Not only is Alexandra Asimaki the best player Greece has ever produced, she is also considered to be one of the finest centre forwards of the past two decades, as voted for by coaches, players, and fans around the world.
Having won nearly every possible honour in the game, including a gold medal at the 2011 world championships, a gold medal at the 2010 world league, and three silver European championship medals, her international career is the envy of any player.
Furthermore, Asimakis’ incredible medal cabinet also contains three Euro League winners medals and eleven Greek Championship winners medals. In 2011, she was voted both FINA’s and LEN’s player of the year.
The Greek League’s all-time scorer and record appearance maker decided to retire in 2020, aged 32. After nursing a fairly serious hip injury for a few years (keeping it a secret from the public eye) and then falling pregnant, Asimaki might have expected to leave her illustrious career in our sport behind her. But now she’s back. Out of retirement and playing for her hometown club, Alimos NAC, in their inaugural season in Greece’s top flight, Asimaki is setting new targets for herself and her teammates and pushing her body to the limit.
In an extended interview for Total Waterpolo, one of the greatest players in the women’s game speaks to us about her new lease of life with Alimos, her injury, balancing being a professional athlete as well as a mother, and creating a new club from scratch.
Alimos, a small club with huge ambition, were promoted from the A2 last season, but are the only team so far, alongside reigning Greek and European Champions, Olympiacos, to win all of their games so far this season. For Asimaki, this season has been a long-time in the making:
“I was really excited even before the start of the season, waiting for my comeback also in the Greek Championship with my team Alimos NAC, after being away from the action for a while. We are satisfied by the results so far because Alimos, as a new team and newcomer to the league. In our first participation at the championship, we managed to take victories in all the games so far, beating opponents with great water polo histories such as Ethnikos (last year’s LEN Trophy Champions). We know that we can improve a lot during the season, and we want to and play better water polo because the road ahead of us is very long; there are a lot of games and challenges ahead”
Proving to be such a prolific goal-scorer over her long career, perhaps unusually, Asimaki now believes she is as focused now on the defensive side of the game more than ever – a facet of her team’s game that she believes has brought them success:
“We are a team focused on defence. The identity that our coach (Vangelis Pateros) wants to give the team is that defence is the key to success. So we try to build in that direction. The fact that we kept the score low on defence gave us the victory in the last games. And because defence, apart from talent and technique, is 80% a matter of will, I like the fact that so far my team has shown passion and the will to give everything on defence.”
Alimos made several signings over the summer, varying from International stars, to young and talented home-grown Greek players. It can often be difficult for teams to gel when such a large number of players come together for the first time, but in Asimaki’s view, the family feel to the club has helped create cohesion in and out of the water:
“I’m really happy with all my teammates, and I’m not saying this because it’s the proper thing to say. We have really good chemistry going on; I can tell that, although it’s still early, we can do great things together playing as a team. Our team signed this year some really promising young and talented Greek players, all members of our young national teams, coming from a successful summer winning medals with our national team. Lena (Mihailovic) joined the team this year and has been a very active member of the Australian team for the last few years. She brings a lot of quality to the team. All these players really levelled up the team, and combined with some of our players from last season who also joined this one, we made a good match. Apart from the fact that all my teammates are talented, they are all fighters in the game; they never give up; they are team players. We have a really good vibe of sincerity, collaboration, respect, and caring. The club also encourages this vibe, to feel originally as a family. I think that’s also another thing that makes Alimos. NAC is an environment for a player to give his best. It’s really important for an athlete to feel secure and to be in a club by caring about him first as a person. From my experience through the years, it is important to find this in a team, makes our job easier because when you feel good and loved you play even better.“
Despite Alimos’s incredibly strong start to the season, Alimos’ captain maintains that their aim, first and foremost, is to maintain their status in the division. She does believe, however, the possibility is there to compete for the Greek championship and the Champions League in the future:
“First, we want to establish ourselves in the Greek League. We want the club to leave a mark, make a difference, and not just exist in the league. This will happen through our performance in the pool of course by playing good water polo, by the results the team will bring through the years and by the image the team will have in general in the water polo world. The club is working in all these aspects and taking one step at a time we will reach our targets. Of course Alimos will aim for European competition representation in the future. Taking one step at a time but always heading high the results will come. With persistence, a plan, and hard work . But everything needs time and patience.”
While Alexandra is always looking forward to how she can improve her game and how her team can grow, she also reflects on the past, on an outstanding career; one she retired from in 2020 but has since resurrected.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a barrier to players around the world, but a long-term hip injury that required surgery, further delayed the possibility of Alexandra’s return to the pool:
“I made the decision to quit water polo in 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics. A few months before, I was preparing with our national team for the pre-Olympic tournament in Trieste when everything was cancelled because of the COVID pandemic. There was the quarantine period; our lives stopped not only for training and competition. When we came back into action three months later, in May, the only competition we had ahead of us was the Greek Championship with my club back then, Olympiacos. I didn’t have it in mind to quit water polo. What I wanted to do was play at least another year until the Olympics, but I had to get my hip operated on because I had a serious injury that had been bothering me the last few years of my career. The global water polo community probably didn’t know anything about that because I was never out of games or competitions during all these years of my career. My coach on the national team was really supportive of that idea, and they come back in October for the 2020–2021 season. But sometimes in life, things don’t go as planned. The Greek championship finished later for the 2020 season, and we had games until July; I had to be there for the games with Olympiacos, so as time passed, I saw that my main plan, which was getting operated and returning, was gone because it was impossible to get operated in August and return in October, so there wasn’t any time.”
Asimaki’s injury acted as a catalyst for Alexandra to reevaluate her priorities in life, especially when she became pregnant with her daughter. However, the Greek superstar knew her playing career was unfinished business:
“So the plan changed, and I decided to quit and focus on my family. I got pregnant and then turned a new page in my life, but I always had the feeling that this wasn’t the time or the place for me to say stop. I actually read a really interesting interview that you did with my friend and all-time opponent, Rita Keszthelyi. She was talking openly about how important it is for an athlete’s health—both mentally and physically.
The truth is that when the situation led me to that decision, I knew inside that it wasn’t exactly my time to say goodbye to the competitions. Life put my in this direction, and in September of 2020 started the whole idea about starting this new team at Alimos.”
Alimos is a suburb on the Athens Riviera, and thats where the Alma Club is located. Alma club is an athlete complex with an outdoor swimming pool, four football pitches and an outdoor gym. Alimos has long-held ties in Alexandra’s heart, and the club she helped to build, Alimos NAC, is owned by her husband, Giannis Zoumpolidis:
“Alimos is my hometown, I grew up there, went to school there, and went for the first time at the swimming pool there. So we thought, because Alma as a complex has an ideal pool for water polo training, to start a team only for academies water polo and swimming, but mostly water polo for girls. I was running the whole academy project back then with my husband and our coach now in the women’s team, Vagelis Pateros.
After our baby was born in January of 2021, I decided three months after in April to have that hip operation I was planning. The operation went amazing due to my doctor and the support of my family. I was feeling stronger and stronger everyday, and as the baby was growing up, I started thinking about going back in action again.
In July 2021 three months right after my surgery, I decided to join the Alimos team as an athlete, and to come back to the swimming pool and test myself after the surgery . As the test went well, the team went well, we all concurred our targets and here we are this year competing in the Greek League. I am back feeling stronger than ever, for sure stronger than back in 2020. I am ready to fight again for new targets.”
Needless to say that raising a child poses a million different challenges, but Alexandra is passionate that women should be encouraged and supported to maintain their athletic careers after giving birth. The Greek superstar hopes that she can serve as an example of this:
“It’s not really common in the water polo world, and I really don’t understand why women cannot come back into action after having a baby. I wanted to show that in a society where women athletes and women in general are faced with many taboos, that a woman can really do anything, when she wants and the way she wants to do it. Nobody can tell an athlete when it’s the right time to quit, or a woman when it’s the right time to have a baby. I counted only a few of those taboos but really all these do’s and don’ts. Why? Who says otherwise? Nobody can tell anyone what to do or when it’s the right timing or what to dream.. because it’s individual is different and special”
Given her form so far this season, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were watching the Alexandra Asimaki of five or ten years ago:
“Well, for me, the feeling is like I never left, although a lot of things have changed in my life since the last time I played the Greek league and National team like 2-5 years ago. Actually I feel I have a lot more to give. This break was definitely for good, it’s nice to know now that when I finish training or a match my daughter is waiting for me.”
Seeing Asimaki score three or four goals in a game, as she is doing now, is a throw-back. But Asimaki believes that her best days might not be behind her:
“To be honest I feel the same fire as when I started and maybe more than my last season’s because most of the time a break is for good, it gives you back the desire that it’s a feeling that pushes you to go on, and makes you see things clearer. I feel willing, stronger, for sure healthier and definitely more experienced. There are not many things that can surprise me now during a game, and in my day to day experience with the team so it’s easier for me to deal with every situation inside and outside the pool.”
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