Mataafa with water polo team in Italy

‘I instantly knew this was the team I wanted to play for.’ – Gina-Bella Mataafa

Plenty has changed over the last few years for Gina-Bella Mataafa.

Many of her goals are still the same, though.

The 23-year-old Lahainaluna High School graduate is playing water polo in Imperia, Italy, and just like when she was with the Lunas and competing collegiately on the Mainland and in Britain, her focus is on winning — and perhaps getting to the sport’s biggest stage.

“I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason,” Mataafa said last week in an email.

Mataafa, who made her debut for Imperia on Sunday in a 15-9 win over Locatelli, played four years at Notre Dame College in Ohio, then for a year at England’s Durham University while getting a master’s degree in international management. It was after that final season that she was contacted by a sports agency called Palombella, which recruits players for professional teams in Italy.

Palombella “flew me out to Italy from Hawaii in December to tryout with different teams until I found one that I liked,” Mataafa said.

“The second team I went to was Imperia and I instantly knew this was the team I wanted to play for so I stayed,” she said. “Imperia is a small beach town and reminded me so much of my home town Lahaina. I really liked the way I played with the team we had great chemistry and I think that is the most important thing when you’re starting out. I also liked the training facilities and the community is very welcoming and also very proud of their sports teams. Lastly the thing that sold me was that my apartment is just a 5 minute walk to the beach.”

Mataafa signed a contract that runs to June. Imperia was relegated last year from Italy’s top division to the second tier, and Mataafa said her first objective is to help the team win the title in the A2 league to return to the premier level.

“I think the language barrier is the hardest part but I’ve been playing water polo for 10 years now so I’ve been pretty quick on picking up what needs to be done in the pool,” she said.

Mataafa also might not be finished having the sport take her around the globe.

“Since I was a little girl I always had this dream to become a professional soccer player and win an Olympic gold medal. The only thing that has changed now is that I’m not a soccer player and its more of a goal than a dream,” said Mataafa, who has some Italian heritage and could seek to play for that country in the Games.

“I thought I was done with my water polo career after my undergrad season at Notre Dame College but towards the end I didn’t get a chance to accomplish all my goals that I wanted to,” she said. “I guess that ended up being a blessing in disguise because it motivated me to continue on this path.”

* Brad Sherman is at