In the first of a two-part series, European Aquatics turns the spotlight on the Great Britain’s senior women’s water polo team who are riding the crest of a wave ahead of the 2024 World Championships in Doha.
Read part two here.
After a run of remarkable results at the recent European Championships, Great Britain will be appearing on the global stage for the first time since 2013.
“I always knew how much potential these players have,” said head coach Nick Buller, who steered his team to seventh in Eindhoven following dramatic wins against Israel and Croatia in the knockout stages.
“I took over the squad in 2019 after previously working with the under-17s and under-19s, so I was aware of how much talent there is and I’ve always believed in this team.
“Our aim was to finish in the top 12 in Europe this year, so we’re already ahead of schedule, as we’re now preparing for the Worlds.
“We’re definitely punching above our weight, but the players deserve their place in Doha and also the 2026 European Championships in Belgrade.
“I’m proud of them all, as this is only really the start for this group and they’ve achieved so much in such a small period of time.
“I’m now excited to see what else we can achieve together, especially with the right backing and support.”
Arriving in the Netherlands at the start of January, the odds were very much against Great Britain breaking into the top eight, let alone the top seven.
In 2014, all funding for the squad was axed and the £4.5million earmarked to support their pursuit of playing at the Rio and Tokyo Olympics vanished overnight.
It was a real hammer blow for the players, who were pretty much banished into the international wilderness, but hope for a brighter future firmly remained within the country’s passionate water polo community.
“It was always going to be a big build, as we lost everything in 2014, but with the players we had, we knew there was a chance we could still do something special,” said Buller, who took the reins during a very turbulent period.
Shortly after taking the head coach role, the COVID pandemic hit, wiping out all the plans for 2020, and entry into the 2021 World University Games also vanished, along with hopes of hosting a Commonwealth tournament.
In March 2021, however, there was some better news, as UK Sport awarded water polo £375,000, which made Buller’s plan for a return to competitive international action a little smoother.
“To start with, we obviously knew we needed games, we needed experience, and we wanted to find some challenging competition,” Buller told European Aquatics.
“We looked at what was available and chose the Danube League, which was four weekends of tournaments around Europe, played across several months.
“In that 21/22 season, we faced lots of different teams, from different countries, with all different styles of play, and that allowed us to build some momentum in those early years.
“It was the starting point of our journey, which we all felt, and we all knew the destination was the 2024 European Championships.”
With the limited funding, it was still a financial challenge to attend all the various tournaments and training camps, but belief really started to form when British Swimming confirmed in October 2022 that Great Britain would be entering the following year’s European Championships qualifiers.
“After a decade of not competing in the Europeans, that news was obviously fantastic,” recalled Buller.
“Before the qualifiers, we entered tournaments in Portugal, the World Cup, and the Danube Cup, where we faced nations like Germany, Serbia and Slovakia, so it gave us a real indication of where we were with our development.
“We won the Danube Cup, which boosted our confidence somewhat, and was the perfect preparation for the qualification tournament in Portugal, where we faced the hosts, Germany and Finland.
“At that moment, Germany had beaten us more often than we’d beaten them and I had great respect for Portugal, so I knew it was going to be difficult.”
After beating Germany 5-13 in their opening game, it put Great Britain in a strong position to qualify, and they achieved their goal of reaching the 2024 European Championships the following day thanks to a battling 12-14 win against the hosts.
It meant the objective first set out in 2019 had been met and justified all the hard work and sacrifices the squad and staff had made.
“Qualification for Eindhoven was a big moment, as to get back to the Europeans was our big goal, but we didn’t want to stop there,” said Buller.
“We wanted to get there and establish ourselves as a serious opposition, and to establish ourselves in Europe’s top competition once again.
“We entered another Danube Cup in Hungary just before Eindhoven and won that as well, so we’d started to develop a winning mentality and a momentum of success at that level.
“Those results gave us the confidence to believe we could achieve even more, so the way we looked at the European Championships was that the group stage was our fourth tournament and we would aim to build from there.”