Debbie Handley Cummins BEM is proud that she was prepared to back herself financially to represent Australia at the elite level and pave the way for young women in the sport who can now aspire to be Olympians.
Her world-class résumé will be recognised with induction into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame at the 33rd Sport Australia Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Gala Dinner – proudly presented by Etihad Airways on Thursday 12th October 2017 at Palladium at Crown.
A glittering 13-year career that included one FINA world championship gold medal, a world record number of goals in a match and the national captaincy for a decade unfortunately did not include an Olympic Games.
She was a forerunner for women’s water polo, a pioneer that did all the heavy lifting while the male-dominated sport came to terms with the prospect of women also competing for the ultimate prize.
A gold medal at the 1986 world championships in Madrid, the first time women’s water polo officially took part, was the highpoint for Handley Cummins who retired in 1988.
“It just wasn’t going to happen (Olympic introduction) for a long time because this hierarchy of men were just like, ‘nope it’s not going to happen’,” Handley Cummins explained.
“I can understand it now that I’m older but at the time when you’re playing you become quite bitter because we paid for our trip to Spain.
“It was a hell of a lot of money that we had to pay and the amount of money I’ve paid out to represent my country in water polo is amazing.”
While on a flight with four-time Olympian and long-time men’s coach Tom Hoad she once said, “look all you guys are getting everything paid for and look at all this.”
“He said, ‘hang on Deb I was a forerunner too and had to do that, unfortunately there are forerunners in everything and you’re one of them now’.
“Hopefully people will remember that, now the girls get this, this and that – it’s like everything in sport, it takes time.”
It took her whole career and then some more time before women took centre stage at the Sydney Olympics, a landmark moment Handley Cummins was delighted to see happen.
The first of the world cup events for women only attracted a handful of countries and it took some time throughout the 1980s before the competition was strong around the globe.
“Oh, I was absolutely ecstatic to see women’s water polo make the Olympics finally,” Handley Cummins assured.
“I just look back and see how much of a gap there was in 1986, for it to take 14 more years.
“Always jealous, but in saying that I’ve got my gold medal from FINA, and it’s the first women’s gold medal so you can’t ask for more than that.
“I got to carry the flag at the closing ceremony in Madrid, so that was pretty special as well to get given that honour.”
Handley Cummins earned her first state selection in 1974 before the first women’s Australian team was picked to play at a Hawaii Invitational tournament.
Next on the agenda was a trip with the national team to Los Angeles as the team started to develop as a whole on the international stage.
“I got picked for that and wasn’t out of the team since, so that’s how it all started,” Handley Cummins laughed.
“This is why we had such a long time to get into the Olympics, there needed to be a strong competition worldwide.”
In 1978 she was named captain of the national team, the same year they took part in the FINA World Cup in Berlin as a demonstration sport.
Australia placed second at a demonstration event at the 1982 world championships in Ecuador, with Handley Cummins entering the Guinness Book of Records scoring 13 goals against Canada.
“We finally thought women’s water polo had made it,” Handley Cummins recalled.
“And we’d had the same team for four years which made it so much better.
“They were really lobbying for it to become an Olympic sport and we thought it would happen soon.”
The victory in 1986 was significant for Handley Cummins and the sport as she still harboured hopes that the Olympics may still come about before retirement.
In 1987 she was awarded the prestigious Harry Quittner Medal for meritorious service to Water Polo Australia and was an inaugural inductee into the hall of fame in 2009.
That same year her first son was born before Handley Cummins took the decision to retire after going to her last international tournament in New Zealand in 1988.
She had her second of three children while undertaking a short term as coach of the women’s national team from 1990 for two years.
Australia’s women’s water polo team finally made its debut at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and defeated the United States to win the gold medal.
“Of course, yep, of course,” Handley Cummins responded when asked if it was all worth it.
“You’re still friends with the girls you met 40 years ago and this is what it’s about being part of a team.
“You look back and say I could have bought a house with the amount of money I spent representing my country, but it’s what you love at the time isn’t it.”
Her induction into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame will be a special moment for Handley Cummins who appreciates the significance of the selection.
“The honour of this award gives me pride to know I captained a team that built a wonderful base for Australian women’s water polo who have risen to the top of the world,” she said.
“May they continue on the journey that I was part of at the start.”
Debbie Handley Cummins BEM will be inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame on Australian sport’s night of nights – the sold out 33rd Sport Australia Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Gala Dinner – proudly presented by Etihad Airways, on Thursday 12th October at Palladium at Crown, Melbourne.
Established in 1985, the Sport Australia Hall of Fame plays a vital role in preserving and perpetuating Australia’s rich sporting heritage, whilst promoting the values of courage, sportsmanship, integrity, mateship, persistence, and excellence, all underpinned by generosity, modesty, pride and ambition.
2017 will mark the 33rd edition of this event, with eight Australian sporting icons, from on and off the field, to be inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame.
In addition to the eight inductees one current Member will be elevated to Legend status, becoming the official 39th Legend of Australian Sport.