Christian: Today I’m joined by Lea Barta, Lea, and has nominated by Keesja Goofers in a previous interview. Lea is Olympian 2016, representing Australia in water polo. Her biggest achievements are silver medalist at the World Championships 2013 and bronze medalist at the World Championships 2019.
Lea: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to join you today.
How she got into water polo
Christian: How did you get into water polo?
Lea: When I was younger, I played every land sport on the planet. I played netball and touch football. I was running on the sand, like surf lifesaving tournaments and I could swim, but I was never a big water sports athlete.
I played every land sport on the planet, but I was never a big water sports athlete.
I was competitive at land sports and I loved sport in general and I always did my best. I even got to interstate teams and squads. The year before I started high school was the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
Then when I started high school, in front of me and taking my name was the Sydney 2000 Olympian and gold medalist for women’s water polo, Debbie Watson. I was just in awe. I’d heard about water polo only through the Sydney Olympics and those women have such an amazing story.
It was just incredible hearing about them, the gold medal and everything. I was in awe when the Olympics were on and then right in front of me, there was the woman herself and she was holding tryouts for water polo.
I went on down and I think they figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t the strongest swimmer in the group, so they put me in goals and it worked out. Originally I was just there to find out more about Debbie Watson because she was so amazing and then the next minute I know, I’m in goals and saving goals and loving it, and it kind of went on from there.
Christian: At what age was that?
Lea: I would have been probably about 13 going on fourteen.
Her darkest moment
Christian: In your life as an athlete, what was your darkest moment?
Lea: Probably the hardest memory in my career was in the Rio 2016 Olympics when our quarterfinal was against Hungary. It was a do or die match.
So in the 2016 Olympics for water polo, your round games are to place you for your quarterfinal game, but at the quarterfinals, if you get knocked out, you’re no longer in contention for a medal. It is usually anyone’s game. Everybody gets a shot at a quarterfinal in the Rio 2016 Olympics.
So the quarterfinal was a really important game and we were up to start and we let them back in the game right towards the end. Then it went to a penalty shootout and they got the better of us in the penalty shootout.
In the moment, I don’t remember being concerned about the score. I knew it was an important game, but I don’t remember the clock weighing on me or anything. But the moment I got out of the pool and realized what had happened, thinking about it even gives me shivers now.
It was like the most sinking, awful feeling. I remember there was press as we walked out of the stadium. There was press and I just couldn’t even look at them. There was no way I could’ve done an interview at that point.
The moment I got out of the pool and realized what had happened, it was like the most sinking, awful feeling.
We went back to our rooms that night and I don’t think I spoke to anybody. I took the longest shower I’ve had in forever. It was awful. It was the feeling of working for so long.
It was my first Olympics, we were a very good team and we’d worked so hard for so long and I’d overcome injuries to get there. It was really earth-shattering. All my life up to that point or the prior four years had been for that Olympics. To have that all taken away, it was like my dreams were shattered.
It was a real sense of loss of self and to know that we would be coming home from an Olympics without what we set out to get and what I was going to do from there. I never really planned for the scenario of coming home empty-handed and it was absolutely heartbreaking. Going back to that place is hard.
It was really earth-shattering. I never really planned for the scenario of coming home empty-handed and it was absolutely heartbreaking.
Christian: I believe that. What did you learn from that moment?
Lea: It took me a very long time to pull myself out of that dark space. I actually didn’t get in the water for a really long time after that and I realized now that the water is my happy place, it’s my place of serenity and calm. And at the time, I couldn’t get in the water emotionally.
The water is my happy place, it’s my place of serenity and calm.
But now, looking back, I realized that was something I really needed to get back to. If that’s my place of happiness and my place of joy, then even if things aren’t going well, I should always get back in the water.
The thing that really pulled me out of it was when I came back to Australia, a lot of my relatives had children and their schools were asking if I would come and talk to them. When I was talking to the kids, I realized that these kids just love the fact that I’m sharing my story and it doesn’t matter to them what happened exactly during the games.
They just love the fact that there was someone in front of them talking about how they got to an Olympics. I realized that when I was talking to the youth, I was telling them to go chase their dreams and if they had had a passion, they should follow it. Yet here I was, I still had a passion and I still had a dream and I just had a setback. So how could I be telling them to keep striving and never give up if I wasn’t going to do that myself?
How could I be telling them to keep striving and never give up if I wasn’t going to do that myself?
That was probably the turning point for me. I realized that I’m telling these kids that they should never give up and they should always keep trying and why am I not applying that to myself. I got back in the pool and I felt immediately a thousand times better and then started to work towards what was then Tokyo 2020.
How a goalie feels during a penalty shootout
Christian: And funny you mentioned that because it was what I’ve noted down here, the quarterfinals at the Rio Olympics and the penalty shootout. Were you the goalie on the penalty shootout? I know in the football world, they always say in the penalty shootout, the striker can only lose and the goalie can only win because you are expected to not keep the ball. Is that also how it feels as a goalie?
Lea: I never really applied that logic because I’m so competitive that I want to save every ball anyway. So in those dark times, I was replaying every single shot a thousand times in my head.
How could I have jumped differently? How could I move this way? How could I move that way? What could I have done differently in those moments to have changed the result?
But it was too late when I was thinking about it that night. It was too late to change it. Our team always has the feeling that if it comes down to a penalty shootout, that’s what it is and neither the shooter nor the goalkeeper takes ownership for the win or the loss.
That’s the opinion of our group. If we are successful, then everyone gets a pat on the back. If we’re unsuccessful, then we all carry the defeat together.
Christian: Yes, that’s interesting. I’ve had a chat with Patrick van Balkom, who competed in the 2004 Athens Olympics in track and field. And in the four times 100-meter relay, he received the stick and the stick fell. So the team was disqualified and he said the same thing.
It was the whole team, so not only the person who gave the stick nor the person who took it. The whole team took ownership and said, “It is what it is. Let’s move on.”
Lea: Unfortunately, that’s the sport and unfortunately that’s the way that our sport decides to draw. I could think of a couple of different ways we could run it, but that’s the way we do. And we got to live with that for good and bad.
Her best moment
Christian: What was your best moment?
Lea: This for me is a common question in a lot of interviews, and I find it really difficult to answer. I’m lucky that I’ve been in some wonderful teams that we’ve had some amazing experiences.
The best moments are the times when I call it like the flying feeling – some people say the zone or in the zone – but for me, I call it the flying feeling because it’s times when I just feel like the world drops away. There’s just me and the ball and my teammates and it’s completely effortless.
Some people say the zone or in the zone – but for me, I call it the flying feeling because it’s times when I just feel like the world drops away. There’s just me, the ball, my teammates and it’s completely effortless.
I’m existing in the seconds in front of me. I don’t even know what’s really happening, but everything goes right. It’s like flying. I can see everything; I can hear everything. I’m in the very second in front of my face.
There’s nothing else. It doesn’t matter what the crowd’s doing. It doesn’t matter what the scoreboard’s doing, all the rest, it’s just the ball. I can see it all and it’s as if it’s in slow motion and the times like that, they’re addictive.
They don’t happen every game and sometimes they don’t happen for multiple games, but when they do happen, it’s so addictive. And the dream of having that sensation or that kind of performance at the Olympic Games or in the games in the Olympics, it’s what keeps me coming back.
I haven’t really been able to find that flying sensation or that feeling in any other aspect of my life. So trying to perfect it and bring it out in the biggest games and the biggest moments of my life would be just sheer joy. That would be just absolute happiness. To be able to do that at the peak of my sport would be awesome.
They don’t happen every game and sometimes they don’t happen for multiple games, but when they do happen, it’s so addictive.
Christian: And what do you think contributes to that feeling? What are the things that have to fall in place in order for that feeling to appear?
Lea: I often ask myself this because it would be great. I’ve read a lot of books on different people talking about the zone. And no one really has the exact answer.
It’s kind of like the special makeup that works for you. And I’ve got a series of strategies that I use before games to try and get me as close as I possibly can to that point. But I actually don’t know what does the trick.
I try and perform a routine before each performance that’s roughly the same with minor changes and if refs are doing things differently before the game, but that routine is designed to try and bring me to a space that allows me to go into that zone space as often as possible. It doesn’t always happen as I said, but, yes, the goal is to try and get there as often as possible.
Her advice to a younger Lea Barta
Christian: If you could travel back in time, 10, 15, maybe 20 years, what advice would you give a younger Lea?
Lea: I think I’m prone to overthinking. So when I’m not present as I’ve been talking about the flying feeling thing, when I’m not in that space, my brain goes a hundred miles an hour.
I’m prone to overthinking. So when I’m not present, my brain goes a hundred miles an hour.
So what I would go back and tell my younger self is just trying to be in the moment to keep calm. I used to use lots of music in my pre-game routine. I was thinking that that would bring me really high and I’d be super energetic, but I think a lot of the time, I was probably in a state of overexcitement.
Going back now, I’d say probably don’t try that so often. Just try and be calm, try and be grounded, stay relaxed, just be with the ball and play the seconds in front of your face and try not to overthink everything. Especially when I get stressed, I tend to overthink things. So just reminding myself to get out of my head and be in the moment.
Christian: Yes. And that’s actually also what you said about this feeling. You call it the zone. I think the first time that phenomenon was explained was by Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian scientist.
He calls it “The Flow” and he says exactly that – that at that moment, there is no thinking because everything you do is kind of within your zone of genius, so don’t think.
Her success habits
Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful athlete or person?
Lea: I wouldn’t consider myself the most technical goalkeeper. If you were trying to teach someone how to be a goalkeeper, you probably wouldn’t teach them my style because it’s not particularly technical. However, I’m crazy competitive and I’m prepared to work hard for that.
I always want to be the best and I want to improve in all facets of my life. I think that is probably the main habit that has kept me where I am performing at an elite level. I want the best. I want to give my best every single time I get in and whether that’s in a technical way or whether that’s just putting your body behind the ball, I’m prepared to do it.
I’m crazy competitive and I’m prepared to work hard for that. I always want to be the best and I want to improve in all facets of my life.
But things that keep me able to play the sport at this level for quite a while now are doing the right thing in the gym and making sure all my rehabs completed before I hop in. I do Pilates a lot to try and look after my spine.
If there’s extra work that needs to be done, I’ll stay in the pool after training to complete my jumps or complete some technical work that I might need to do if I need to progress in a movement. Or I’ll actually ask players to shoot particular shots at me.
So if there’s something that I need to practice for a game coming up, or I feel like I haven’t got the movement right for a particular style of shot, I’ll ask the girls to stay in the pool and help me out with shooting a particular thing that I ask so I can practice that specific movement.
For me, it would just be always trying to leave my absolute best in every scenario. So pushing myself to give everything I have to what I’m trying to achieve at that moment.
Christian: Sorry, you have to help me out here. What is your maiden name?
Lea: So my maiden name is Barta and I’m married to a Greek guy called Andrew Yanitsas. So my married name is Lea Yanitsas.
Christian: Okay. So I thought it’s the other way around.
Lea: No, that’s okay.
Christian: What I was thinking is because I’ve spoken to a few people who actually have Greek roots – Australians – and they thought that that has helped them to be competitive, but you don’t have the Greek roots, so let’s not go there.
Lea: My husband would definitely say that marrying a great guy has improved my performance.
Christian: It has to be.
Lea: He would always say it’s been a benefit.
Her morning routine
Christian: Do you have a morning routine?
Lea: I did. I had a definite routine. It was pretty simple. Our trainings are very early in the morning. So I set the alarm, wake up, have a straight shot of coffee with just two slices of bread and some peanut butter, jump in the car and hop in the pool to do some rehab, and then hop in the pool for training.
And then my day starts from there. These days it’s a little bit different. My little boy is now 18 months old and he disrupts pretty much every routine that I would ever try to set. So, it’s kind of a bit of a shambles in the morning.
I had a definite routine. It was pretty simple. These days it’s a little bit different. My little boy is now 18 months old and he disrupts pretty much every routine that I would ever try to set.
I definitely think coffee is a major part of my morning wake up and yes, something to eat to get me going for energy. Now that we’re in the middle of lockdowns/shutdowns at the moment, morning routines change nearly every day.
Our beaches are open and that’s where I’ve been trying to do some swimming and some legwork. And sometimes they’re only letting us in the water at particular hours. So this last week I have woken up early before the baby does, to try and get a swim in before my husband goes to work.
So every day is different at the moment. When we’re back into training, it’s very often coffee, get in the car, go to training, and then come home.
How her preparation has changed being a mum now
Christian: If you look at your preparation towards Rio 2016, and now your preparation towards Tokyo 2021 with having a baby, how has life changed being a mom and an athlete at the same time?
Lea: It’s a considerable change. I think probably the biggest difference is not being able to follow a strict schedule. I would love to say that my baby is a robot, but unfortunately, or fortunately, whichever way you look at it, he doesn’t respond to what I say every single time.
Probably the trickiest thing has been trying to prepare for my games the same way as I used to. In the past, I would have a definite plan heading into the games on the weekend. My day would be somewhat structured to include all the things that I like to do.
Probably the trickiest thing has been trying to prepare for my games the same way as I used to.
These days, if I have my son before the game, it’s a lot of the time what he wants to do and maybe mommy can squeeze around some things that she likes. I eat coffee and food. But that doesn’t always go to plan.
Probably the trickiest part of the adjustment, now that I have a little boy, is trying to make sure that I’ve got enough babysitting care for him. So, obviously, when I’m in the water he needs to have someone looking after him and we’re in the water a lot.
So training is multiple hours a day, two to three sessions, and my husband works and also coaches water polo, so he’s out a lot of the day as well. So we are ridiculously lucky to have the family support we do. There is no way that I would be able to do or dream as big as I have without the support from our family and friends.
My father comes and looks after Dino sometimes all day. My mother-in-law also looks after Dino all day on occasions and sometimes both our parents have had to look after Dino when Andrew and myself have been out of the country.
So I really am so grateful for the help of my family and friends. There’s no way that I could be a mom and try and go to an Olympics without the support of people that are able to look after our son when we’re busy training or working.
I think the scheduling of that and the organization of that has probably been the trickiest thing, not to mention the sleep deprivation initially. That was a whole new level of zombie-ness. But no, we’re very fortunate that we have the support around us to let us dream as big as we do.
There is no way that I would be able to do or dream as big as I have without the support from our family and friends.
Christian: Considering you had a baby, I assume you were out of the national team for some time. So getting back into it, do you have to fight a bit harder for your spot? 00:22:49
Lea: I was able to play our Australian National League while I was pregnant. Then I had my son at the end of 2018. So I was out for the international season of 2018 when I was pregnant.
When I was pregnant, I did always want to get back onto the national team. It was a major dream at the time. I thought it was super far-fetched. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I didn’t know how our family was going to work or look or I didn’t know if I would still want to play.
But I made sure I trained the whole way through my pregnancy. I was not necessarily taking balls in goals but kept fit and strong through my pregnancy so that I would be in the best position to come back to the national team if that was something that I was able to achieve from a resources-sleep deprivation perspective.
I made sure I trained the whole way through my pregnancy so that I would be in the best position to come back to the national team.
Those first few months coming back were a blur. I remember just being up at 1:00 AM with Dino; up at 2:00 AM with Dino; up at 3:00 AM with Dino; up at 4:00 AM to get to training. Then my husband took over and did 5:00 AM and 6:00 AM.
It was an absolute blur and I’m so lucky that I had the coaching staff that I did because they were just incredible. How they individualized my training was so, so important. And it certainly helped me in getting back as fast as I possibly could, but in a smart, progressive way and making sure that they didn’t burn me too quick or injure me when I was coming back.
I also had an amazing strength and conditioning and physiotherapy team that worked with me during that time. And initially, when I did get back in the pool, it felt great because I could finally get back in the pool. My hips felt amazing, but it felt terrible.
My brain was telling my body to do things and they weren’t happening like I expected them to happen. So I had a lot of work ahead of me. And from a strength perspective as well, I knew that my explosive strength wasn’t there.
I probably got myself back to a fairly good basic strength, but I didn’t have my explosive strength back straight away, so that was something that had taken time to develop, and that was very difficult.
But I also think that the easiest part of all that was actually training because I knew how to train. I’d been training for thousands of hours already. That wasn’t necessarily the hardest part. The hardest part was all the sleep deprivation and the organization of the family.
Then I was trying to breastfeed at the same time. That was very difficult, so I think the training actually came easy. I knew how to train.
The training actually came easy. I knew how to train. The hardest part was all the sleep deprivation and the organization of the family.
I knew how to develop myself, and I knew how to progress with my goals. That came more easily than I had expected. It still took a lot of effort and exhaustion but got there in the end.
How to prepare for important moments
Christian: How do you prepare for important moments?
Lea: I do everything I possibly can to get myself into a space where I can get into that zone we spoke about before. And for me, that looks like in the morning doing the right things.
I do everything I possibly can to get myself into a space where I can get into that zone.
So getting up with enough time before the game, having something to eat and a coffee. I don’t nap these days, but back then when I used to nap, if the game was a bit later in the day, just making sure that I was up early enough to be alert for the game.
Then I like to get to the pool with enough times that I’m not stressing about traffic or with parking or that kind of thing. Then once I’m at the pool making sure I do my rehab. So that’s switching on all the little muscles so that everything’s working like a clock.
When I’m doing my rehab, I also run through the tactics that we’ve discussed for the game and particular shooters and running through where they shoot, what kind of style of shot they take, and thinking about that a bit.
Then we’ll do our team land warm-up and then we’ll do our team pool warm-up. Often they’ll pull us out of the pool and there’ll be some kind of lineup and the National Anthem. During that lineup, I like to visualize as they call the player.
I’ll imagine them shooting and me saving it. So it’s obviously not the goalie, but like number two, and I imagine their shot and myself saving it. Then singing the national Anthem loud and clear and then come back together as a group and reaffirm the tactics and jump in the pool and get ready for the game.
I followed that process for every game and then hoping that that brings me into the best possible state to perform. And then if I find if I’m in the game, things are going off track. I have reset words that helped me refocus on the ball, essentially. All the reset words are pretty much like, just follow the ball.
How to overcome setbacks
Christian: How do you overcome setbacks?
Lea: It depends on the circumstances. If I’ve got loads of time, like, the Olympics being moved or shifted, and I’m able to really think about it, I’ll try and practice gratitude.
I try to find the positives in each scenario and how I can continue to improve at this time. I think of what I can do to get better even with the challenges that we have at the moment and just being grateful for the little things that I do have.
I try to find the positives in each scenario and how I can continue to improve.
At this time, I’m able to be with my family. I can really focus on my rehab at this time. In the pool, there’s definitely not that enough time to have a good think about it and be grateful for every moment.
So a lot of the time, I’m just practicing focusing on the ball, staying in the moment, not necessarily forgetting, but learning from the experience and moving on because the only thing I can affect is the two seconds in front of my face and I can’t go back.
The other thing that motivates me in those times is knowing that if I’m actually not in the moment, what am I really doing there? I’ve got a beautiful baby boy at home.
If I’m not prepared to stay in the moment in the pool, I’m wasting my time and his time. I don’t let that worry me. I just let that focus me. If you’re not present, what are you doing?
I’ve got a beautiful baby boy at home. If I’m not prepared to stay in the moment in the pool, I’m wasting my time and his time.
You have a very important thing at home that you need to look after, so you better make sure that you’re using your time in the pool really well. The only way you can use your time in the pool really well, it’s by being in the moment. So I think that keeps me motivated as well.
Her role model
Christian: Who’s your role model and why?
Lea: I don’t know if I can pick just one. I have lots of role models. And it changes across my career or it has changed across my career.
Starting off it was Cathy Freeman. She’s a 400-meter runner that won in the 2000 Olympics and she’s just incredible. When I first started water polo Debbie Watson was my idol. I wanted to be everything about her.
So I was very lucky to be given the opportunity to work with the girls from the Beijing 2008 squad. I got to meet the goalkeeper, Alicia McCormack, for that Olympics and she was amazing. She was a two times bronze medalist and an incredible woman and an incredible goalkeeper.
She taught me a lot about her style and how she played and her mindset and that was really, really helpful. Then also she coached me prior to the Rio 2016 Olympics, as my club coach, which was incredible along with Debbie Watson.
So that was a really cool turn of events, to have Debbie Watson and Alicia McCormack coaching me before the Olympics. That was amazing. These days, I don’t know, I find inspiration in lots of different things.
I’m inspired daily by my teammates. it takes a lot to show up when the chips are down or show up when you feel awful and you just want to throw in the towel. However, you don’t because you know that the girls around you are fighting for the same dream and you don’t necessarily find that in every workplace.
I’m inspired daily by my teammates. it takes a lot to show up when the chips are down or show up when you feel awful and you just want to throw in the towel.
It’s a special group of people that show up even when they don’t want to, because of the girl standing next to them. So I find that pretty inspirational.
Then, I have an incredible group of friends, very talented sportswomen doing different things. One runs for Australia, one plays touch football for New Zealand. The stuff they do on a daily basis and the challenges they have, inspire me.
Then all my mates that are mothers, I find that incredible. They’re kicking mommy goals and they’re working full time. They’ve got two kids, they’re juggling work and sport. I think I find lots of inspiration in lots of different avenues these days.
The best advice she has received
Christian: What is the best advice you received and who gave it to you?
Lea: How do you pick just one? I don’t know if mine necessarily came from a person in particular. One of the best quotes that has carried me through my whole career has been one from Thomas Edison, the inventor of the modern light bulb who did like 10,000 or something experiments to get it right.
He says most of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. And I’ve always loved that possibly because I’m not necessarily the most talented or the most technical.
I probably lost more times than I’ve won. But I think it’s always stuck by me to never give in and to never give up. And I think that’s why it resonates so strongly with me to think that it’s just around the corner.
Thomas Edison said that most of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. And it’s always stuck by me to never give in and to never give up.
Percentage-wise, the more you fail, the more likely you are the next time to win. So I think that’s always been incredibly motivating for me. It’s carried me through a lot in my career. It has always carried me through injuries, setbacks, and losses.
Christian: Yes. He also said something along these lines, very similar to what you just said, “I haven’t failed 10,000 times. I found 10,000 better ways to do things” or something like that.
Lea: Yes. He’s amazing.
A typical training day in the life of a water polo goalie
Christian: How does a typical training day look like?
Lea: These days very different with Covid. So let’s go back to when we were in full training. We would have pool sessions every morning and then gym would be after the pool three times a week.
And then we’d have club sessions or national team sessions every night by Wednesday. So the day was pretty full with training. A lot of the time we’re together for sometimes five or six hours in the mornings and then together again at night.
In the middle of the day for me, it’s used for looking after Dino and being with him and things like any rehab you need to do, if you need to do a cross-training or Pilates type exercise or physio or other learning or study or work stuff. So it’s a pretty full day.
What is going on in Lea Barta’s life at this moment in time
Christian: What else is going on in Lea’s life at this moment in time? Sport, mother? What else?
Lea: I’m also a trained physiotherapist and I was working at a hospital in Sydney as a women’s health physio. So that’s a physio that looks after things related to women’s health. And I was loving that, but I’ve since had to put that on hold to try and pursue this second Olympics.
So just trying to keep myself up to date with that, I’ve started my Masters in Women’s Health Physiotherapy. That’s also on hold at the moment. I’m just waiting back to hear from Uni, whether I can start that back up again.
But at the moment, my days are filled with mostly entertaining my 18-month-old, which is pretty challenging at the moment actually. Our playgrounds are closed off for now.
So I’m finding it very hard, especially on the days when I’m stuck inside when it’s raining. I’m finding it challenging to keep him occupied and entertained. We do a lot of singing and nursery rhymes.
Her interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?
Lea: I don’t know if I have an Olympian nomination.
Christian: You already mentioned three names. Debbie Watson, Cathy Freeman, and Alicia McCormack.
Lea: Yes, Am I allowed to nominate them?
Christian: Of course.
Lea: They’re still water polo. Is that all right? I don’t know Cathy Freeman personally, but I can definitely hook you up with Alicia McCormack and Debbie Watson.
Christian: That would be cool.
Lea: Okay, awesome. I’ll do that.
Where can you find Lea Barta
Christian: Where can people find you?
Lea: I am probably on the basic social media platforms. My name is Lea Yanitsas. I’m on different things, LinkedIn, Instagram, and then Facebook.
Lea’s social profiles
Christian: Lea, thanks a lot for your time. That was awesome.
Lea: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.