Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Goal-machine Rowena Webster thrives in water polo's school of hard knocks

By Chris Murphy and Olivia Yasukawa, CNN
August 7, 2013 -- Updated 1615 GMT (0015 HKT)
Aussie goal-machine
Aussie goal-machine
  • Rowena Webster is chief goalscorer for Australia's women's water polo team
  • The 25-year-old has made over 150 international appearances for her country
  • Webster was part of the team that won bronze at the London 2012 Olympics
  • She says the sport can be rough under the water as players jostle for the ball

CNN's Human to Hero celebrates inspiration and achievement in sport. Click here for show times, videos and features.

(CNN) -- On the surface, water polo appears an elegant pursuit played by extremely polished performers.

But beneath the water line, a different storyline is playing out.

Limbs bash against each other, punches and kicks are thrown, nails are used to claw at an opponent and every so often, a player inadvertently disrobes another.

The thing is, like most players, Australian goal-machine Rowena Webster wouldn't want it any other way.

"We have a running joke that the referees probably only see about 20% of what really happens," Webster told CNN's Human to Hero series.

"I guess what you can get away with is what you can get away with but there's a lot of pulling, grabbing, bathers get ripped off.

"Anything to get that little advantage over your opponent I guess is a win. We do get our nails checked before each game to kind of limit the amount of scratches we can give to our opponents.

"That's not to say it doesn't happen, and there are a lot of kicks and holds and punches that also do go on under the water.

"We're really friendly out of the water but as soon as we get into that pool anything is possible."

Japan's 'rock star' tennis pro
The perfect beach volleyball marriage
'Unbeatable' sprinter: How I stay on top

Webster thrives in this school of hard knocks and is the hot shot in front of goal for her national team, known as the Aussie Stingers.

Bronze medalists at the London 2012 Olympics, they fell narrowly short of gold at the World Championships in Barcelona, losing 8-6 to host nation Spain in last weekend's final.

The 25-year-old was top scorer in Spain with 16 and was selected in the team of the tournament upon its conclusion.

She has over 150 caps for her country -- a source of immense pride.

"I feel free when I play water polo," Webster explains. "There's something in me that just lets go of everything, I forget about everything.

"I'm in the moment. I love playing for Australia and I get excited every time I cap up for Australia. I just love being competitive.

"I'm pretty stubborn. I don't even like to lose a game of Monopoly, so winning's always on the top of my priority list."

Not only does water polo require finesse, vision, excellent hand-eye coordination and strength, it also requires bundles of stamina.

Players are only allowed to use one hand with which to catch and throw the ball and must tread water for all four quarters of the match -- over half an hour at Olympic level.

To do so, they employ a technique that goes by the wonderful name of eggbeating.

Female squash player fights for freedom
Kitesurfer overcomes near-death moments
Female discus thrower defies stereotypes

But what it is exactly?

"The eggbeater is, I guess, what your mum does at home when she's trying to whip some cream up -- we kind of have our legs going," Webster explains.

"It's almost like we're pedaling, but we're pedaling out wide, so if you imagine you're pedaling on a bike and then just making sure it's going out wide.

"It's almost like you're sitting on the toilet. You're beating an egg with your legs."

Water polo is a game she has grown into. The Melbourne native's own evaluation of her game in the early days is "pretty shocking."

But her appetite for the game and determination to improve intensified after the Australian women's team won gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics when the nation was swept away by Games fever.

By the age of 13 Webster was playing for her state, Victoria, and by 16 she was representing her country, captaining Australia to the Junior World Championships title in 2007.

Yet there is no doubt as to what she regards as the pinnacle of her career to date -- that third-placed finish at London 2012.

"My proudest moment is 100% being at the Olympics and winning a bronze medal," she said.

"That's definitely been the highlight of my career and to do it at the highest level was amazing.

There's a lot of pulling, grabbing, bathers get ripped off. Anything to get that little advantage over your opponent I guess is a win
Rowena Webster

"The Olympics is that pinnacle and so just to do it there, in front of a really supportive crowd was just incredible -- I get chills thinking about it now."

When in full flow, water polo can be quite a frenetic business, so Webster and her teammates have engineered unique ways of communicating during the game.

"We yell at each other. It can be a challenge to hear with the crowd and the water in your ears and we also like to point at each other," she said.

"Then if that doesn't work, we usually just splash each other!"

While obviously disappointed at missing out on gold at the World Championships, Webster was an integral part of her country's best return since 2007, when the Stingers also took silver.

And she hopes Australia's performance can entice more youngsters into the sport that continues to provide her with that enchanting sense of freedom.

"For the sport of women's water polo, I hope that it gets more and more exposure," she added.

"I truly believe it's one of the best sports there is to play for men or women and there are such great women's teams out there.

"I hope that a lot of females look towards those idols and say, 'I do want to play this sport and I do want to play for my country.'

"I just hope it gets bigger and bigger and hopefully one day, it'll be a paid sport."

Part of complete coverage on
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1504 GMT (2304 HKT)
Lionel Messi often moves so fast his opponents struggle to keep up, so spare a thought for the photographers who have to capture his magic moments.
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
He mesmerized as a player and, as millions saw at the 2010 World Cup, Diego Maradona the coach was equally entertaining.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
You don't need special access to get great World Cup photos -- but it helps. Leading sports snapper Shaun Botterill reveals how he has made the most of his insider privileges.
June 19, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
It's a World Cup photograph taken over 40 years ago. Shot on film, and after the game, but it still ranks as one of the most memorable football images.
June 11, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
CNN's director of photography Simon Barnett gives tips for amateur snappers hoping to catch a great sporting image.
June 4, 2014 -- Updated 1504 GMT (2304 HKT)
National heroes don't always belong to one country. Ask France's World Cup hero Patrick Vieira, who is rediscovering his roots.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
By the age of just 29, he was recognized by many as the greatest footballer Japan had ever produced. But he was also among the most secretive.
May 21, 2014 -- Updated 1314 GMT (2114 HKT)
Former German goalkeeper, Bodo Illgner, communicates with his defence at the European Championships of 1992.
His first act as a pro goalkeeper was to pick the ball out of the back of the net. But before long the football world was in the palm of his hands.
June 6, 2014 -- Updated 1651 GMT (0051 HKT)
He wasn't built to be the world's greatest center back, and he certainly never expected to be named the world's best player.
May 7, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Cafu enjoyed a glittering career on the pitch. Now he's trying to help disadvantaged kids emulate his feats of endurance.
April 30, 2014 -- Updated 1715 GMT (0115 HKT)
Former Soviet footballer Sergei Baltacha traveled from the land of the hammer and sickle to join The Tractor Boys and in doing so broke new ground.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Sunday Oliseh plays for NIgeria at the 1998 World Cup in France.
When Sunday Oliseh was a young boy, he never dreamed he would one day carry the hopes of 170 million people on football's biggest stage.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Olof Mellberg never lived out his childhood tennis fantasy, but he did achieve something millions of football fans around the world can only imagine.
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1117 GMT (1917 HKT)
If you're aiming to land a top job at the world's most famous financial district, it might help to take up a sport -- but perhaps not the one you're thinking of.