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Yanitsas ready to inspire the next generation

30 September 2016

WATER POLO: For water polo goalkeeper, Lea Yanitsas, the Rio Olympics brought about every emotion she had ever experienced in her life. 

After nearly ten years on the senior national team, Yanitsas fulfilled her lifelong dream of becoming an Olympian, making her debut at the Rio Games. 

“The Olympics was, for me, the pinnacle of the highs and the lowest of the lows,” said the Sydney-sider. 

“For those two weeks, I felt every single day; happiness, sadness, frustration, anxiety, joy - everything.”

Yanitsas was one of thirteen female water polo players that sought to re-create history and claim Australia’s second gold medal in the sports fifth Olympic appearance. 

But it wasn’t meant to be this time, with the Aussies going down to Hungary in a surprise upset at the Quarter final stage.

Despite a disappointing result, Yanitsas is passionate about sharing her Olympic story with the next generation, after she was inspired by her high school PE teacher and Sydney 2000 gold medallist Debbie Watson. 

It was Watson that dragged Yanitsas to water polo trials at Mackellar Girls High School and encouraged her to pursue the sport when she showed talent. 

“Debbie was the one told me to trial for the Sydney Metropolitan team where my journey really began,” said Yanitsas who was so inspired by Watson and wanted to follow in her footsteps. 

“As soon as I saw Debbie I knew I wanted to go to the Olympics and I wanted to win a gold medal like her. 

“I never really thought that water polo was something that was going to get me to the Olympics, but I saw what she had done and she was so amazing. 

“I wanted to be everything that she was.”

Competitiveness and determination got the better of Yanitsas who described herself as terrible at water polo to start with, but soon making the Olympic Team became her soul focus. 

“I wasn’t a very strong swimmer… So they put me in goals.

“Because I had reflexes from Netball and strong legs from running, it ended up being a really great mix.”

After several years of playing in the National water polo league, Yanitsas was invited to train with the Olympic squad in 2007, but was shattered when she was omitted from the Olympic Team for the 2012 Games. 

Finally, in 2016 Yanitsas found herself selected on the Olympic Team, an achievement she could only describe as incredible. 
“I am still kind of am speechless.

“It was just that moment of realisation that everything you’ve worked for has finally happened.”

Yanitsas described her experience at the Games as two and a half weeks of sheer emotion.

“While the final result was nowhere near what we wanted to achieve, I have to take the power of whole experience away. 

The 27-year-old said that enormity of the Olympics and the passion she felt for her teammates and representing her country is something she will never forget. 

“If you feel that much from something, it has to mean something to you. 

“That is the biggest thing I’ll take away from the Olympics.”

Now, Yanitsas wants to help inspire the next generation of Olympians.

“I’m excited to share my story with them, because I started with an Olympian coming to talk to me.”

Yanitsas says that sharing her Olympic experience with students feels like giving back. 

“I think that’s why I have enjoyed going back to schools so much, because that’s how I got started and was inspired. 

“I hope I can input some of my passion into their dreams as well. 

“I hope I can help them believe that they can achieve anything they set their mind to.”

Looking ahead, Yanitsas admits that four years is a long time and she hasn’t made up her mind about Tokyo 2020, but she’s not willing to call it the end just yet. 

“It’s definitely not the end of me and water polo!”

Ashleigh Knight

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Lea Yanitsas