Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 28
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
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(Photo courtesy of Princeton's Office of Athletic Communications)

BUDDING CHAMPION: Phoebe Champion rises out of the water in action this past spring during her freshman season for the Princeton University water polo team. Champion, who piled 35 goals and 20 assists in her debut campaign, will be playing for the USA Water Polo Junior National team as it competes later this month in the 2007 FINA World Championships in Porto, Portugal.

PU Water Polo's Champion Brings Fire, Skills as She Competes for U.S. at Junior Worlds

Bill Alden

It took a while for Phoebe Champion to warm up to the sport of water polo.

"I started playing in third grade and I didn't really like it," said Champion. "My parents had to bring us candy to keep me playing."

Those parental bribes paid dividends as Champion grew to love water polo, becoming a star player for Palo Alto High (Calif.) and the Stanford Water Polo Club.

Despite her success in her native California, a hotbed for the sport, Champion decided to head east for college, joining the Princeton University women's water polo program this past school year.

"I didn't want to go to Southern Cal and I was thinking about Cal or Stanford," said Champion. "In the fall of my senior year I came out to Princeton for a visit and I loved the girls on the team. I also liked (head coach) Luis (Nicolao) and (assistant coach) Derek (Ellingson)."

Princeton certainly liked having Champion on board as she scored 35 goals and had 20 assists to rank fourth in each category for the Tigers.

This month, Champion is heading a few thousand more miles east as she plays for the USA Water Polo Junior National team as it competes in the 2007 FINA World Championships in Porto, Portugal.

Champion will bring an extra toughness to the U.S. team after going through some ups and downs in her debut season for Princeton.

"I would say in the fall it was low key because the coaches were focusing on the men's team," said Champion.

"I was anxious to get up and running. The east coast game is slower than the west due to the refs; they call a lot more fouls. It was kind of a hard season. I had some knee problems and I had mono at the end of the season."

Princeton head coach Nicolao was proud of the way Champion fought through things. "We expected a lot out of her," said Nicolao, whose women's team finished the season with a 20-9 record and lost 8-6 to Hartwick in the Eastern Championship title game.

"She still had a wonderful season even though she missed a month. She didn't feel herself at times and looking back, she was probably playing through illness. She is a fierce competitor but she keeps things positive and upbeat. She had no problem showing leadership ability as a freshman."

The precocious attacker certainly showed plenty of ability in the pool.

"She is very smart in the water," asserted Nicolao. "She has a great game sense; she is one or two plays ahead. She is one of our best outside shooters. She is a multi-dimensional player. She can shut down people on defense and she can beat you a lot of ways on offense."

Playing in the junior worlds should make Champion very formidable when she returns for her sophomore year with the Tigers.

"It will give her more confidence in her ability," added Nicolao, referring to Champion's chance to play at the international level.

"She knows she is talented. A lot of players make a big leap from freshman to sophomore year. They can come in with talent but they have to go through things. We are losing quite a few seniors and we will need Phoebe to have a big year next year. It was a great experience for the freshmen to get to the Eastern finals. They were crushed to lose but they have a better idea of what it takes."

In Nicolao's view, Champion has what it takes to ultimately go on to play for the U.S. Senior National team.

"She has the skills, desire, and talent to play on the senior national team," said Nicolao. "It just depends on how things fall over the next few years and what she wants to do after college."

Champion, for her part, enjoys testing her skills at the international level.

"I played in tournaments in Greece and Italy last summer," said Champion, who has been participating in the U.S. junior program since 2005.

"The refs have so much influence on the game; they let so much go. It was great to practice with the senior national team. They are the current world champs and we got beat up training with them. The teams in Greece and Italy didn't seem so hard."

There will be plenty of hard work ahead for Champion and her U.S. teammates as they look to make a splash at the world competition.

"The coaches depend on us being in shape," explained Champion. "We have a three to three and a half hour practice in the morning and we go three hours in the afternoon. We focus a lot on tactics. There are a lot of people from different colleges and we need to get into sync."

The U.S. will work on getting in sync by playing exhibition games against the Netherlands this week before arriving in Portugal.

"We played them last year and beat them by two goals," said Champion. "They are tough and it will be good to get international competition before the tournament."

Champion believes the U.S. will emerge as a tough competitor in Portugal."We are the defending champions," said Champion. "The senior team is the current world champions. We have some big shoes to fill."

And Champion has proven that she has the skills and fire to meet those expectations.

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