By Dan Plouffe
At 42, Waneek Horn-Miller is more than twice Valeria Rojas’ age, but it’s the high school kid who nearly doubles the former Team Canada captain’s goal output.
With Pan Am Games gold, World Championships bronze and a 5th at the Olympics, Horn-Miller enjoyed a lengthy career with the Canadian women’s water polo team. Rojas, meanwhile, took off to Athens at the end of January for her first stint with the senior women’s national program.
The contrast is sharp, but you’ll often find the pair side-by-side nonetheless competing for the Capital Wave club in Water Polo Canada’s National Championship League.
“It’s awesome to have an experienced former Olympian in the water with us,” says Rojas, who’s scored 14 times in 4 appearances for the 4-2-1 Wave to sit 3rd in league scoring (ahead of Horn-Miller’s 8 markers). “It’s just great to learn from her, see what she does in water, see how she sees things.”
Horn-Miller tries to make it to a practice or two each week, often scrambling to get into her swim gear in time – the product of family and work commitments.
Rojas now has 11 practices in “a great week” – part of the club’s new high-performance program. Led by Canadian coaching guru David Hart (who coached Horn-Miller at the Sydney 2000 Olympics), elite Wave players participate in early-afternoon practices at the pool, and also train four mornings a week at the RA Centre gym.
“It’s a great program, and we’re learning so much from David,” signals Rojas. “It’s a pain to get up and go (for the 6:45 a.m. start), but it’s totally worth it. You can see it in the water. It’s helping us immensely. It’s tough, but we love it.”
It was another past coach of Horn-Miller’s who drew her back into competitive water polo for the first time in almost 10 years. Michel Roy, her first-ever coach with Team Canada, joined the Wave’s staff this season.
“He was like, ‘Hey Waneek, help us build women’s water polo in Ottawa again,'” recounts Horn-Miller. “So ya, I decided to come play the sport I love, have a good time, be in it with my kids, and just try to help out the next generation too.
“I’m not in any kind of shape, but maybe I can give them a tip here or there.”
The reason for the hiatus from water polo was that “I was busy having babies,” smiles Horn-Miller, whose two youngest children – age 4 and 7 – are part of the club’s Splash Polo program.
“Now I’m a mom and I have a different perspective,” signals the Kahnawake native. “When I see the stress of the other players, I’m like, ‘You know what? It’s all good. We’ve got your back. Relax. Shoot the ball.’
“Maybe I bring that old lady calm to the team.”
The younger Wave players have begun calling Horn-Miller “la abuelita”, which means little grandmother in Spanish – a reflection of a collection of cultures on the team including Peruvian, Mohawk, English and French Canadians, and Eastern Europeans.
“That’s what I love about water polo,” Horn-Miller adds. “It really is an international sport that draws in a lot of people.”
Rojas got to experience that international flavour in full force this past summer. She got to play for the Canadian 17-and-under women’s team at the Pan Am Championships in her father’s hometown of Lima, earning a bronze medal and a berth in next summer’s 17U World Championships.
Behind her was a big crowd of relatives sporting “Team Valeria, Go Canada Go!” T-shirts.
“It was nice to look up in the crowd and see your whole family supporting you,” reflects Rojas. “It was crazy, a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to play for Canada. It was just a surreal experience that I will remember forever. Hopefully I can keep doing it in the future.”
Horn-Miller would bet on it. Along with her pair of old coaches, Rojas’ father Celso adds a third Wave staff member with Level 4 certification.
“They’re right there in the trenches, so to have the younger generation work with them is awesome,” Horn-Miller underlines. “For me, it’s all about women’s water polo in Canada, and helping to rebuild it. It’s the grassroots level that’s going to make the difference.”
Ottawa rising in NCL
The 2nd-place Wave senior women are just one local team making noise in the NCL, with improved standings practically across the board this season.
The Wave 16U girls are also in 2nd place with their 8-3-1, while the undefeated 5-0-1 Wave 19U women are at the top of their table.
The 9-3 Ottawa Titans are 4th out of 13 16U boys’ eastern conference teams, while the 4-8 Wave also have an entry in that division.
The 4-3 Titans Black 19U men sit 2nd, while the Ottawa United Titans Black senior men are 3rd at 6-1 – both teams performing well despite the early-season absence of Team Canada phenom Bogdan Djerkovic, who was training with professional teams in Hungary.
The Titans senior men’s lineup features a pile more players who have worn the maple leaf internationally, such as David Lapins, Zoltan Csepregi, Aleksa Gardijan, Dusan Boskovic, Diego Gonzalez and Djerkovic.
The NCL regular season continues through to springtime. The Nepean Sportsplex will host action locally from Mar. 16-18.