Jennifer Pareja was a slip of a girl, shy, not much of a talker. Born in Olot, Girona, 29 years ago as a young girl she would climb into bed with her sister, Thais, during stormy nights, white as a sheet with fear. But she was transformed in swimming suit, goggles and cap.
"She was born to play water polo," says federation doctor Albert Estiarte. Pareja was named player of the tournament at the 2013 Fina World Aquatics Championships. She scored twice in the final of the water polo tournament as Spain's women defeated Australia 8-6 to lift a first world title.
A junior Catalonia champion swimmer with CN Olot, Pareja became bored with traveling alone with a coach and so she signed up for the water polo team. Pareja captained Spain at the 2012 Olympics, where the team won the silver medal, losing the final against the United States.
This time around, the USA was the victim in the quarterfinals, Spain winning 9-6. A final against a strong Russia side — the only team to beat Spain, in the group stage — appeared on the cards but Australia beat the triple-European champion by the same scoreline while Pareja and her colleagues mounted an incredible fourth-quarter comeback to edge part Hungary 13-12.
"She has such a bad temper you wouldn't believe it," says one Pareja's teammates. "It's all heart, pure heart. She'd kill for you." She also has an incredible arm that destroys opposing teams. "You never know where she is going to put the ball," says Roser Tarragó. Beforehand, she also had a weakness: it was easy to get her sent off. "I've learned to control myself," she stated before the final.
Spain coach Mikel Oca had no doubt about placing his faith in Pareja to lead the side. He says she is the perfect link between the generation of 2003, where it all began, and the current group of world champions. "She was a baby then, the smallest of them all," Oca recalls.
On Sunday night in the closing session in the pool, Mireia Belmonte added another silver to her personal haul for the championships to take Spain to its golden number — 12 — and beat the country's total in Rome, 2011, a key aim of the team in Barcelona. Belmonte finished just behind Katinka Hosszú of Hungary to claim silver in the 400m individual medley, adding to her bronze in the 200m of the same event and silver in the 200m butterfly.