UQ student vows to make most of Olympic opportunity, despite COVID-19 restrictions
By Michael Jones
Don’t tell Australian water polo goalkeeper Gabi Palm that competing at the Olympics during a global pandemic means less than previous Games.
If anything, success at Tokyo will be even more special.
Like Olympic hopefuls all over the world, the third-year Bachelor of Psychological Science student has been on an emotional rollercoaster since the Games were postponed due to global COVID-19 outbreaks in March last year.
Palm was on the cusp of her debut Olympic selection before the decision was made to delay the Games and had to wait another 12 months before realising her dream.
After finally being named in the Stingers squad in May, Palm is now one step closer to Olympic glory – although she will be performing without her family and friends in the grandstands after officials announced the Games will go ahead with limited crowds.
“My parents have never actually seen me play an international tournament in-person,” the UQ Sports Achievement Scholarship recipient told Contact.
“They were saving up so they could watch me play in Tokyo. So, in that sense, it’s pretty devastating.
“When I think about the Olympics, I picture the opening ceremony and all the footage of the crowds.
“I’ve seen photos from teammates who competed at Rio [de Janeiro] in 2016 – they all had their parents there among a big group of Aussie supporters.
“But I will take the way these Olympics are going ahead any day of the week if it means we can go and compete."
“I know it won't be the same, and I know it will be hard, but the Olympic spirit remains, and that's what I'm really excited about. We have everything to gain and we’re all so excited to represent our country.”
Palm admits that delaying the Games by a year could make or break many athletes who have worked for four years to hit peak performance at just the right moment.
“At the beginning of 2020, we were the fittest and strongest we have ever been as a squad,” Palm said.
“Going into lockdown with no access to the pool and our usual training facilities was a lot to get our heads around.
“We were doing bike workouts over Zoom and trying other ways to stay connected as a team as much as we could.
“We're normally at the pool four to five hours a day. So, to strip that back was so weird. I have a backyard pool at home, and I was trying to hook up elastic cords to the back fence so I could simulate different game situations.
“I had to make do with what I could, but obviously it wasn’t the same.”
Palm has represented Australia 50 times since making her debut for the Stingers in 2017.
It’s been a rapid rise for the 23-year-old, who took up the sport to meet new friends while attending Brisbane Girls Grammar School.
“I wasn’t much of a swimmer, but I started playing water polo to be social when I was 12,” Palm said.
“Nobody wanted to be goalkeeper and because I was quite tall, they asked me if I wanted to do it. I was picked in the A team and it kind of went from there.”
Palm’s international career highlights include a gold medal at the 2017 FINA World League Intercontinental Cup, a silver medal at the 2018 FINA World League Intercontinental Cup, and bronze medals at the 2018 FINA World Cup and 2019 FINA World Championships.
“The bronze medal at 2019 World Champs was really special,” Palm said.
“It was my first senior World Champs and we played really well as a team. To make it to that bronze medal match and beat Hungary by one goal was amazing.
“It was special being on the podium with my team to celebrate that, and it’s a feeling we’ll be chasing again in Tokyo.”
The Stingers completed a training camp on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast in June and will start their Olympic campaign at Tokyo’s Tatsumi Water Polo Centre on 24 July.
They are drawn in Pool A with Spain, the Netherlands, Canada and South Africa. Gold-medal favourites, the United States, are in in Pool B, alongside China, Japan, Russia and Hungary.
“The US has been a powerhouse for the last decade, winning gold at the past two consecutive Olympics,” Palm said.
“Spain is one of the favourites as well. But it will be really interesting going into these Games given that a lot of teams haven't played big international competitions in a while.
“We haven't played an international game for more than a year now, which will definitely be a disadvantage. But we've been scrimmaging against some of the other top players in Australia, doing a lot of video analysis, and simulating matches to prepare ourselves as much as we can.”
As well as match situations, Palm said the team has also simulated the conditions expected in Tokyo – particularly when it comes to adhering to strict COVID-19 protocols.
“We know that we're going to be wearing masks all the time and we’ll be doing everything we can to keep ourselves safe.
“It's going to be so different – especially in Tokyo, where we’re expecting it to be quite humid. So, we’re making sure to practise in those conditions now so it's not going to be such a shock to the system.”