By Brendan Shykora
The next wave of Canadian water polo stars displayed their talents at the 2018 UANA Junior Pan American Championships last month. Canada’s Under-19 women left Clearwater, Florida as champions while the men came home with hard-fought bronze medals.
Both teams have now qualified for the 2019 FINA U20 World Championships in Portugal, where two local players will look to make their mark.
“I was honoured to be able to represent Canada with a talented coaching staff and an amazing group of girls,” Ottawa’s Valeria Rojas said following the tournament that ran through the second week of July. “Winning with them was all I could have asked for.”
Rojas scored a goal in her team’s 12-9 victory over Brazil in the finals and netted five goals in a blowout victory against Argentina in the earlier rounds.
The 17-year-old member of the Capital Wave Water Polo Club said the final seconds of the gold-medal game will stick in her memory, as will the post-game celebration.
“Jumping in (the pool) with our coaches and the joyful feeling that we had won was a feeling I will never forget,” she said.
Rojas was a formidable attacker in the U19 Canadian National Championship League this season, ranking second in goals scored. As part of the bronze-medal team at last year’s Pan Ams in Peru, she was happy to have reached new heights this time around.
“This is my first gold medal at the Pan Ams, and hopefully it won’t be my last.”
Rojas has been with Capital Wave since the club opened in 2012. There, her father and coach, Celso Rojas, has helped to forge her into a player with hopes of making the senior national team.
“My father has made me the player I am today,” she said. “He has taught me everything I know.”
According to the former captain of Peru’s National Water Polo Team, his daughter has always been an excellent understudy.
“Valeria is a very smart player and a very coachable athlete,” he said. “She understands what it means to be a team player.”
Rojas will be in Serbia for the FINA World Women’s Youth Water Polo Championships from Aug. 25-Sept. 2.
On the men’s side, Canada bested Argentina 14-9 in the bronze medal match. Ottawa’s Bogdan Djerkovic led his team with five goals in the victory.
A 12-9 loss to the States in the semis ended their title bid, a loss that was tough to swallow after the team beat the Americans in an exhibition game before the tournament.
“That was the first time I’ve ever seen that we were able to compete with the U.S. team,” Djerkovic said. “That’s why our goal was to come first, and I think with the team we had, on a better day we could have.”
Djerkovic was a force in the National Championship League this year. The star centre forward for the Ottawa Titans scored 24 goals in just 9 games and was named the club’s outstanding male athlete of the year.
At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, Djerkovic is a rare breed of water polo player. But that alone hasn’t gotten him to the level he’s at so far – he credits his speed as the skill that’s taken him over the top.
“Even though I’m such a big guy I have pretty good mobility in the water, and that helps in a lot of situations where defenders just kind of underestimate it.”
Djerkovic got his feet wet in the sport when he was six years old. By 13 he began being recognized.
“That year was kind of a breakout year for me,” he said. “I played well in the NCL, and I got an invite to a U15 training camp in California with 30 other kids my age.”
Since then, Djerkovic has been a regular overachiever. He played on the U18 junior team at 15, the U20 team at 16, and this year at age 17 he’s training with the senior national team in Japan in preparation for Tokyo 2020.
If Canada can come out on top at next year’s Senior Pan Am Games, the team will clinch a berth at the Olympics. If not, they’ll have to play through the qualification tournament next summer.
Canada has never won gold at the senior Pan Ams, but Djerkovic can still see a pathway to Tokyo.
“We have a pretty good chance of getting there if we stay training at the level we are right now, and hopefully I’ll be able to stick with the team too.”