Kiwi Rebecca Parkes is a superstar in Hungary, and a newly-minted Olympic medallist in water polo. She tells Gael Paton why she had to leave home to follow her dream.
How does a girl from Mt Maunganui find herself playing water polo for Hungary, winning an Olympic bronze medal and making the Olympic All-Stars team?
Rebecca Parkes, back at home in New Zealand on holiday, laughs when I ask her the question, then tells me, in her newly-acquired Hungarian-Kiwi accent, about the incredible journey she’s been on for almost two decades.
And the 24-hour decision that changed her life.
Parkes got her first taste of the sport playing flippa ball (a precursor to water polo) in Papamoa. She initially played basketball, but after an injury, she decided to switch to water polo.
At 11, she made her debut representing Tauranga in an U12 competition and was offered a spot in the A team if she’d play goalie. Her willingness to make sacrifices has continued throughout her career.
Moving through the age groups while she was at Mt Maunganui College, it became apparent to Parkes if she wanted to progress further in the sport, she’d need to transfer to a school with a water polo programme.
Parkes made the move to Auckland’s Rangitoto College, where water polo is considered a premier sport. She joined the school’s senior women’s team coached by Michael Buck, who’s also the fiancé of Olympic gold medallist paddler, Lisa Carrington.
During these years, Parkes played her way into the North Harbour senior women’s team, and represented New Zealand at U18 level.
Buck describes Parkes as “incredibly fast, strong and skilled from a young age, and also naturally tenacious and competitive”. Before moving to Auckland, Parkes had already developed a wide range of skills and very good fitness from playing every minute she could in every position.
“She was a great listener and had a strong desire to improve, which made coaching her easy and enjoyable,” Buck says.
Parkes’ water polo career took a major switch in direction in 2013, when she was playing for New Zealand at the junior water polo world championships in Greece. At that time, the head coach of the New Zealand women’s programme was Attila Bíró, who’d had a 16-year professional water polo career in Hungary.
On the last day of world champs, Bíró spoke to Parkes about an opportunity to play professionally in Hungary for a club in Eger, but she only had 24 hours to decide if it was something she wanted to do.
“To be asked liked that was exciting, but also nerve-wracking,” she says, “Up until then I’d been thinking about going to university in Hawaii to see where that took my water polo career.”
But there she was, miles from home, away from family, being asked to make a life-changing decision.
So, the following year, at the age of 20, Parkes relocated to Hungary to take up a professional contract with Egri VK in Eger for three years. She then transferred to the USVE Water Polo Club in Budapest.
She became a Hungarian citizen in 2016, paving the way to be selected in the Hungarian women’s team. By then, Bíró had returned to Hungary to be head coach of the women’s programme there.
“Bex really connected to the Hungarian style of play when we toured there twice with the New Zealand age group teams, Buck says. “She’d always wanted to get to the highest possible level in water polo and her move to pursue this in a foreign country with a difficult language showed a lot of courage.”
Parkes has been settled in Hungary for the last seven years. She says living there has been easy for her and her Kiwi partner, Campbell, who moved there to be with her. “Life is simple,” she says. “I live and train without any problems. Hungarian people are passionate and proud people who love water polo.”
In fact, water polo is the national sport of Hungary. The historic ’Blood in the Water’ match between the Soviet Union and Hungarian men at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, at the height of the Cold War, reflected the struggles between the two countries. Blood spilled in the pool that day in a brutal semi-final won by Hungary, who went on to win gold – a victory regarded as a symbol for Hungary’s national pride.
Parkes describes the homecoming after these latest Olympics as epic. “Everyone was invited to meet and greet the team and celebrate the victory, and it went on for days.”
In the lead-up to this year’s Tokyo Games, the Hungarian women were tracking successfully. They’d won a bronze medal in the European championships, and silver at the 2021 World League super final in Athens, defeated only by the United States.
Their focus was on a medal at the Olympics, after finishing fourth at the last three Olympic Games.
They made their way through the pool rounds smoothly – drawing with Russia, and beating Japan and eventual gold medallists, the US, 10-9 (where Parkes scored a hat-trick). Although they narrowly lost to China, it was enough to see them through to the quarterfinals, where they beat the Netherlands, 14-11.
In the semifinal, Hungary lost to eventual silver medallists, Spain, 6-8, but went on to win the bronze medal match over the Russian Olympic Committee team, 11-9.
It was a dream come true for Parkes, only the second New Zealand woman to compete at the Olympics in water polo, after Francesca Snell played for Great Britain in London 2012.
To top it all off, Parkes was named in the Olympics media All-Stars women’s team – acknowledging she’s one of the best centre-forwards in the world.
Parkes says when she heard the news she’d made the team, it was “breath-taking… I can’t even describe how it felt. I got an injury in the quarterfinal and was afraid it would impact my performance in the semi and the final.
“I couldn’t believe that I had made the All-Stars team because it was so hard to play with the injury in those last two games.
“After we won bronze, my first thoughts were of Campbell waiting for me in Hungary, my family in New Zealand and my sister in China. I knew they were all with me through every match and would be screaming like crazy at their screens while they were watching.”
Buck was thrilled for Parkes and her family. “Water polo is one of the top sports in Hungary and only the very best can make it. So to win an Olympic bronze and be named centre-forward of the tournament is an incredible achievement,” he says.
The proof of her determination to succeed was in the bronze medal around her neck, as she stood proudly on the podium with her team-mates. The sacrifices she’s made have all been worthwhile, Parkes says, and the decision to move to Hungary was a good one – cementing her place as a world-class water polo player.
In a couple of months, Parkes will head to Greece to play for the Ethnikos Piraeus club and begin another chapter in her journey. As a proud Kiwi, she’s missed the beach so much living in land-locked Hungary, and believes the move to Piraeus, a port city within Greater Athens, would be a good change for her.
But she will return to Hungary to compete internationally. The country is her home away from home, and it’s obvious she has a bond with the people and their love of the sport.
While she’s home, and as soon as Auckland is out of lockdown, she plans to lead some training sessions with youngsters starting out in water polo.
“I’d like to think that water polo could become a sport that more people could play here in New Zealand. But it’s expensive and we are so far away from other countries; it makes it hard to participate in competitions,” she says.
Parkes hopes her story will inspire budding athletes to work hard and take opportunities to play overseas. She’s proof of the benefits of making sacrifices to achieve dreams.