BEGA Valley Shire Council group manager community and relationships, and one of the leading lights in Australian water polo, Leanne Barnes, has been awarded one of the sport’s highest honours.
At a recent function in Sydney Ms Barnes was presented with the Harry Quittner Medal for services to water polo.
A worldwide force in the sport, Mr Quittner was born in Czeckoslovakia and after emigrating became prominent in Australian water polo, managing the state and national teams and serving in many positions including being the inaugural president of the national body.
Ms Barnes said the award was for her contribution over a long period of time, but not for her playing and coaching days.
“It was mainly because of the role I played from 1982 after I gave up playing when we were lobbying to get women’s water polo recognised and included as an Olympic sport,” she said.
“I was part of an international committee pushing the IOC towards accepting the sport into the games.”
It was a long process with doors shut everywhere they went, Ms Barnes said.
“We pinched Gough Whitlam’s ‘It’s Time’ slogan and went all around the world, everywhere we could when the IOC was meeting, lobbying while wearing swimsuits and holding placards.
“It was a difficult time as it was mainly men we were dealing with, although that wasn’t the main cause of the delay, it was more that everyone thought they’d be losing something if they allowed women in and there were brick walls everywhere we went.
“Let me tell you, international sports politics is very strong and difficult to break.”
However, the fight continued and it was hoped that each time a new venue for the games was announced, women’s water polo would be included.
“But it didn’t happen and we had to keep fighting,” she said.
“We really hoped that it would be announced when ‘Sydney’ was announced, but it wasn’t.”
It was around that time the Australian Water Polo board saw the light and supported Ms Barnes’ efforts.
“Once they were on board they were very helpful, John Coates in particular was very supportive.”
Ms Barnes said that after the 1996 games in Atlanta they hoped again, but nothing was decided and even as late as March 1997, there was no word of when the issue would be looked at favourably.
“Then in October 1997, all our work paid off and the IOC gave in and said there would be six countries allowed to play at the games in Sydney,” Ms Barnes said.
The Sydney Olympic Games are remembered for many things, not least the win by the Australian women’s Water Polo team with a goal in the last second of the final.
“That was an amazing moment,” Ms Barnes said.
“I was sitting with then Prime Minister John Howard and I was so excited, he told me to leave him and my role as ambassador and go down to the pool deck.
“That win and that moment made everything worthwhile.”
Ms Barnes was the first and only female on the board of Australian water polo, a position she has held for 15 years.
“My tenure expires in December and I will retire, however I am mentoring other women at the moment so there will be good female candidates to take my place,” she said.
“But I won’t be leaving water polo completely, I’ll be staying on and supporting efforts to have more young people involved in the sport.”
Ms Barnes has voluntarily filled many roles over her 30 years in the sport, but said she never expected recognition; she just did what she did because she loved the sport.
“But it is nice to know you’re appreciated.
“I feel extremely proud and very humble – it’s really special.”