provincial level in 2010.
In the fall of 2012, the elementary school teacher was invited to join the coaching staff for the 18-and-under (18U) women’s national water polo team.
“When they asked me, I didn’t really think twice about it,” Johnson Linardic said. “I had been involved in water polo in so many capacities and levels over the years that it was the one thing I hadn’t done. It was really exciting.”
In Johnson Linardic’s second year with the program, the team competed at the 2014 FINA World Women’s Youth Water Polo Championships in Madrid, Spain, Aug. 25 to 31. After taking two pre-worlds tournament titles by defeating Hungary and the Netherlands, the Canadian squad splashed its way to a silver medal in Madrid, falling to the United States in a tightly-contested championship game that finished with a final score of 5-4.
Despite the success on the national stage, Johnson Linardic laments the fact there is little knowledge of water polo in the Cranbrook and Kimberley area.
“Unfortunately, the B.C. Water Polo Association [BCWPA] does not have a member club in the [East Kootenays] at this time,” wrote BCWPA executive director David Soul via email Monday afternoon.
“We are going to be expanding our efforts to expand throughout the province in coming years, but at the moment, B.C. Water Polo Association membership is concentrated in communities of the Lower Mainland and southern Vancouver Island.”
According to Soul, there are approximately 1,500 water polo players, coaches and referees throughout the province. But none of those happen to be in the East Kootenays.
Gabor Toth is the director of development, regions, for the BCWPA. He oversees the development of the sport on a provincial level outside of the Lower Mainland.
“The number one issue is pool problems,” Toth said over the phone Monday afternoon. “None of the facilities are good enough to play proper [competitive] level water polo.”
According to Toth, a 20-by-25 metre pool that is 1.8 metres deep in its entirety is what is required for high-level water polo. Additionally, not every aquatic centre is in possession of the necessary equipment such as water polo caps and water polo nets.
“The plan is there to step-by-step move in the province and have water polo everywhere in a certain level,” Toth added. “Cranbrook, basically on the recreational level and developmental level.”
According to Toth, the BCWPA has initiated one particular program to help build grassroots development opportunities for the sport in the province. Additionally, Water Polo Canada has created the “I Love Water Polo” program as an introduction to the sport for children aged eight to 12. “I Love Water Polo” does not require a full-size water polo pool and according to Toth, would be a strong introduction to the sport for the East Kootenays.
The BCWPA initiated a program in 2013 called the Elementary School Polo Cup. Any elementary school recognized by the B.C. Ministry of Education was eligible to participate in the program if it had access to the necessary facilities. Unfortunately, with the on-going education labour dispute in the province, the BCWPA was forced to cancel the program for the 2014-15 academic year.
“We are a year behind,” Toth said. “We’re going to start and try to do the same thing again with a certain region. The Kamloops and Kelowna area is one of the target areas to start. If we have some success there then we can move on.”
Toth’s hope is for grassroots water polo programs to make their way into the Cranbrook and Kimberley area in two to three years.
“In Cranbrook, you have a really talented coach [in Johnson Linardic],” Toth said. “If she is willing to put the time into something, you have somebody there [to coach]. But we need to have enough interest from the parents and kids to [institute these programs].”
According to Johnson Linardic, there are small drop-in recreational programs in Creston and Kimberley. Typically, these programs only run through the summer months.
In addition to coaching, Johnson Linardic continues to play water polo competitively, having earned a silver medal at the 15th FINA World Masters Championships in Montreal, Que. this past summer.
Though it might be a battle fought swimming upstream, Johnson Linardic is hopeful progress can be made in growing the sport in the East Kootenays with the support of people in the area as well as the BCWPA. If water polo is to establish roots in the region, a national team coach with the experience of Johnson Linardic is more than most could even dream of having. She is here and doing her part, all that’s left is for the remaining pieces to fall into place.