Any time an athlete earns the right to represent his country, it means they’ve beat some long odds.
The odds that Abbotsford water polo star Robbie Fisher faced, though, were much longer than most.
“His teammates, most of them don’t know he has a potentially life-threatening blood disorder,” his mother Linda said. “He just doesn’t talk about it. But as his parent, I know what he goes through on a daily basis, and what he’s been through over the years. That’s what makes it so incredible.”
Fisher, a 17-year-old who recently graduated from Robert Bateman Secondary, was part of a 13-member Canadian team that participated in the FINA Junior Men’s Water Polo Championships in Volos, Greece in late August.
He helped Canada to a 3-4 record, good for 14th place, and scored a goal against Puerto Rico.
It’s an impressive accomplishment, in light of the fact that when Fisher was a young boy, his parents were told by a specialist that he should stay away from sports for the good of his health.
Fisher’s health problems began when his hair started falling out when he was three years old. The issue seemed to clear itself up over time, but when he was five, he collapsed one day at kindergarten.
Extensive bloodwork revealed a blood disorder which, to this day, isn’t completely diagnosed. A big part of the problem is neutropenia, which is characterized by a shortage of white blood cells, lowering the body’s resistance to infections.
The disorder manifested itself in various ways for Fisher – chronic nausea, chronic fatigue, bruising easily, sores in his mouth that made it difficult to eat.
One physician told Fisher’s parents, Scott and Linda, that playing sports could leave him overly exhausted, and potentially stunt his growth. Another doctor, though, said that if Robbie was passionate about sports, be cautious, but let him give it a try.
“I was just a kid, so I didn’t really have the full knowledge of what it was, so it didn’t really get to me,” Fisher explained. “It was probably more stressful for my parents.”
After doing plenty of research, Fisher’s parents let him proceed with playing water polo for the Abbotsford Whalers. Teammates weren’t allowed to share Robbie’s water bottle, due to his susceptibility to infection.
His mother helped him manage the disorder by ensuring his diet was high in protein and vitamins, and by making him stay home if she sensed he was tired.
“I’m careful, but I’m not one of those paranoid parents,” Linda said. “I’m one of those people where, if you want to do it and it’s not going to kill you, go for it. Life is too short.”
Fisher is managing his health and his athletic pursuits well these days, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some scary moments along the way. When he was in Grade 8, he had to stay home from school for two months after his white blood cell count dropped to a level comparable to that of a chemotherapy patient.
But as for the concerns about stunted growth, Fisher now stands 6’4″. He plays the hole check position, a defensive role which he calls “the roughest in the pool.”
“It’s fun,” he said with a grin. “It basically comes down to wrestling. Mobility, agility, you’ve got to have it all.”
Fisher drew the attention of the Canadian coaches at club nationals in Calgary in May, and was invited to centralize with national team hopefuls in Montreal for five weeks before heading off to Junior Worlds.
“It was crazy – water polo is way more popular out there than it is here,” Fisher said, reflecting on his time in Greece. “There were actually people sitting down to watch the games, and some of them were on TV, which I’d never seen before besides the Olympics.
“We played against Greece, and there were 2,000 people there watching. It was just insane. I couldn’t get my mind around it.”