If any Auckland water polo teams were short on players, they only had to look to the side of the pool.
Bernadette Doyle would be there, ready with her togs.
The youngster would turn up to the pool prepared, even when she wasn’t playing for any teams, just in case she could have the chance to fill in.
Her commitment to the sport even saw her trying to trick organisers at development camps.
“I would lie about my age so I could go with the older kids cause I wanted to learn and improve,” Doyle laughs.
“It was also really funny because I was so short, everybody knew I was too young.”
Even before she started playing water polo at the age of eight, she knew all the rules, watching her three older siblings in the pool.
“I used to go on trips watching them, I loved it and I wanted to play,” says Doyle, known as Bernie to her friends.
Now 22, Doyle is one of the most experienced players in the New Zealand team, making her senior debut in 2017.
The New Zealand women’s team have just qualified for the FINA Women’s Water Polo World Cup super final, to be held in California in June. It will be the team’s first time competing in the event in 13 years.
They went through their Division Two World Cup matches in Berlin in May undefeated to qualify for the finals, where they’ll meet seven of the world’s top teams. Doyle was named most valuable player for their 12-6 win over Germany, scoring four goals.
“It’s a big milestone to play against these big teams again, because we have all been training really hard and we do want to be competitive against these teams and see where we’re at,” says Doyle.
New Zealand are not in the top 20 of the world rankings at the moment, partly due to a lack of competition during Covid, while the country was still in lockdown with heavy travel restrictions.
“Usually we don’t get any of these kinds of games before world champs, because these teams, they kind-of do their own separate tournaments that New Zealand is not usually included in,” Doyle explains. NZ is going up against the top three ranked teams at the World Cup – Hungary, the United States and Spain.
“So it’s a really big opportunity and I think we’re all really excited to do our best and show how hard we’ve been working.”
“If we don’t achieve the scores or the results we want, at least we get the opportunity to play these teams, work on what we need to before we go to that world champs.”
No New Zealand water polo team has ever qualified for an Olympic Games, with the sport being contested for men at the Games since 1900, and women since 2000.
Doyle says making an Olympic Games is not only a huge personal goal, but also something the team has been working towards.
“It’s definitely a really big goal for a lot of us in the squad, we really want to get there,” she says, the closest being Paris in 2024.
The number of Kiwi water polo players going overseas has risen in the past few years, with a handful in Europe and dozens in the US.
Now home in Auckland for a short stay before heading to the World Cup in the US, Doyle believes the standard of water polo in New Zealand has increased exponentially, partly thanks to the opportunities available for players to train overseas, but also due to the options at home.
“Even when I look back at when I was in school, so five years ago now, there was only one premier water polo team,” she says.
“But now there’s six or seven senior teams, which is crazy – it’s crazy to me that there’s that growth.”
Doyle played water polo in Hawaii after leaving school, at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.
“That was a last minute decision for me, usually it happens when I see lots of girls in our national programme continuing to improve that I don’t want to miss out,” Doyle says, her competitive nature and drive to be the best inspiring the move.
She’s looking for a club to play for overseas, having spent time playing in Greece lately, but she’s still a big team player when it comes to representing New Zealand.
“You don’t want to go unless it’s going to be something that helps you improve to help the team, so you just have to be careful what clubs you do sign to.”
The New Zealand women’s water polo team after qualifying for the World Cup finals.
Doyle was an athletically talented child, playing all the sports she could, including competitive swimming since she was six.
Around Year 7, she started to take water polo more seriously, trying out for New Zealand age groups well above her age.
“I think at one stage, having all these sports helped me a lot. I did gymnastics for a little bit, even that helped me, just with my core strength and that kind of stuff, but it did get to a point when I was way too busy,” Doyle says.
“One of the coaches had said to somebody I know, ‘Oh we don’t want to pick her because we think she’s going to go off and do triathlon or something’. That’s when I had in my head, okay, I’m not going to stop doing all my other sports but I’m going to make sure I’m focusing on playing water polo and showing that I’m committed to it.”
Doyle has played at North Harbour Water Polo Club for 15 years, and moved from Westlake Girls High School to St Cuthbert’s College when she was in Year 11.
The move to the private school meant training for water polo became a lot easier, with Doyle training in the pool every day, sometimes even multiple times a day.
Doyle had to return home from Hawaii when Covid hit, after doing three semesters of an animation course – which was hard to do online. She transferred her degree to New Zealand, and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and Photo Media.
She managed to finish her degree by November last year, so she could play in Greece for the NO Patras team, who compete in the A1 Ethniki league, the highest professional water polo league in Greece.
“It was a half season but I just really wanted to make sure I got those games in for all our tournaments coming up,” explains Doyle.
“It’s getting quite competitive in our squad, so I didn’t want to slack behind with lots of the other girls.”
She met up with her teammates in Germany in May for the Division Two World Cup games, only for a short time before they all went their separate ways again.
“We didn’t do anything other than train, eat and play the games,” says Doyle.
“But it was really just fun being around people who had the same goal as you, just hearing about their experiences overseas in the teams they’re playing. Just being with a group of girls that care for you but also care for the programme was really fun.”
Doyle was a bit nervous to compete, feeling a little unprepared due to the lack of international games over the past few years.
“You’re isolated and you don’t know how your training is paying off, because you’re playing in a different league…you work as hard as you possibly can, but you don’t know if it’s the right level,” she explains.
“So I think there were quite a few girls in Europe who knew they’d been training hard but were just nervous to come back into the squad and see how we perform together without a lot of training together.”
Doyle says the team is like a family, with a lot of the athletes having played together since they were 11, growing a strong team culture.
Bernadette being the fourth of five Doyle siblings, one goal is getting that team to the Paris Olympics, another is to play alongside younger sister Gabrielle in the New Zealand senior team.
*The Women’s Water Polo World Cup super final begins on June 23 in California, as New Zealand take on the Netherlands in their quarterfinal.