Local favourite Izabella Chiappini relishing first Olympic experience
Iza Chiappini got her first taste of competitive water polo while still in the womb and 19 years later was herself named the second best women’s water polo player in the world. Now she is relishing the prospect of her Olympic debut in her native Brazil.
Even before she was born, Iza Chiappini seemed destined to become an elite water polo player. The eldest daughter of water polo playing parents for Argentina, her mother even took part in a competition before she realised she was pregnant.
And with the coaching of her father, the 20-year-old Brazilian is now about to make her Olympic debut at Rio 2016, having already been ranked among the best in the world.
“Unfortunately, I haven’t played in the Youth Olympic Games and experienced the Olympic Spirit so it is hard to imagine,” says Iza. “I’m very excited and I think it will be like a huge Pan American Games, which is my biggest experience so far, with a huge and beautiful Opening Ceremony and lots of athletes from countries around the world.”
“My father used to be a player. Now he is a coach. My mother also was a player. So I’ve been in contact and living with water polo since I was a baby,” she explains. “Even earlier, because my mother played a competition without knowing she was pregnant. So my relationship with water polo started before I was born. ”
Despite her sporting pedigree, Iza came close to giving up on water polo for other sports after a year of training, aged 12: “I told my parents that I didn’t want it anymore. I told them that I didn’t like it any more and that they were forcing me to do it, and that I was the only girl playing at my age. And I decided to stop for a year.”
The São Paulo born athlete says she tried other sports including judo, swimming and even handball because of its similarities to water polo. But she came into contact with the sport again at a competition in Brazil and was inspired to return to the pool. Now, she hopes Rio 2016 will encourage a new generation of water polo players. “When I was 14, I went to see a water polo Junior Pan American championship in Brazil. That made me interested again and I returned to water polo classes and never left it again,” she recalls.
Iza remembers how, as a child, she would write her hopes to become the world’s best player on her wardrobe door. And after learning to cope with the challenge and pressure of training with her father, she got her reward with a swift rise to success. “I hope one day, the things I achieve with water polo could help the sport’s development in Brazil and maybe bring more children to the pool to play water polo. That would be very nice.”
Aged just 15, she was a reserve in the bronze medal winning women’s team at the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, and was part of the team that won bronze at the last Pan Am Games in Toronto in 2015, with 22 goals to her name.
In January, she was a runner-up in the Water Polo World Player of the Year awards, losing out to Team USA’s goalkeeper, Ashleigh Johnson.
“I never imagined that would come that soon,” she says. “That prize was a result of lots of training, tips from my parents, fights with my father when he was my coach. So it wasn’t easy to get there. At the beginning, I couldn’t separate the father and the coach, so I took it personally. But now I can deal better with that, but they still complain and push me when I don’t play well!”
According to her a good result for the Brazilian team at Rio 2016 would be to finish fifth or sixth, though the dream of a medal remains a possibility.
Meanwhile, she also has another goal in her sights - she hopes to mingle with tennis star Rafael Nadal. “I would love to meet and take a picture with Nadal,” she says. “My mother loves him. And every time she can, she tells me: ‘If you ever meet him, please, take a picture for me!’”
But the defining moment for Iza will be the Opening Ceremony when she enters the Maracanã stadium with the rest of her teammates in front of the whole country: “I think it will be different to everything I have ever experienced with water polo,” she says. And every day it comes closer, I become more anxious and excited to be part of it. It takes my breath away just to think about it. I can imagine my teammates and I crying tears of joy when we enter with the Brazilian delegation in the Opening Ceremony. And I hope I can do my best during the water polo tournament to help Brazil to achieve a good place.”