Rippon sits in exclusive club but is searching for gold membership
Representing Australia once in any international sport is a wonderful achievement experienced by very few who have ever picked up a ball, faced the starter’s pistol or held a racket.
In women’s water polo, pulling on the green and gold 100 times signifies a particularly momentous career and to do it 200 times is starting to enter legendary status.
Now consider those that have done it a monumental 300 times and you’ll find it’s an exclusive club of one. And it belongs to Mel Rippon.
Rippon cracked the magic 300-Test mark at the FINA World League Super Finals in China earlier this month in a tournament where the Aussie Stingers won the silver medal behind arch nemesis USA.
In London they are determined to go one better and win gold, emulating the feats of the Australian women’s team that snatched victory from the Americans in the dying seconds of the final at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.
A gold in London will be just reward for Rippon’s more than decade long commitment to the sport she loves and a long time coming after a badly timed injury cost her the outside hope she held of being part of that famous victory in Sydney all those years ago.
“I remember my first "official' (senior international) game and it was in the year 2000 in a Test match against the USA at Ryde Pool and it was my one opportunity to show the coach why I should be selected for the Sydney team,” Rippon, who with step-sister and Australian captain Kate Gynther will become the first Australian woman to play water polo at three Olympics when they dive into the pool in London, recounts.
“Unfortunately for me I didn’t hit the water that game and then went on to have a meeting that night informing me that I required surgery and my Olympic dream was over.
“All in all it was a night I had to learn a lot from and I believe has been one of the reasons I have stuck at it for so long.”
Now some 303 games for her country later, Rippon is humbled at what she has achieved – highlighted by winning a World Cup in 2006, an Olympic bronze four years ago in Beijing and becoming the Stingers’ most capped player in the process.
“I was genuinely surprised to find out that I was the first female to play 300 games,” Rippon, 31, said.
“With legends such as Deb Watson with long and successful careers I always held their individual achievements as something that wasn’t going to happen in my time.
“Now that it has happened I feel very honoured to have been able to represent Australia on so many occasions and alongside so many amazing people.”
Watson, a vital member of that Sydney 2000 team who is considered by many as Australia’s greatest ever female player, is enamoured with Rippon’s durability, resilience and ability to play some of the more difficult roles in a team.
“I cant even fathom playing 300 games and to do it is awesome for Mel,” Watson, who will commentate on the water polo for Australian television in London, said.
“To do the type of training required to compete at that level these days and the sheer amount of training and game time over more than a decade makes this such a great achievement.
“To think that she spent most of her career playing on the left hand side of the field as a right hander is extraordinary.
“It’s like playing a whole game upside down and is hard for players to sustain at the top level but Mel basically made a career out of it.”
Australian head coach Greg McFadden describes Rippon as ‘a fierce competitor’ and thinks she was one of the best players in the world during the last Olympic cycle with much of Australia’s play set around her counter attack play with sister and dual Olympian Bec and their step-sister Gynther.
This time around Rippon is the oldest player in the Australian squad and has a different function within McFadden’s team.
“In this Olympic cycle Mel’s role has changed and she brings experience and leadership to the team when needed,” McFadden said.
“She will play an important role down the right hand side of the field helping drive the counter attack and making sure we have a balanced attack.”
Rippon doesn’t know to what degree she will be involved in the sport post London but says she loves it so much it will always be part of her life. She sees the next generation of Aussie Stinger as ‘extremely talented’ and doesn’t ‘believe I will be missed’.
She also sees gold on the horizon in London – the crowning glory in an already glorious career.
And what will she feel in that gold medal match in London when she pulls on the green and gold for the likely 309th and last time? What if Australia wins?
“It’s so cliché to say that words couldn’t describe it but it is so true,” she says.
“Relief, satisfaction, achievement, a dream come true. All these words touch on it but it doesn’t quite feel enough.”
And nothing but a gold will seem enough of a reward for a player who has spent more than a decade of her life getting into an exclusive club that currently sits at one.