Kiwi water polo women driving towards history

New Zealand has never had a waterpolo team at an Olympic Games, but the national women's side have their best chance yet to make it, for Tokyo. *WATCH THE VIDEO ABOVE

Water polo is often seen as an affluent sport.

And standing on the side of the Diocesan School for Girls’ sustainably-designed, two-metre deep pool - with its eight lanes and acoustic panelling - it’s hard to argue against it.

But those in the pool want to ensure it's not just for the wealthy.

As the New Zealand women’s water polo team look to qualify for this year’s Tokyo Olympics, they’re also hoping to pave the way for more people to play the sport.

“User pays is definitely a hindrance for us,” says goalkeeper and captain Jess Milicich.

“I’ve been super fortunate that my parents are so supportive of me and as I’ve gotten older that’s been helpful. But I think we are at a stage now where if we continue to perform, it will get easier for us to get funding.”

Women’s water polo was only added to the Olympics in 2000 - although men’s water polo made its debut at the Paris Games, 100 years earlier (among the first team sports added to the Olympics).

Neither a New Zealand men’s nor women’s side has ever qualified for the Games, but this year could be their best opportunity.

The women's competition has been expanded from eight to 10 teams, and while powerhouses like Italy, Hungary and the Netherlands will be gunning for the final two spots for Tokyo, the Kiwis have the added drive of trying to make history.

“Growing up, New Zealand wasn't on the scene for the Olympics,” says Katie McKenty, a driver who creates scoring opportunities. “But then in this last four or five years, it's become a reality.”

McKenty and Milicich are both part of the 13-strong team who will pay their own way to get to the qualifiers in Trieste, Italy, next month.

New Zealand’s head coach, Angie Winstanley-Smith, says all the of girls have made huge sacrifices – personal and financial – to make the trip.

"So we will be 100 percent behind each other. I am pretty excited," she says.

“We made the decision at some point in the last 18 months that we were just going to get our heads down and train. Establishing a solid programme without funding to start with is what we’ve successfully done. And I guess now we are at the stage where we’re looking to fine tune everything so we can reach out to potential sponsors.”

Emmerson Houghton (right) is part of the NZ team to play at the Olympic qualifying tournament next month: Photo: Getty Images

All the team are on board with the plan and the tough training schedule that comes with it.

At 5.45am every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, you can find the team in the pool before they head off to their full-time jobs or study. They’ll be back in the water another three times during the week to train with their own clubs and they must also fit in three gym sessions.

Then there are games every other weekend.

“If we qualify, hopefully we can pick up some funding along the way,” McKenty says. “If we go to the Olympics that’s just getting us on the world stage and if we can continue to get on the world stage, that means more games."

Which means more visibility.

“I think it’s one of those conversations that every sport will have, and any business, to be honest. We need results to get the money and we need money to get the results,” says Winstanley-Smith.

New Zealand Water Polo says the sport is developing nicely, with 93 percent of participation at a junior level and the majority women.

That’s largely thanks to Flipper Ball, an entry-level game played in the shallow end of a pool.

“Sunday's here are crazy. You come down and there are kids playing this sport and loving it and parents are engaged,” Winstanley-Smith says.

But as the children progress to water polo, the facilities become fewer and far between. Rules dictate that you can't touch the bottom of the pool, which means they need to be at least 2m deep, severely limiting training options.

"I feel for the girls that have to fly up [to Auckland] for all our training camps,” McKenty says. “But there’s been growth in the other cities and I know they are working on it in Wellington. Christchurch use to have a really good facility, but not anymore after the earthquakes. They are starting to rebuild and regrow though.”

Milicich, who led the team to seventh at a World Cup and 12th at last year’s FINA world championships, admits the team have their monetary challenges.

"I was always torn between netball and water polo, and obviously from a financial perspective it's always a lot harder [playing water polo]. But I think we have a really good programme, especially for the women now moving forward and I think we definitely have opportunities,” she says.

Gabby Milicich has come from the NZ junior women's team to make a bid for the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: Getty Images. 

Winstanley-Smith’s programme is now so ingrained, that even with nine of her senior team based overseas on scholarships, they still know the style the team will play when they get the opportunity to all come together.

"Essentially anyone in the whole women's programme, from 15 to senior, can fit into our team - our structures, our mould and what we are trying to establish together," she says.

McKenty spent four years in the American college system at Hartwick College in New York and says the experience was invaluable. Not only was she able to train every day in state-of-the-art facilities, but she walked away with an undergraduate degree in geology and physics, leading her to a career as a geo-tech engineer back in Auckland.

Milicich, 24, also has plans to take her water polo talents offshore.

"We have a few people on professional contracts, which is the way to go forward,” she says. “If we can keep outsourcing and all come together and play for New Zealand, we are just going to continue to improve.”

She’s just completed her degree in sports and recreation, exercise science and sports management, and is working as a finance executive in Auckland.  “The long-term goal for me was to finish my degree and go over, but I am looking at playing in the next European season after this New Zealand cycle."

For now, her sights are set firmly on Tokyo and pushing her team to be the best they can - including younger sister Gabby.

"Gabby came to world league with me last year, but to be named in this team alongside her is just the best bonus,” Jess Milicich says. “She's been working really hard and, I think for my parents especially, we were really, really hoping that we would both make it."

It's the sort of mentoring Winstanley-Smith wants to install in her team. As the only female head coach at last year's world championships in Gwangju, South Korea, she's keen to make sure young girls know that sport can be both a lifestyle choice and a career.

"We are passionate about water polo at the top end, but at the same time we are incredibly passionate about getting kids in the water. There are all types of benefits around water safety, and getting young women to put themselves out there in togs on a poolside is so vital,” she says.

“All of those elements are in our programme and I think it’s really important to continue to drive that and be really positive in that environment.”

Having been part of the first-ever British water polo team to make it to the Olympics back in 2012, Winstanley-Smith knows exactly how it feels to make a splash.

"I think as society changes, we are going to see a lot more women moving around in the coaching ranks. We see a lot more women in leadership positions in other forms of life, so I think sport will follow suit and I know New Zealand have some fantastic initiatives for women in sport.”

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