"I did not know I would be making history" - Delaine Mentoor reflects on Tokyo 2020

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Delaine Mentoor poolside with the South Africa women water polo teamMentoor made Olympic water polo history when she was poolside for South Africa's game against Spain in July

With 2021 drawing to a close, BBC Sport Africa is reflecting on some milestones this year. One of these came at the Olympics, where South Africa made their maiden appearance in women's water polo - and their coach achieved an unexpected first too:

"I did not know I would be making history," says Delaine Mentoor when recalling her Tokyo 2020 experience.

"I expected maybe one or two other female head coaches but there were none. I did not expect that going to the Olympics."

Instead, what the South African was "astounded" to discover was that she was the first woman to ever coach a water polo team at the Games.

Then 28, Mentoor was also the youngest coach at both the men's and women's tournament by at least seven years, but she was made to feel welcome by her peers.

"The respect was there from start to finish," she told BBC Sport Africa. "The other coaches treated me like I had coached with them before.

"[There was] so much to gain and learn from them as well. They were open to me asking questions and picking their brains.

"That was incredible. They didn't see me as a female head coach or look down on me or my age - they were happy there was competition and growth."

'I felt like a stronger woman'

Age has never been a barrier to Mentoor, who took up water polo aged 11, made her first South Africa squad aged 15 and began coaching at 18.

But the landmark tournament in Japan proved a steep learning curve, as South Africa lost all four games by an aggregate score of 97-7.

Defeats by Spain, Canada, the Netherlands and Australia consigned the side to the bottom of Group A and an exit before the quarter-finals.

Delaine Mentoor poolside with the South Africa women water polo teamSouth Africa women finished in 10th place on their first appearance at an Olympic Games

"It was tough - but we knew it was going to be tough," she said.

"South Africa do have a long way to go in water polo, but I think heading to the Olympics was a massive step in the right direction.

"We didn't win any games but our growth from game one to game four was incredible. It is knowledge we are going to take to the next tournaments and next Olympics."

Mentoor says she has benefited from her experience in Tokyo, and hopes she can help to improve the quality of the game in South Africa.

"When I returned from the Olympics I felt like a stronger woman more confident in my abilities," she said.

"To think and adapt on my feet was massive and [I have] the will to be better in almost in everything I do. It's never been about my age, but my ability.

"One of my players, who is a year older than me, said for me to be doing what I am doing at my age, and as the first female, that it inspires them.

"I envisage South Africa competing against the best in the world, sponsors buying into our programmes and helping us elevate to that next level - a fully-funded programme, and not having players paying for themselves to get to training camps and tournaments."

Juggling coaching and motherhood

Appointed to the post in October 2020, Mentoor has had to juggle her coaching commitments with nursing her infant son Christian.

She was forced to travel to the Olympics without him because of restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic.

"It was the first time that I left him for such a long time," she said.

"We tried it when I had one of my training camps in Durban, and I cried every night because he had just turned one. I was fully nursing so I would get to the hotel, express milk and run back to the coaching session at the pool. It was terrible.

"From that experience I did not want to go to Tokyo because I didn't want to feel that again."

Delaine Mentoor and her son ChristianMentoor had an emotional goodbye with her son Christian at the airport before flying to Japan

However, Mentoor established a plan with her husband which allowed her to travel with confidence.

"The build-up to leaving was more emotionally draining, with the thought of having to leave him," she said.

"He was a year and a half, and he was a fully nursed baby with no bottle at all. I was trying to develop this programme thinking 'Will he remember me?'.

"Leaving was very tough. The first few days I was having to change my mindset, not waking up every single night to feed him. He was such a big part of my day and it was like 'What now?'. Shifting my focus was very difficult."

However, Mentoor tried not miss out on moments back at home with one of her biggest supporters while she was in Tokyo.

"My husband devoted day and night to my son and trying to keep me updated," she said. "I wanted to know every second what he was doing.

"He also watched every single game with my son, sending me pictures of Christian with his little water polo cap on getting ready to watch me on TV."

Interview with Delaine Mentoor by BBC Sport Africa's Celestine Karoney.

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