‘Not born for the land’, the teen daughter of an All Black great is forging her own sports career in the pool. Jim Kayes reports.
One of her teammates swims slow laps, while the others are poolside. Training’s over, and they collect their bags and head to the showers.
Morgan McDowall, though, swims to the goal to collect the three balls she’s been using, drifts back out, turns and shoots.
Surging up and out of the water, she fires the ball at the goal. The first one hits a post; she catches the rebound and shoots again.
The second bounces off the water and into the back of the net. The third is a rocket.
She swims into the goal, collects the balls and repeats the process, until her coach, Angie Winstanley-Smith, tells her she has to get out. Another team needs to use the pool.
The teenager scowls slightly, then levers herself out. A fish returning to land.
McDowall, who turned 16 last month, is the youngest in the New Zealand team at waterpolo’s World League Intercontinental Cup being played at Auckland’s National Aquatic Centre. A Year 11 student at Diocesan School, one of McDowall’s teachers, Nicole Lewis, is also her team-mate.
But she is a prodigious talent. Tall and strong for her age, confident in her abilities and slowly getting to grips with the mental and emotional side of her game, she is on track to be one of the best.
“She is a phenomenal talent,” says Winstanley-Smith, a British Olympian who played professionally in Europe before coming to New Zealand. “In terms of raw talent, Morgan is up there with the very best internationally.”
That’s not a surprise. McDowall’s father, Steve, was a World Cup-winning All Black in 1987 and would have represented New Zealand in judo at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow if New Zealand hadn’t joined the US-led boycott after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
Her mum, Michelle, was a good netballer, a sport Morgan excelled at too. She’s been good at most sports since she could catch a ball, but was frustrated by netball’s limitations. “Only two people can score!” she says.
She enjoyed touch and tag rugby, but was never going to play the real thing. “I was too scared,” she says with a giggle. “I’m more of a water baby. I wasn’t born for the land.”
But she’s proud to be following in her father’s international footsteps.
McDowall scored twice on debut against Japan in New Zealand’s first game of the tournament. She smiles the shy smile of a young teenager as she reflects on that first goal. It was, she says, “just awesome”.
But the second game against Canada ended badly. Whacked in the throat, she was forced from the pool in the fourth quarter, struggling to breathe. Welcome to senior international water polo.
“She’s a physical player,” Winstanley-Smith says. “She probably has a bit of her Dad’s edge there and she gives it and gets a bit back.”
McDowall is still sore the next day, but she understands that’s the nature of a sport some describe as ‘rugby in the water’.
Besides, she is enjoying herself too much to worry about injuries. “Half the girls here are Olympians and it’s so cool to play against them. I’m learning heaps from my own team, too,” she says.
As talented as McDowall is, her emotions can let her down. Her competitive drive can spill over. She knows that and she’s working on it with her dad, who is up in the stands every day. But it’s something that needs to be controlled, not squashed.
Winstanley-Smith first saw McDowall as a 12-year-old playing for the fledgling Hibiscus Coast club. She had been excluded from the pool – out for 20 seconds after a foul – and was far from happy.
“She had a passion and an insane competitive edge that I’d never seen in a 12 year-old before,” her coach recalls.
Like many top athletes, McDowall is a blend of shyness and a desire to perform on the biggest stages; to fly under the radar, yet shoot for the stars.
“She is very introverted outside the pool,” Winstanley-Smith says. “But in the pool she’s an extrovert. She’s like ‘give me the ball, let me shoot, just give me the ball’.”
McDowall’s face lights up when those words are repeated back to her. “It’s a great feeling, scoring goals. It’s just so cool.”
While quietly spoken, McDowall has big aspirations and isn’t shy about sharing them. She wants to play in Europe and make a career of the sport she loves.
And like Tauranga’s Rebecca Parkes, who plays for Hungary, and Joe Kayes, the Kiwi in the Australian men’s team in Auckland who switched allegiances in time for the Rio Olympics, McDowall knows she too may have to swim away from the silver fern.
“I’ve definitely been thinking about it. It is going to be hard for New Zealand to make the Olympics. I think we can, but I have been looking at playing for Spain or Australia.”
Then she pauses, before cutting to the chase: “I just want to play water polo.”