Mitch Emery thought his Olympic dream was over after collapsing and injuring himself just days before team announcements, so the phone call to tell him that he had made Australia’s water polo squad for Rio de Janeiro was particularly “overwhelming”.
A fringe player in the squad, Emery’s position for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio was never set in stone, and he was far from confident he’d make the plane after injuring his shoulder just days before team selection at the World League – Super Final.
A mixture of exhaustion, stress and sickness culminated in Emery collapsing in a lift at the six-day World League tournament, and injuring his shoulder with bone bruising and swelling. He was forced to sit out the rest of the competition.
“I didn’t get to play the last three days,” Emery told ESPN. “To be honest I didn’t think I was going to make the team. I just felt those last three days were so important and when I couldn’t play all these thoughts were just running through my head; there were sleepless nights. But now thinking back, I played really well in the lead up before that tournament. Just at that time I thought ‘this is going to be 50/50’ and then the more you think about it the more you doubt yourself, I guess.
Emery was “really annoyed with myself and was pretty frustrated” as he thought he needed to play in the final days of the tournament to make the final 13 for Rio.
“I am the kind of person who can be a bit negative to prepare myself for the worst, and those six days that followed were the worst — the sleepless nights, watching the people you were competing with playing well, and then I had to wait for that phone call.”
Prepared for the worst, Emery had already reasoned it wasn’t his playing ability that had let him down.
“I just thought, if I don’t make this team it’s not because I haven’t played well, it’s because the coaches didn’t want to take someone who is sort of injured and wouldn’t be able to train for the first four days, instead of taking someone who is 100 percent and can go straight away.”
But on Wednesday June 29, the 25-year-old received the phone call to change his life. He was going to the Olympics.
“It was pretty overwhelming. [Australia coach Elvis Fatovic] told us the day before, on Tuesday, that he was going to call – but he didn’t. Then on Wednesday, right on midday, he called.
“It was a bit awkward, I just asked him ‘hey, how has your day been?’ and he said ‘not very good’. Instantly I thought that’s not good news for me. But then he just said, ‘You’re going’. I wanted to hang up quickly so he couldn’t change his mind. I was just over the moon with it all.
“He explained why I’d been chosen and also went through how things can change through injury. He also told me who didn’t make the team.
“All up it was probably only a four-minute conversation.”
Prepared for either good or bad news, Emery’s mother had taken the day off to support him.
“We knew it was going to be a yes or no,” Emery said.
“As soon as I got the call I ran outside so she couldn’t see me and then I came in, she asked me if I was going or not and I told her I was going. We both pretty much just started crying, it was pretty intense.
“I think my partner, Kate, was the first person I called. She cried for a good five minutes and when I picked her up from the train station she started crying again. There were a lot of tears that day.”
It was a long journey for Emery to reach Rio.
In 2012, he was juggling full-time work and water polo while rehabilitating the knee injury that had ruled him out of the London Olympics; the young player was close to giving up the sport. But in 2013 he quit his job and moved cross country to pursue his Olympic dream
“Sport’s been my life ever since I was a young kid,” Emery told ESPN. “I’d been playing three sports during the weekend, so I thought, to be honest, I’m working in a dead-end job, I was probably a bit overweight and I wasn’t motivated; I just thought a change was perfect for me.
“So I hopped onto a plane to Perth and started working at a fruit and vegetable factory; I was able to eat all the fruit and veg that they had, and it worked out perfectly. It was good environment, I was eating healthy, was training hard, and the motivation just came back; I started to love playing water polo again.
“I’m glad I did make that trip in the end.”
Emery has faced a rollercoaster ride since working his way back onto the Australian squad, earning a call-up for some tournaments, getting dropped for others, and then facing prospect of being cut when the 13-man roster was announced on July 1st.
Emery made sure to take every day as it came and not focus too far ahead.
“Our manager sends out our team schedule every 12 months and it’s got everything — when we’re in Europe and all our tour dates. I don’t look at it because I just like to take each day as it comes. If I make the team, I look through to the next part of the trip.
“For the last six months, being so close to the Olympics, I just really wanted to go, I really wanted to make that my goal.
“I just feel like, it could still be taken away from me in a weird way; I won’t feel like an Olympian until I’ve finished it an