Enveloped in heartache, Germany makes canoe polo history

The tears were real, and they flowed freely when the German men’s team broke through to win the 2018 ICF Canoe Polo World Championships in Welland, Canada, in August.

The emotions weren’t confined to the men’s team. There was barely a dry eye in the house, among a crowd who knew the journey the players had been on to get to the top of the podium.

On the eve of the 2018 World Championships, Fiete Junge, a popular member of the German men’s team, died from a sudden illness. He was just 26-years-old.

It devastated the international canoe polo community and left the German team distraught. How could they possibly go on? A team which had been dreaming of winning its first ever world title now faced an enormous challenge just to get on the plane for Canada.

But they re-grouped, dug deep and decided the show must go on – especially to honour the memory of their late teammate.

When they arrived in Welland, their equipment was waiting for them. Fiete Junge’s kayak and other equipment was there, packed before his death. It was yet another reminder for a team struggling to hold it all together.

Also hanging over their heads was their terrible record at the sport’s premiere event. In the 24-year history of the canoe polo world championships, Germany had never won the men’s competition. On five separate occasions they had finished runner-up.

It didn’t make sense, because the German men’s team has a cabinet full of shiny trophies. But the dust was thick in the space reserved for a world championship trophy.

So against all the odds, 2018 was the year it finally happened. The final never looked in any doubt, despite the flair and tenacity of the defending world champions, Italy. Flair and tenacity are wonderful attributes, but sheer emotion will win out on most days.

The Germans could run through a brick wall in the gold medal match. For the record, the final scoreline read 4-1 – although it’s doubtful many people remember the score.

“It’s a very emotional win for us,” German coach Bjorn Zirotzki said as he waved Junge’s vest to the crowd.

“All the circumstances, all the bad things that happened, it’s unbelievable that we were able to make it.

“We are not a team of superstars, we are a superstar team. The last time we met with Fiete we talked about how we wanted to be world champions. He would say all the time hey guys, let’s do this, so we did it for Fiete, we did it for us, we did it for the team.

“It’s unbelievable what these guys made, it’s unbelievable what has happened to us in the past couple of weeks. Normally it’s not possible to do it, but we did it.”

2018 ICF Canoe Polo World Championships Welland Canada Day 6

German captain Jonas Vieren said his team was under enormous pressure, after winning five silver medals, and also dealing with the emotional circumstances.

But he said those pressures also spurred the team on.

“We fought for this for several years,” he said.

“Finally we have won the World Championships. We had won all the other championships, but we could never win this one.

“With all the events before the championships, it’s a special and very emotional moment.

“It was a tough time before the championships, but the team came closer together. We just tried to play polo here, and paddle for him as well, and it was enough to win the world championships.

“And we won it for him.”


2018 ICF Canoe Polo World Championships Welland Canada Day 6

The victory for the German men’s team overshadowed yet another outstanding performance by their female teammates, who notched up a remarkable sixth world title.

In 13 world championships, the German women’s team has finished out of the medals only once. They didn’t have it all their own way against Great Britain in the 2018 final, but the 3-1 final result was a fitting scoreline.

“It’s been like this for as long as I’ve played, that’s just how it feels and it’s no different for us,” captain Elena Giles said.

“We have a coach who is a big thinker, and we talk about tactics. We have two or three very good players in defence, and I think we are forgiving for what is going wrong.

“We don’t focus on that too much, we’ve been taking on new, younger players on the team every year, and that allows us to develop them into our culture and into the game we are playing, and it’s been working really well.”

Germany also won the women’s U21 gold, their fourth in a row, but a clean sweep of the medals was prevented in the men’s U21, with Great Britain holding out the Germans in the final.

2018 magazine
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