March 16, 2017
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Coaching at an international level has allowed Dr. Marcelo Leonardi to establish a program built to help international student-athletes pursue national team dreams.
Leonardi spent the last eight years entrenched in work with the USA Water Polo governing body, leading the Youth National Team to a gold medal at the FINA Youth World Championships in Spain in 2014 and most recently to a fifth-place finish in New Zealand. He has taken those experiences and incorporated different styles into his system at the University of Michigan and now has a good understanding of how to help international players on his own team excel.
"In order to be able to compete against the best, we have to take segments of international water polo and domestic water polo and be able to blend it together," said Leonardi. "If you were to look at the landscape of women's water polo this is the most international water polo players I have seen at the women's collegiate level."
Michigan has two freshmen from Australia on its roster in Alex Corbett and Maddy Steere. Corbett and Steere were attracted to Michigan because they felt Leonardi could help them achieve their dreams of competing for their national team.
"For myself I just really want to go to the Olympics, and Marcelo being one of the USA coaches really understood balancing college water polo with having your foot in the door for a national team," said Steere. "He understood the importance of me being able to go back home for training with the national team. It wasn't all about Michigan."
Steere took a year off to train for the 2016 Rio Olympics. She did not make the Olympic roster but was asked to stay and train with the team leading up to the Olympic Games. With eyes set on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, what she does while at Michigan will be crucial.
"There is a Future Olympians camp in Australia the week before NCAAs," said Steere. "It is very important because we have a new national team coach that hasn't seen me play. Marcelo knows the importance of me attending the camp despite it being such a crucial time for us being together as a Michigan team. Allowing me to go back is something not a lot of international student-athletes would be able to do."
The communication between Leonardi and the Water Polo Australia coaches has been key to working out a plan for Steere to have the best opportunity at making the roster for the FINA World Championships in Budapest this July.
"I think it's really important to have a good relationship and being really flexible with their pipeline coaches," said Leonardi. "We try to identify their strengths and put them in positions to be successful. Our resources at Michigan, the education, the training, all give them the best opportunity to reach their peak."
Those resources are paying dividends for Steere, who is second on the team with 29 goals and 30 assists. She is excelling in Leonardi's system and becoming better prepared for her upcoming tryouts.
"Marcelo isn't only thinking about the California teams that we are about to play, but he's training us to really be able to get to the standard of the international players," said Steere. "I think it's really important because there's different styles for every country, and he makes a point that if we are playing a certain player, he will relate it back to the countries and say this is how they play in this international game. He has a future plan for us while trying to coach us as an all-around player."
Corbett joined the team in January. She also has aspirations for the 2020 Olympics and has her eyes set on competing for Australia at the 2017 FINA World Junior Championships in Greece in September.
"Marcelo and Sydney (Sonoda) are very experienced and have already taught me so much," said Corbett. "They have taught me a lot about the center forward position, explaining more about where I should be in different game situations. My knowledge of the game has broadened a lot."
Not only has her knowledge of the game increased, but Corbett also feels like practice and games at Michigan are preparing her for national team tryouts.
"It is a different style of play than in Australia, but playing here will help me a lot because it is a lot faster and I am learning how to defend different positions," said Corbett. "It won't be a shock playing against national team level players because we get to see them every day in practice."
Leonardi is bringing in more and more student-athletes with national team dreams. Freshman goalkeeper Heidi Ritner played for Leonardi at the Youth World Championships in December along with signee Maddy Johnston. Another signee, Kathy Rogers, is a member of the Great Britain Youth National Team.
"It's really helpful because coming from Victoria, it's such a small state that there's only one or two players who have the same aspirations as me," said Steere. "Here at Michigan, Heidi is my roommate and I'm constantly around someone that is willing to sacrifice the same things because she has the same passions as me. It is easier to get through the hard days and we make each other better."
Steere and Corbett have been embraced by their Michigan teammates from day one. When Steere went to the Rio Olympics in August, senior goalkeeper Emily Browning was there doing an internship with NBC and met up with her. She was treated like part of the Michigan family before stepping foot on campus.
"Coming in and adjusting to a new culture, it was honestly the team always being there and having someone different every day to turn to," said Steere. "When Alex came in it was nice having another Aussie accent to hear."
While Leonardi is helping Steere and Corbett prepare for national team tryouts, the two Australians have been key players in helping the Wolverines to a tie for sixth in the national rankings. The team is 13-8 heading into the final weekend of non-conference play at the LMU Invite Friday and Saturday (March 17-18) in Los Angeles.