Shae La Roche is on the longest, most important road trip of her career. And she’s savouring every minute of it.
Last week, she travelled with her Canadian teammates to Anaheim, Calif., for two weeks of training and three friendlies against the U.S. The Americans are unrivalled as the No. 1 team in women’s water polo.
Road to TokyoClick to Expand
In the weeks leading up to the scheduled start of the Games in Japan, the Free Press will profile the elite Manitoba athletes who will be taking part in the Summer Olympics or Paralympics. In this instalment, we profile former Winnipegger Shae La Roche, a veteran member of Canada’s water polo squad.
After that, Team Canada flies to Recco, Italy for another round of training and games against the Italian national team.
In mid-June, more workouts and competition in Athens for the Women’s Water Polo World League Super Final before a final pre-Olympic series of matches in Hungary. Then, almost three months after beginning their trek, the Canadians touch down in Tokyo to prepare for the start of the Summer Games tournament on July 24.
The schedule, daunting though it may seem, is considered a necessary grind. Pandemic restrictions make a return to their Montreal home base impractical; they need game action. Prior to a 13-8 loss to the Americans Monday night, La Roche and the Canadians had not played together as a team in 513 days.
The pandemic demolished the best-laid plans for Canada, which qualified for the Olympics by finishing second to the U.S. at the 2019 Pan Am Games.
Shae La Roche’s Olympic fileClick to Expand
Residence: Laval, Que.
Olympic event: women’s water polo
Games experience: first-time Olympian
The return to competition hasn’t dampened La Roche’s optimism. The Canucks, ranked No. 6 in the world before the pandemic struck, may not be battle-tested yet but they’re counting on a number of other international rivals to be in a similar situation.
"I think we have really great chance," says the 28-year-old La Roche (nee Fournier), who grew up in Winnipeg before attending Indiana University on a water polo scholarship. "I think we used this year the best we could. We really worked on individual skills, we worked on fitness, we were able to advance in some areas but we definitely lack games.
"I think most teams lack games, so now that’s why it’s great we’ve left these three months early and we’re getting as many as we can. We’re really coming together really well. It’s gonna be a really tough tournament but I think we can do really well."
Qualifying for these Games was a major reason to celebrate. Canada’s women, who have never won an Olympic medal in the sport, participated in the 2000 and 2004 Games but had not earned their way to the big dance until the Tokyo Olympics, which have been delayed for an entire year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
La Roche, a member of the senior nats since 2014, said the international breakthrough has been hard-earned.
"It’s been a longtime goal," she says. "It’s still surreal, honestly. I think it’s gonna take getting there for it to fully sink in, and now we’ve left for the Olympics, so we’re almost there."
As for the possibility the Games might eventually be cancelled, La Roche doesn’t want to hear about it.
"I think if we’re living in that indecision and that limbo zone it’s hard to completely commit yourself to training," she says. "So I’ve just fully committed to it. Whenever we get information from the Olympic committee or from the IOC, it looks like it’s going on, they’re taking so many measures. They just released the playbook... so it really feels like it’s happening."
La Roche has what she calls a "water-polo lifestyle."
Since graduating from IU in 2014, she’s lived full time in Montreal to be close to the national team training site, with the exception of time spent with SIS Roma in the Italian pro league. Four years ago, she met Guillaume La Roche, a member of the Montreal men’s league team the women’s nats regularly played against. Last summer, the two were married.
The couple owns a house they share with a close friend, another water polo connection. Shae’s mom Donna Fournier, brothers Ashton and Taryn, and sister Bree still live in Winnipeg.
"Our best friend Vince, he is the head coach of a club in Laval, where we live," says Shae. "Guillaume is the treasurer. So our house was like the base of operations for that club. Also, during these quarantine times, we had some of the men train with us a bit so that we can have more people and have games again. So, both my husband and Vince quarantined with us and trained, so they could play games with us."
A temporary above-ground pool constructed in the couple’s backyard served as a training location during the lockdown, which eased last June when public pools were permitted to reopen.
"It hasn’t been the same type of full-time (training) — we haven’t been able to do contact all that time," she says. "But, since January, we’ve been in and out of bubbles. So, we make a bubble and we test and we isolate everything so that we can do contact, so for us it’s been fairly normal for the last few months."
Guillaume, a firefighter for the last eight years with the City of Laval and a member of the junior national training centre before that, is happy to pitch in when he can.
"We’ve been pretty lucky in the last year since COVID," he says. "She had some training gaps where she was like fully away but for I think maximum three weeks or a month, and I even got to train with the women’s national team for a month. I exchanged some shifts (at work), so I was kind of in the COVID bubble."
Shae, a two-time all-American during her time with the Hoosiers, has been a mainstay for the Canadians in the 4/5 position.
"She’s a specialist on defence, she’s one of the best blockers in the game and she brings that in terms of consistency on defence and very big intensity when she plays on both sides of the pool," says Canadian head coach David Paradelo. "She brings the intensity of everyone up.
"She’s so athletic. She has great legs, so powerful. She is small (5-5) but she plays big, you know. She gets in front of every ball — she’s like hockey players (who) would dive in front of the net to stop a puck."
La Roche rose to national prominence in Grade 9 when she joined the national junior program. Fifteen years later, she’s helping to carry the hopes of a program aiming for its best international finish since a fourth-place at the 2017 worlds, when the Canucks lost a heartbreaking 11-9 decision to Russia in the bronze-medal game.
"She’s quite a dynamic player," says Team Canada’s high-performance director Justin Oliveira. "She’s an excellent defensive player and one of our blockers.... She’s not one of the taller players, but she makes up for it with her leg strength. She’s able to produce quite a bit of power to jump out of the water. She also has quite a good knowledge on the offensive side."
Guillaume, well aware of the physical wear and tear the game can inflict, is concerned about the punishment Shae might endure during the run-up to the Games. Backs and ribs are particularly vulnerable to errant kicks that are so much a part of a sometimes violent game.
"I hope my wife doesn’t break," he says. "She’s having some back problems and she’s having a hard time, physically. She’s performing pretty well so that’s super good and she’s better now that she’s older. She listens to her body and will just stand back if she needs to recover a bit."
As for long-term planning, La Roche hasn’t plotted out what might lie beyond Tokyo.
"I’ve really been trying to think about that lately and I have no idea," she says. "The next (Olympic) cycle is only three years, right? So I’ve already done a year basically. I love the sport. I don’t think — even if I retired from the national team — I’d ever fully leave it."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.