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Back You are here: Home Sports Waterpolo Eastern Cape Cayley Tonkin - Passion Personified
Saturday, 10 October 2009 09:50

Cayley Tonkin - Passion Personified

If you were to look back at South African national sports teams since the post-isolation era you would find with almost certain regularity that they shared one thing in common. Hell, if you had to look at national teams around the world you would find a similar trend since professionalism began to boom. The common denominator being that in almost every instance each member of the team had already finished school.

To make a national sports team whilst still in school is something that is exceptional. Sure there have been many instances where people have excelled in individual sports before ending school. Borris Bekker won Wimbledon at the age of 17 whilst Rafa Nadal was also a force on the tennis court whilst he should have been sitting in a mathematics class. However to make it into a national team whilst still in school is that much more of a rare feat. Where in individual sports you can prove you are better then somebody by simply beating them, it takes a lot more to persuade the selectors and the coach that before the age of 18 you have the maturity, skill and discipline to compete amongst adults.

How do you know that a boy or girl competing week in and week out with other school kids has the talent to now suddenly compete with the best adult players in the world? It requires you to stand out so far above the rest. To gage how special a talent it requires to break into a national team whilst still in school then you need to look no further then Sachin Tendulkar. He did it when he made his test debut at the age of 16 and has now become one of the finest batsmen to grace a cricket field. He is one of only a few examples that have achieved this extraordinary feat.

The latest inductee into this elite group of athletes is water polo sensation Cayley Tonkin. At only the age of 17 she was recently selected to play for the South African women's senior team in a tournament in Spain. Water polo in South Africa is still very much considered an amateur sport as realistically you can't make a living from it by playing in South Africa. The funding and resources at player's disposals are also extremely poor. Despite this, the achievements of Cayley are still incredible. Water polo is after all the fastest growing school sport in the country and competition is becoming much fiercer.

Cayley the All- rounder

Cayley hails from Cape Town where she attended Reddam before becoming a boarder at DSG (The Diocesan School for Girls) in Grahamstown in Grade 8. Her leadership skills have not just been in the pool as she became Deputy Head girl this year despite being only 17 and a year young for her grade. Cayley has had vast success in school sport throughout her school career. She has played at first team level for many years in netball and hockey where she represented Eastern Province and explains that by playing other sports it has meant that she hasn't become bored with water polo. Many talented school kids often concentrate solely on one sport at school which leads them to often becoming disinterested in the sport after school.

It has however been in water polo where she has really excelled. After beginning as a swimmer where she represented Western Province as a junior, it was the lonely hours training in the pool that ultimately got her interested in a team sport which still involved her love for swimming. She adds how she loves being a team player and thrives in a team environment and thus took an immediate liking to the sport when Reddam started to offer it. Reddam is associated with its constant success in water polo and Cayley feels proud that she got chance to represent them.

For Cayley getting involved in some form of swimming was the obvious choice. Many great athletes follow in the footsteps of a family member and for her it was no exception. Her Gran was well known in South African swimming and diving circles and her brother represented Border at water polo during school. Sadly the most influential person in her water polo career being her Gran past away last year and would never see Cayley playing internationally. Her Gran never missed a tournament that Cayley played in and now her memory serves as a major motivation when in the pool.

Having such a stalwart captaining your school side has meant that DSG is experiencing their most successful water polo season since Cayley has been there. DSG has lost only to Claredon from East London on four separate occasions in four tournament finals. Although bitterly disappointed, Cayley gives credit to Claredon whom she says have a brilliant side this year. Her commitment to her school team resulted in her receiving water polo honors, an extreme rarity at DSG

You get the sense that when speaking to this talented individual that she was destined for the big stage. Her confident tone speaks out of a girl that has achieved everything she can at school level. There is little to doubt this, her resume speaks for itself. Captain of her school side after playing first team since grade 8 (as a 12 year old), she has represented Eastern Province U19 from the age of 14, was selected to tour with the SA U16 team to New Zealand as a 13 year old but unfortunately it was cancelled whilst this year she was selected for both the U17 and U19 SA teams. Her exceptional talent has meant that she has gained vast experience that other girls her age would only dream of by playing for teams that have consisted of girls a lot older then her.

After such an emphatic school water polo career the natural course would be to gain selection to the women's senior side. Cayley remembers how she found out about her selection whilst chatting amongst friends in her hostel. "I felt a great sense of relief when I found out because I knew all my hard work had paid off.'' Such a response creates the feeling that Cayley knew her time would eventually come. Don't get the wrong idea, this is not an arrogant viewpoint, great champions ooze confidence. Tiger Woods and Roger Federer are examples, their attitudes let opponents know that they are the best and they have earned the right to think that.

"I love a challenge and there is nothing more rewarding than achieving it"

Unfortunately playing an 'amateur' sport in South Africa has its downfalls. '' A lot of the time we have to buy our own kit or get generous parents to donate to us. Money unfortunately is the most vital component to make a sporting team successful and unlike cricket and rugby Swimming South Africa have a long way to go if they wish to encourage young athletes to start thinking about the sport seriously.''

Cayley talks about how when she went over to Spain to compete in a four nation's tournament she got a shock when she saw how professional the other teams were and the difference in their skill levels. ''To see proper professionals play to perfection was just too good to be true. The most important thing was to learn and then when I got home to practice what I learnt.'' Wise words from such a young athlete! The point is however that no matter how hard you train and try improve your game, if you don't have the proper coaching in place then there is a limit to what you can achieve. There is an obvious need for improved facilities and resources in the game in South Africa. We have the talent at our disposal; our swimmers have proved this by getting gold medals in the Olympics.

Cayley trains as hard as anybody if not harder. '' I love a challenge and there is nothing more rewarding than achieving it! So swimming during winter was surprisingly satisfying! Motivation is all in the head. I think some people forget how powerful our minds are. The water is only as cold as you think it is! I truly believe that personal motivation lies in your own approach and attitude. You can be as strong and as fit as you want to be if you are willing to put in the hours.''

Having ex swimming veteran Tudor Lacey who is a full time coach at DSG has meant that Cayley has been kept on a strict schedule. One gets the feeling though that she has enough motivation in her not to stray from her training routine. This motivation has paid off in a big way. She has recently been offered two scholarships to American Universities where she hopes to further her career whilst still getting the benefit of studying.

No incentive to carry on with the sport after school in South Afirca

It's a sad fact that young athletes such as Cayley have to further their ambitions overseas as there isn't a base to do so in South Africa. It means that youngsters aspiring to be water polo players have nobody to look up to and also no incentive to carry on with the sport after school. Only the exceptional athletes will get noticed. This is worrying as many athletes only peak after school. You don't have to look further then many Springboks who didn't even get selected for Craven Week whilst at school.

What has been encouraging is to see that more SA junior sides are getting exposed to overseas competition. This can only benefit the sport as the team members will gain such vital skills and experience. Cayley recently went with the South African U17 team to Russia where she joyfully remarks it was the best experience of her life. ''We came 12th out of 16 sides that were all competing for the number one spot making this tournament intensely competitive. It's the best SA has ever done. I honestly believe that if our team had been training for a year and a bit like the other sides we could have done so much better! Having had the chance to play in Spain earlier gave me more confidence with what to expect. Each individual in our team walked away with having learnt something about themselves and the level of water polo we need to reach if we intend on playing with the 'big guys'.''

It's clear that Cayley's experience and maturity in the pool goes way beyond her 17 years. If there was ever a time to put money on a young girl breaking through into top flight water polo it would be now. The waves she has created in the pool have been monumental and there's no doubt in my mind but most importantly in hers that she has what it takes to follow in the games great names. When asked about her role model she quickly replies ''Casanova! Anyone who watched the Italian whole man during the Rome world champs will know why!'' It was extremely evident through this interview that Cayley undoubtedly has a passion second to none for the game. It is a passion that is certain to help her achieve great things in the future. Through such people's passion for the game it is easy to see how water polo has become such a force in South African school sport. A force that is starting to get more and more noticed - and rightly so.



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