Sleep should come easy for Australian water polo representative Hannah Buckling, given her punishing training, playing, study and travel schedules. But she admits there might be some nervous nights in coming months as she ponders on her hopeful selection in the 13-woman Stingers squad for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.
Along with Sydney University teammates Keesja Gofers, Bronte Halligan, Isobel Bishop and Lea Yanitsas, Hannah is still in the 16-strong mix leading into the final training camp in Perth, after which the Games squad will be announced in June.
In racing parlance, she’s made every post a winner since switching to the sport as a 13-year-old.
“I’d played netball, hockey and tennis and competed at Little Athletics and swimming,” she said, modestly not adding that she reached representative level at Under 14 netball, had a promising future in hockey and was a better than average breaststroke swimmer.
But when she started high school in Year 7 at Wenona in North Sydney, she also started playing water polo. The following year she joined the Sydney Northern Beaches Breakers. And she became hooked.
“I was a late starter in the sport,” she said. “I didn’t take up water polo until I was 13, while most other girls started in primary school.
“When I decided to try out with the Breakers, I found it difficult to start with; I didn’t pick it up at all, it was a big challenge for me.
“It was hard getting co-ordinated, and there were some difficult elements, particularly catching with one hand and performing eggbeater.”
And it was perfecting the eggbeater kick that has been one of the keys to Hannah’s rise in the game.
In her chosen sport much of the action happens under the water. There are front and back flutter kicks, breaststroke and sidestroke (scissor) kicks, which provide thrust for the lunge kick. But the most important kick for the goalkeeper and the centre-back, where Hannah plays, is the eggbeater kick.
Basically, it is a hands-free form of treading water that allows the swimmer to remain vertical, out of the water, to block, catch or pass to teammates down the pool. The longer a centre back can stay out of the water, the more vision and control they have to direct traffic or defend.
As a swimmer, Hannah possessed a powerful breaststroke kick to propel her forward. But she had to learn to alternate each leg in eggbeater fashion to propel her upwards – and stay there in a stable position.
“I was a fairly good breaststroker,” Hannah said. “And I have powerful legs, which helped with learning the eggbeater. I’m average height, but have long, monkey arms which give me a good reach to get to the ball.
“While I found the eggbeater difficult to master at first, it gradually became a strong aspect of my play. As a centre-back I can push forward in the direction I want the team to go, and at international level it’s about holding my position out of the water.”
Hannah’s potential and drive were immediately evidenced at the Breakers and she was selected in the Under 14s for the NSW Championships. She then made the Under 16s as a 15-year-old followed by selection in her first state squad, training with NSW Sport A and B teams.
When a player pulled out of the B team she was called in and it was onwards and upwards from there.
“My Breakers coach at the time, Jamie Ryan, was the NSW B team coach and he pushed me hard for that tournament,” she said. “Emily Scott, who was at school with me, was also selected and we progressed together to the NSW B team at the Australian Championships and then the Australian Youth Under 17 squad to tour overseas.”
“I only had a few minutes of game time so I spent most of the tour filming the games in Greece and Hungary,” she said.
“I trained with the junior national team in 2009 but missed out on making the Junior World Cup team. I then made it in the Australian Under 20s in 2011 and we won bronze at the World Championships in Trieste.”
Hannah was also named Australian Junior Female Water Polo Player of the Year.
That led to a call from Greg McFadden, coach of the Stingers, to join the national team in a series of training camps in the lead-up to the 2012 London Olympics.
“I got to train with brilliant players,” she said. “It was an awesome experience being in the squad and getting used to what was required of them for London.”
That experience heightened her desire to push for Rio.
And, having passed her first year of a Bachelor of Science degree at distinction level, majoring in physiology and immunology, she was academically bound for a degree in medicine.
If 2012 was a busy year, the following year was busier. Now a Sydney Uni Sport & Fitness (SUSF) Elite Athlete Program scholarship holder, Hannah represented Sydney University (SU) Lions in the National Women’s Water Polo League and the University of Southern California in the US National Championships, which they won. She then won a silver medal with the Stingers at the World Championships in Barcelona, represented SU at the Australian University Games, where they won the silver medal, and capped it off by being named Sydney University Sportswoman of the Year.
Last year she won a silver medal with the Australian Stingers at the World Cup in Siberia, a bronze medal with the Sydney University Lions in the National Women’s Water Polo League, and was named in the Green and Gold Women’s Water Polo team at the 2014 Australian University Games. She was also named SUSF Female Blue of the Year.
Her passport now includes stamps for Montenegro, Croatia, Hungary, Italy, Russia, Greece, Spain, China, the US, Canada and the UK.
“I’m really an expert on the pools of the world, not much else,” she said. “There’s very little sightseeing when we travel to play. We’re lucky if we get a day at the end of the trip to take in the ‘must sees’ and then head home.”
In the meantime, she completed her BSc at distinction level and has been accepted into a degree in medicine.
Hannah’s studies were undertaken around her gruelling training and playing schedule. She trains with Sydney University for the Women’s National Water Polo League (WNPL) and attends national camps based at the NSW Institute of Sport (NSWIS) at Homebush every morning, logging up the kilometres in and out of the water.
“The University has been great, letting me defer my spot in medicine until February, 2017,” she said. “I spent my three undergraduate years at St Andrew’s College, but I’m now back home in Mosman. I loved the college experience, it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
While medical studies await, Hannah said her ultimate goal since 2012 has always been the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
“It’s a long four-year cycle, but I’m now more confident having spent time in the Stingers,” she said.
The Games squad will be announced on June 17. The Opening Ceremony will be on August 5 and the Stingers first game on August 9.
And while the eggbeater has certainly whipped up high expectations, perhaps Hannah should now try to sleep, perchance to dream of Rio.