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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)
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 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."

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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.

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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."

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