The woman who guided New Zealand to become world champions in underwater hockey is also playing her part in testing for Covid-19. Stella Mackrell, a competitive hockey player, talks to Rebecca Brosnan about giving back to the sport, and the country.
Rebecca Brosnan is used to guiding a New Zealand team of 10 at the bottom of a swimming pool. But she counts herself lucky to have been able to assist the country’s ‘team of five million’ in the fight against Covid-19.
As the regional laboratory manager for Medlab South, Brosnan willingly worked extra hours to help develop a molecular pathology department at the Nelson laboratory, which they didn’t have before the coronavirus outbreak back in March.
“We’ve now processed over 10,000 Covid tests on site in the Nelson lab, which is quite amazing,” she says.
And when she’s not doing her bit to help curb the pandemic, you’ll most likely find Brosnan at a pool – playing, coaching or supporting underwater hockey.
With her decades of experience as an international player and having coached the New Zealand women’s team to a world championship victory, Brosnan is fast becoming a legend of the sport.
She began playing underwater hockey at her local dive club in Blenheim when she was a Year 10 student. At the time it was a male-dominated sport, and at her club there were only two adult females playing. “I would have been the first schoolgirl to come into the club,” she says.
Within 12 months, they managed to scrape together a mixed schools’ team between the Marlborough Boys’ and Malborough Girls’ colleges that would compete in the open grade at the newly formed schools competition in Wellington.
“I think when you play underwater hockey, you either love it or it’s not for you. And those that love it and want to put the effort in to be at the top of the sport, just do that,” says Brosnan.
And she did exactly that. Between 1993 and 2002, Brosnan represented New Zealand at the Southern Hemisphere championships and the world championships seven times in total.
But it wasn’t until 2018, when she coached New Zealand’s elite women’s team at the world championships in Quebec, that she finally came away with a gold medal.
“We’ve always done well, but when I was playing we weren’t at the point we’re at now,” Brosnan says.
New Zealand currently holds five world championship titles – in the elite women and men, U24 women, and the U19 women and men. Brosnan attributes this success to our top schools league that many countries don’t have.
“They’re bringing in players when they’re older, whereas we’ve already taught our players the basic skills as they’ve come through the schools league” she says.
Last year, there were 787 secondary school underwater hockey players across the country, according to the New Zealand Secondary School Sport Council.
When the annual regional and national schools tournaments were cancelled during Level 4 lockdown, Underwater Hockey NZ came up with alternative one-off tournaments – one in the north, and one in the central and south of the country – to give teenage players some kind of competition this year. Then they were also canned.
Brosnan was “just as gutted” as her team, because the Jill Ford championships for the southern region was named after Brosnan’s role model during her teenage years.
Jill Ford was a vice-captain and a coach of the New Zealand women’s elite team during her underwater hockey career.
“Jill used to work for the Hillary Commission and she worked for women in sport and provided me with a lot of opportunities that, without, I probably would not have progressed like I did in my path of underwater hockey,” says Brosnan.
Today, it’s likely Brosnan is the role model of many up-and-coming female players in the sport.
“I’m quite passionate about trying to make sure we’ve got opportunities for women to stay in the sport longer,” she says. “I think there’s a percentage of female players who prefer not to play in mixed teams, that if we have women’s leagues, we will keep a higher player base of women.”
Brosnan also believes that its important to give female players at the peak of their careers the chance to play at the top level in mixed competitions.
“We’ve got women within our country who should be playing within that premier grade and if we said to them, ‘Sorry we’re going to split it, only men’s and women’s [underwater] hockey,’ then I don’t think that would be great for our sport either,” she says.
“We’re going in the right direction trying to ensure we’re growing our sport. We’re offering everyone opportunities no matter what their interest in the sport is, whether they want to be a social player that just turns up to play – or whether they want to play at the top level at worlds.”
Along with strong schools league in New Zealand, Brosnan also believes we have one of the best underwater hockey communities and level of play in the world.
Brosnan has played a massive role in re-establishing the underwater hockey community in Blenheim after the reopening of the Marlborough Lines Stadium pool. Its closure saw the disbandment of her former club.
Her son was in Year 6 at the time, and she knew if he chose to play underwater hockey, she would need to start him straight away. “We decided that if we wanted our kids to play in Blenheim, then we were going to have to be the driving force,” she says.
As someone who isn’t afraid to put in the hard yards to make things happen, Brosnan worked with her husband, Bruno, to grow the club. Sometimes she found it “really, really hard work, and you sort of just wanted a little bit of help,” she admits.
“But now they’ve got their own committee, they do it all themselves, and it’s got to the point where it will just keep ticking on over, which is great.”
By the time Brosnan’s son was in Year 10, his team came third at schools nationals – a huge accomplishment, she says.
Brosnan began her coaching career as a way to give back to the sport and help out where she could. “It’s also a way of still being part of that whole team environment, going through the hard times and enjoying the success with the team,” she says.
She finds coaching the New Zealand elite women satisfying, “because you’re coaching them to play perfect [underwater] hockey. It’s just beautiful to watch when a team just clicks and gets it 100 percent.”
Brosnan also enjoys coaching school teams. “You’re actually helping them start their career, and then one day, you hope that a few of those players you’ve coached at a school level are going to be in the elite team, because you’ve given them a solid grounding, you’ve inspired in them the passion to take their underwater hockey to that highest level,” she says.
From first-hand experience, Brosnan knows the women she coaches in the elite team give up a lot.
“It’s like any athlete, our top underwater hockey athletes put in probably the same hours as a lot of professional athletes and yet they have to earn a living and maintain a normal life at the same time,” she says. “And I think hats off to them for doing that.”
Brosnan hopes to see the sport continue to grow, and one of the best ways is through exposure. Underwater Hockey NZ has partnered with Sky Sport Next to film at three major tournaments in the country.
“It would be really awesome to be able to share our sport, and get others to come in and play,” says Brosnan. “We want to be seen as a sport where players are humble and inclusive and encouraging others.”
As someone who has dedicated a remarkable amount of time and effort towards the development of underwater hockey in New Zealand, and now towards our fight against coronavirus – it’s hats off to you too, Rebecca Brosnan.