If it didn’t have to share the Olympic limelight with the feats of Cathy Freeman and Ian Thorpe, the incredible victory by Australia’s women’s water polo team in Sydney in 2000 would be seared into our memories.
After being benched for the final but told by her coach she’d score the winning goal, rising star Yvette Higgins did exactly that; smashing home a gold-medal winning shot against the US with just 1.3 seconds on the clock.
It was a thrilling win at the end of a nail-biting final – a Johnathan Thurston moment long before it was a thing – and was celebrated hard by everyone in the women’s water polo community in Australia.
But not just because of Higgins’ heroics. This was a team – and a sport – which had had to win twice to be on the podium, wearing gold.
Long before the final in Sydney, determined Australian women had defied the odds to get the sport played in the Olympics at all.
With guerilla tactics that included standing in Sydney Airport in swimsuits and gatecrashing IOC press conferences, the pugnacious Aussie women’s water polo community took on the blazer brigade – mostly male -of the International Olympic Committee and FINA.
And despite dozens of knockbacks, they ultimately forced the IOC to include women’s water polo in the Olympics for the first time ever. In Sydney.
Men’s water polo was the first team sport played in the modern Olympics (it was introduced in 1900) but for a century, the IOC refused to have a women’s competition.
For most of the second half of the century, the world’s best women’s players campaigned for inclusion. But every Olympic cycle, they were left disappointed.
Ahead of the Sydney Olympics, however, a group of Australians decided to pick up the lobbying efforts. Enough was enough. They wouldn’t take no for an answer.
At a crucial IOC visit to Sydney in 1997, the increasingly desperate lobbyists used a tactic which caused Jacques Rogge to stop mid-speech at a press briefing at the headquarters of the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games.
Pat Jones, a former national women’s team manager who had three daughters play for Australia but never have the chance to go to a Games, decided subterfuge was needed.
She and another pioneer of the sport, Leanne Barnes, were the driving force and would later be honoured by Australian water polo for their efforts in pushing the women’s game into the Olympics.
Jones befriended a television reporter, who let her know the location of important arrivals and press events.
Armed with the intel, Australia’s goalkeeper Liz Weekes headed a small group – including one of her best friends, Higgins – who drove to the media event with a simple goal. They would crash the press conference and hand over a letter requesting women’s water polo be added.
The IOC suits were leaning towards adding a team synchronised swimming event instead.
As she walked up and opened the doors, a room of eyes and sea of suits turned and stared.
“The people just turned on me and I was about to step backwards and go back out,” Weekes says. “I thought, ‘Oh God, I can’t do this’. But I felt this shove in my back. It’s the biggest, scariest, best thing I’ve ever done.”
The shove came from Weekes’ dad, Barry.
Jones had previously reassured Weekes, who was worrying about the ramifications of her activism. The resolve of some of her teammates, trying to hold down jobs away from their sporting careers, was starting to wane.
“I said, ‘This is going to be pretty tough. You’ll have to walk in there uninvited and it won’t be like the usual time you make an entrance and you’re cheered’,” Jones recalls. “I said, ‘You can duck out of it if you like and we’ll do something else’.
“But I honestly didn’t know what else to do.”
Weekes was thrown out of the press conference, along with her dad and the rest of her small crew.
But the gatecrash was only part two of their plan. Earlier the team had first rustled up a few dozen players from senior and junior teams to protest at Sydney Airport, armed with signs and dressed in swimsuits and caps, when FINA boss Mustapha Larfaoui and other officials arrived to check on the Games’ progress.
They made it on a few news bulletins that night.
Gender Equity in FINA. What a joke.
Sydney 2000, it’s time for women’s water polo. Now.
FINA: Female Involvement Not Allowed.
With the lobbying help of Australian Olympic Committee boss John Coates, a few months after Weekes’ cameo the IOC buckled and confirmed women’s water polo would be admitted for the Sydney Games.
It was to be in a revised six-team format where squads would be limited to 11 players (it was later increased to 13) not to upset the overall cap of 10,200 athletes.
“I remember getting a phone call at work one day out of the blue to let us know we’d been successful,” Australian star Bronwyn Mayer says. “It was incredible for that to happen because I really thought it was a lost cause.”
After the 1998 World Championships in Perth made famous for Ian Thorpe breaking the 400-metre freestyle world record as a 15-year-old, Hungarian Istvan Gorgenyi was offered a choice: take either the Australian men’s or women’s team to the Olympic Games.
“I saw the potential in the girls because they were very talented, but there were conflicts within the team I knew I would be able to deal with,” he says. “I thought it was a better chance.
“And we were lucky because there were so many athletes and teams with a gold medal chance [in Sydney] there was no big hype around us. I told the girls we would be walking in the back door.”
Water polo is best known for its sheer brutality under the water, where the grabbing, clawing and scratching is hidden from obvious public view.
But after two matches, a nation of water polo novices was in stitches. Australian women were emerging from the pool with FINA-ordered swimsuits in tatters, the result of scraps below the water level they couldn’t see and material which wasn’t equipped for it all.
It was comedy gold for fictional sports broadcasters Roy and HG, who took delight in highlighting the fashion faux pas on their late night show The Dream.
“But we were really peeved to be honest,” Australian veteran Debbie Watson says. “We had fought so hard to get into the Olympics over such a long period of time and we were being broadcast because our boobs were hanging out. It was really belittling to us.
“The tough stuff is fun, but to actually focus on the nakedness of breasts we were like, ‘Oh, good on you boys’. So as a team we decided to boycott their show.”
A second set of swimsuits were shipped in swiftly and Gorgenyi’s team marched through the round robin stage to finish on top of the group, their only loss against their 1999 World Cup conquerors the Netherlands.
To clear his mind, Gorgenyi would walk around the Olympic Village each morning. He was wrestling with a call he didn’t want to make for the medal matches – dropping Weekes, who had charged into a room full of heavy hitters to fight for their sport’s inclusion three years earlier.
“That just wasn’t in my plans,” Weekes said. “[The Olympics] was so overwhelming and I really struggled with it. We had a day off between the rounds and semis and I managed to talk myself around.”
In the semi-final, Australia were drawn against nemesis Russia.
Trailing by two goals heading into the final quarter, Gorgenyi’s side roared back into the contest. Weekes didn’t concede a goal in the last period, Mayer finished with a hat-trick and Australia won 7-6. They would play the United States for gold.
Barry Weekes might have shoved his daughter into a press conference but he had another important job during the Games.
He was a volunteer bus driver, often taking the water polo officials to and from venues. His role also included occasionally ferrying around the American women’s team. He struck up a bond with a few of their players, who would line up against his daughter for the first-ever Olympics gold medal match for women.
One of the Americans, veteran Maureen O’Toole, had already turned 39 by the night of the final. She had initially quit the sport professionally in 1994, but when it was finally accepted as part of the Sydney program she came out of retirement – even if it meant splitting her family.
O’Toole would train with the American squad for the best part of three years in Los Angeles, flying back to Northern California most Fridays to visit her daughter Kelly, who was living with her parents. Kelly would be eight by the time of the Sydney Games.
O’Toole had one night to make all the sacrifice worthwhile.
On the morning of the gold medal match, Gorgenyi again walked around the Olympic Village. Only this time he asked one of the squad’s youngest players, Higgins, to join him.
Higgins practised so hard in the years leading up to the Games she would drive her teammates mad, wading around in the water and begging Weekes to stay behind for extras so she could fire shot after shot at a live goalkeeper.
“I was a hard person to talk to and Istvan said to me on our walk, ‘I wanted to tell you I’m not going to start you in the line-up. I know you’ll be upset with me, it’s not because you’re not performing it’s because I want the Americans to forget about you’,” Higgins recalls.
“And he said to me, ‘I know you’re going to score the winning goal. Yvie, Yvie be patient’.”
Having played the round robin and semi-finals at the fit-for-purpose Ryde Aquatic Centre – on a suburban street down the road from a funeral home and used car yards – the women were thrust onto centre stage. The bronze and gold medal matches were switched to the main pool at Sydney Olympic Park, crammed with 17,000 people for the historic occasion.
Prime Minister John Howard sat in the stands with wife Janette. With just as much prominence straight across the other side of the pool deck sat Jones. When the players walked out to the Olympic music, her group melted. There “was not a dry eye in the house” – and the players were daunted.
“I just remember a few of us poked our heads out of the change rooms to have a look at the crowd and look at the pool,” Weekes said.
“The crowd caught sight of us and the roar just went up. You could just feel it vibrating through you. It was an incredible lift, this hum … almost like a train was going to hit you. We just looked at each other and thought, ‘oh my God’.”
The match itself was a struggle, “slow and heavy” as Higgins recalls. No game had fewer goals all competition.
Both teams scored in the opening quarter, the Americans edging ahead 2-1 at half-time. Australia clawed the deficit back in the third period through Mayer, but it had done little to ease the tension. It was an almighty scrap, just like their right to even be there.
For the first time in the match, Australia took the lead with 81 seconds left. Commuters on the city’s trains and buses clamoured around radios to listen to the final minute. Circular Quay and Darling Harbour’s busy nightspots stalled, a band even acceding to a request to stop playing at a venue so patrons could watch the match’s final moments.
With only 13 seconds left, American star Brenda Villa scored. Given it had taken 100 years for women’s water polo to be added alongside men in the Games, what was an extra few minutes of overtime?
“I was 34 or 35 at the Olympics and I was sitting on the bench for that period of time, just sucking on those disgusting gels,” Watson says. “I thought, ‘I need to get a few of these into me because we’re going on’.”
The match did go on for a few minutes, but only thanks to a mix of pandemonium and confusion.
With 1.3 seconds left, American Julie Swail committed a foul. The game clock stopped. Higgins, who had long forgotten about her benching, was alone about seven metres from the American goal. She could barely hear herself think, let alone hear her coach.
I know you’re going to score the winning goal. Yvie, Yvie be patient.
Higgins scored. The Americans protested, arguing a direct shot from a foul has to be more than seven metres from goal. They claimed Higgins was inside seven metres. American coach Grant Baker argued about Higgins’ shooting motion, too, which must be instant and uninterrupted.
For several minutes, the Americans bobbed in the water like corks as the rest of Australia prepared to pop their own. The ruling was pored over by officials and the complaint was dismissed. The girl with the golden arm was born.
“I visualised and prepared for it,” Higgins says. “I knew everyone was thinking, ‘it’s going into overtime’. But I saw 1.3 seconds and thought, ‘I’ve got a chance to shoot it.’ No one was ready.”
The next day Weekes and Watson were whisked into the Channel Seven studios, the rest of the squad split for media commitments which they hoped would end with the sport securing a major sponsor.
Finally, they asked what show they’re appearing on.
“They said, ‘Roy and HG’,” Watson recalls. “We just said, ‘we can’t do it’. Our manager at the time said, ‘it’s OK, we’ve spoken to everyone’. In the end Liz and I went on and had an absolute ball.
Watson added: “The next few days you would get into a taxi in town and they wouldn’t take your money.”
“The gold medal was like a beer token. You would take it off in a nightclub and it would get passed around and it would come back to you. You think, ‘really?’ Imagine doing that now.
“But I wouldn’t have cared if I was given a bottle top. It’s what it stands for, what we fought so hard for and trained for.
“And it belonged to every one of those girls who played before us who didn’t get the chance to go to an Olympics.”
Read the Best Games Ever series here.