Never too late to realise your dreams and earn a gold medal

Masters water polo Gold medal winner Gary Payne (centre) with fellow world champions Terry Mulligan (left) and Harry Neesham

DREAMS don’t have to fade away just because you get a few extra grey hairs.

Just ask Gary Payne.

He’s been playing water polo for 55 years; since he was a 15-year-old splashing around in the Swan River in Guildford.

And last year he finally reached the top of the sport he has dedicated so much of his life to, when he was a part of the gold medal winning team at the FINA World Masters Championships in Budapest, Hungary.

It was the inaugural competition in the 70-plus age group and the Perth Cockatoos pinched a last-minute six-five win against the highly fancied Blue Thunder from the US.

The Cockatoos may have had four-times Olympian and water polo icon Tom Hoad in their team, but the Blue Thunder team was full of Olympians and world champs.

And now Gary and his teammates are world champions themselves.

It was the chance to win as a team that got Payne involved in the sport from the beginning.

“I started as a swimmer, but if I was going to make a final, I was happy,” he said.

“I was never going to win a gold medal or go to the Olympic Games.

“A water polo coach from Hungary was hanging around looking for young blokes. He looked at me and the size of my hands and said ‘you’re big enough’.

“I liked the idea of 11 people winning gold medals together, not just one.”

Gary’s early playing career was far from disgraceful. He made the state side – as A reserve, not in the starting seven.

He played A-Grade for a decade, won a few state championships, but could never crack it in to the national team.

Then he switched to refereeing.

Gary’s time in the sport – in the pool, on the sidelines, in committee rooms and wherever else he has had his hands assisting has seen him recognised on many honour boards.

He’s hardly diverted his attention elsewhere. He had a crack at rugby league when he was younger only to have his nose straightened out a few times. And work at Barrow Island dragged him away from the pool for a while also.

But at 70 years of age, he is still going strong – and with that gold medal finally around his neck.

The local Perth water polo competition for seniors is also going strong. It has four divisions, with around 100 men and women playing.

The Cockatoos are an amalgamation of players from a number of clubs who spend each week kicking and belting one another – but then joined forces for the greater good.

And they worked hard together to get the result.

“Before the World Championships we trained six days a week. For six months prior, it was four days a week,” Gary said.

“We practiced against the younger guys – the 60 and 65-year-olds – who kept us on our toes.

“We had to maintain our fitness. We have a couple of good coaches and we kept learning. You should never stop learning in any game you play.

“Now, the grandkids hate me because I have a gold medal.”

Gary says the low-profile Olympic sport of water polo is still attracting new players, even up to and beyond the age of 50.

“People get bored swimming up and down the pool,” he said.

There are many rugby and Australian Rules players who like to play for fitness during the off-season also.

He says that anyone who can swim can be taught how to play water polo, and they don’t need to be super quick either.

But anyone coming to the sport, even in their older years, should be prepared for a little argy-bargy.

“Yeah, that still happens,” Gary said. “But as you get older, you don’t mend so quickly, so you don’t give out as much as you’re gonna get back. There’s a little bit of holding bathers and holding arms.

“We’re not as strong and not as fit. But you don’t get damaged, like ligaments and knee joints.”

So if that doesn’t sound too bad, it might not be too late for you to become a world champion, just like Gary is.

Contact Water Polo Western Australia – Visit, call 9387 7555 or email