By Jonathan Okanes
Cal Bear Blog
BERKELEY – Freshman Roser Tarrago has played water polo at the highest level of international competition, but there is something her team at Cal gives her that she never experienced competing for her assorted Spanish National Teams.
“The atmosphere is perfect. I’ve never been on a team like this,” said Tarrago, who won a Silver Medal with Spain at the 2012 Summer Olympics. “It’s better than the Olympic Team. It’s better than the Worlds team. There’s nothing that goes wrong.”
When it comes to water polo, Tarrago doesn’t do a whole lot wrong herself. Along with helping lead Spain to the Gold Medal Game of the 2012 Olympics, she led her country to a gold medal at the World Championships last summer in Barcelona. As a junior player, Tarrago and Spain won the gold medal at the 2011 World Junior Championships in Italy.
Not surprisingly, Tarrago has made an immediate impact in the college game. She ranks sixth in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation in scoring (2.36 goals per game) and has exhibited a strong all-around skill-set that has helped the Bears maintain a No. 4 ranking in the national polls.
“It really helps having someone with that much experience,” said Cal goalie Kelsey Roland, who is also Tarrago’s roommate. “You’ll look around at practice and you’ll see her working really hard on a shooting drill. Then you’ll see other people start shooting hard. I’ll be in the cage and everyone will be shooting so much harder.”
Tarrago is part of a European influx to Cal’s roster that has carried the team this season. Freshman Dora Antal of Hungary leads the MPSF in scoring (3.29 goals per game) while fellow Hungarian Anna Illes is second on the Bears with 36 goals.
As an international student with more experience than most of her teammates, there may have been a concern about how she would fit in at Cal. But Tarrago has immersed herself in the team, quickly making friends and helping teammates when possible.
“She’s fit in really well,” Roland said. “It was hard for her at first just because she was so far away from home. But she adjusted pretty well. Everyone just welcomed her with open arms. I really like hanging out with her. We’re like best friends.”
While most of Cal’s players haven’t experienced what she has in water polo, Tarrago has a unique appreciation for her new team. She said the amount of work the Bears put in is unmatched compared with the national teams she has played on in Spain.
“In Spain sometimes, we just give up,” Tarrago said. “We’re not going to win, so let’s not even try. Here, they try every time and they practice so hard. I’ve never practiced this hard in my entire life – not even with the national team.”
Tarrago received several offers from U.S. colleges and was all set to go to USC before she stumbled upon a Facebook message from Cal coach Richard Corso. When she told her mom, Carme Aymerich, that Cal was interested, Aymerich lit up with enthusiasm.
“I didn’t even know I had the message. It was in another folder of messages,” Tarrago said. “I told my mom there was a message from another coach. She asked what college, and when I said Berkeley, she said, ‘Do you know that college is important?!’”
Tarrago decided to come to Cal instead, and it didn’t hurt that she heard Antal and Illes were making their way to Berkeley as well. Tarrago and Antal played against each other in the semifinals of the Olympics and World Championships. Illes played for Hungary in the World Championships as well.
“I knew I would get to play with Dora,” Tarrago said.
Tarrago first tried her luck at swimming at age 7, but her coach in Mataro, Spain told her she wasn’t good enough. So she decided to join her two siblings, who were already playing water polo. She played on boys club teams with her younger brother for four or five years because not enough young girls were interested in playing the sport.
By the time Tarrago was 15, she was a national-level player. She made the under-19 national team in 2008, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. It was too much for the young Tarrago, but she was in a bind because it is simply unacceptable to say you don’t want to play for a national team in Spain.
“It was so hard. They were swimming 5,000 meters a day. I was used to swimming 1,000 meters a week,” Tarrago said. “After two weeks, I didn’t want to be there anymore. I was lucky because my coach from my club was the Senior National Team coach. They wanted me to stay there, but I told my coach that I can’t do this anymore. So he made the other coach take me off the team.”
“I needed to go slower,” she said.
Tarrago did indeed slow down, but not that much. The next year, she played for the under-17 team. But by 2010, she made the Spanish National Team and helped lead her country to the top of international water polo.
For Tarrago and her Spanish teammates, just qualifying for the Olympics was a big deal. Spain had never qualified for the Olympics before 2012 and in 2011 finished in 11th place at the World Championships. Spain’s Olympic Team ended up becoming a national sensation, with the country watching Olympic coverage intently on television every night.
“Honestly, a month before the qualification tournament, I wouldn’t bet anything that we were going to qualify for the Olympic Games,” Tarrago said. “When we finally qualified, it was awesome. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s hard to believe. I was 19 years old. For the older players on the team, the dream was just to go to the Olympic Games.”
Now, Tarrago is trying to help the Bears get back to the NCAA Championships for the first time since 2011. With young players such as her and her European counterparts making an impact, the future certainly looks bright for Cal women’s water polo.
“I don’t want to go home,” Tarrago said. “I want to visit my family and lay on my couch and sleep in my bed, but I don’t want to go back home.”