Emmerson Houghton is a role model in self-motivation.
As a teenager, she would spend hours on her own in a pool in Hamilton, training to become a great water polo player.
A lot of the country’s top water polo teams are based in schools in Auckland, and it’s more frequently played by students at private schools, who have the facilities for deep-water training.
So, in her last three years at Hamilton’s Hillcrest High School, Houghton would travel up to Auckland once or twice a week to play games or go to weekend camps, before making the New Zealand women’s team while she was still in Year 13.
Her commitment and dedication impressed many, including New Zealand women’s coach, and former Great Britain water polo player, Angie Winstanley-Smith.
“It’s unbelievable what she can do when she’s on her own, that self-driven motivation she has,” the coach says.
“Can you imagine getting in the pool on your own and being able to deliver an hour session, probably at a higher intensity than some of the athletes who are doing it together? It’s a pretty special attribute to have.
“She’s a fantastic role model to everyone around her.”
Humble and friendly out of the pool, Houghton has a powerful, accurate shot, and stood out to Winstanley-Smith the very first time she saw her play. Winstanley-Smith was coaching the Auckland Diocesan team up against Hillcrest High, who were coached by Houghton’s dad, Michael.
“I actually put three defenders on her every time she got the ball – three defenders – because she was just so talented, outrageously talented,” laughs Winstanley-Smith.
Now 22, Houghton is one of the country’s best players. She played her way into the New Zealand juniors in 2016, and earned a contract with a top club in Greece.
Since first making the New Zealand senior women’s team in 2018, she’s become a leading goal scorer and one of the most experienced players in the side, who are working towards a place at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
She’s proven quality players can come from anywhere in New Zealand.
“I think it’s really cool for water polo in this country – if you do want to do it, and you’ve got the motivation, look what you can achieve,” says Winstanley-Smith.
About to head off to next month’s world championships in Hungary, Houghton now lives in Auckland, which has given her more opportunities to train with her teammates. She’s often in the pool at 6am so everyone can go to work or study after training.
She’s studying fashion design at Whitecliffe College – but it wasn’t that long ago she was living and breathing water polo on the other side of the world.
Houghton was scouted by the Greek Ethnikos Piraeus club, straight after her performances in the New Zealand women’s team at the 2019 world champs in South Korea.
“I was training eight or nine times a week and playing games and training a lot. And that was about it – just playing and training,” she says.
“They provided the accommodation and the food. It was so good, I loved the lifestyle.”
After a brief trip home for Christmas that year, Houghton spent three more months playing for Ethnikos before Covid halted the league and she returned to New Zealand.
“It’s way more intense over there…the two top teams had the national team split, so you’re playing the best players in Greece which is really cool,” she says.
When Houghton returned home, she was unable to train properly due to lockdown, so she played with her siblings in the family’s backyard pool.
Houghton is the fifth of six kids, and began swimming at the age of four, moving into flippa ball at six, and then to water polo a few years later. Her older brother, Brook, had played from a young age, and older sister, Brogan, joined in too. Their dad, Michael, became involved as coach after watching his kids play.
While back at home during lockdown, Houghton added a new skill to her repertoire. Making a quilt with mum Denise, Houghton became more interested in sewing – which is why she moved to Auckland this year to study design at Whitecliffe.
Houghton (top left) and her current club team, Marist Magic.
The chance for Houghton to hone her water polo craft overseas was largely thanks to Winstanley-Smith. The senior women’s coach since 2017, she’s been the huge driving force for the senior women’s programme.
“Angie spends hours planning our training, finding pool space and making it fit around everyone’s schedules as best as possible while managing players in New Zealand and overseas,” Houghton says, pointing out that sometimes Winstanley-Smith will be the only woman coaching at a tournament.
Thanks to funding from High Performance Sport New Zealand, New Zealand Water Polo has high aspirations for their women’s team at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Houghton says the team is definitely heading in the right direction, despite a lack of international competition in the last three years.
“At the moment, we have a plan for the next three or four years for our trainings, so I think that’s really good and really positive for everyone. It keeps everyone consistent and knowing what’s going on,” she says.
The team trains in the pool, swimming and deep pool trainings (skills and game drills) up to five times a week, and have recently added gym sessions to their training.
Funding from HPSNZ has helped the NZ women’s water polo team aim for international success.
The New Zealand women depart soon for the world champs in Hungary, which start on June 20. Their last global tournament was in South Korea in 2019, where the team finished 12th, and a large majority of that youthful side have remained in the team.
“We’ve had the increase in training volume here together as a group and then the added maturity of myself and the girls makes it a really exciting time,” says Winstanley-Smith.
“I can’t wait to go play some games because I think we’re going to be a really hard team to beat.”
Houghton, who’s been playing for Marist (on loan from Waitakere) in the national water polo league, can’t wait to be back competing on the international stage again, having played in multiple youth, junior and senior competitions overseas.
“All the hard trainings you do to get there – the early mornings, the late night trainings – make it all worth it. When you get over there, it’s like this is so cool, you love it,” she says.
“I think we’re all just excited to get over there and see where we’re at, cause we’ve been training pretty full-on at the moment.
“We’re probably the fittest we’ve been in a long time, so it will be a good gauge to see where we are in the world. I think we’re all just excited to get over there and actually play international games at that level.”
Coach Winstanley-Smith agrees, saying the team is really eager for the tournament.
“We really want to change water polo forever in this country. As a group of young women, that’s our mission,” she says.
“So if we can go out there and start getting some serious reps against the top teams and start getting noticed, then we can improve the game here for those hundreds of little kids that turn up on Friday at leagues around the country.
“That’s really our motivation, to make changes and be out there doing it and not being afraid to try.”