One on One with 16yr old SA U18 Water Polo Rising Star Nick Downes

Fri, 09/11/2012 - 15:17
  • Nicholas Downes water polo

Clifton’s sharp shooting water polo forward speaks to HSSM’s Sazi Luke about making the SA U18 team that will take part in the FINA YouthWater Polo Championship. In this two part interview, he also talks about the role of Brad Rowe in his water polo performance and why he thinks Clifton is the best water polo school in the country. 


Teams Age
1st XV Clifton Rugby 16
1st Clifton Water Polo Debut 11
1st Clifton Water Polo Squad 14
KZN U13 13
KZN U14 14
KZN U15 15
KZN U18 16
SA U18 16

HSSM: So Nick, tell me more about yourself and your family life.
Nicholas Downes: Well, basically water polo has been in my family for as long as I can remember. My uncles all played South Africa water polo, my brothers also played South Africa polo and my nine cousins and family members all played provincial water polo. So it’s a big family affair and it’s just such a great sport to be involved with.
HSSM: What are your first memories of water polo and when did you start getting involved in the sport?
Nicholas Downes: Well, the first memories of actually playing polo were in junior school at Clifton. Because there was no league for the younger people we used to play against each other in PE, so that’s when I first started. But otherwise it was just playing in the pool against my brothers and watching lots of games. By the time I was ten I’d watched at least twenty water polo tournaments. So it’s just growing up with the sport and playing since I was little.

HSSM: Who would you say your role models were growing up, and which players did you look up to?

“So I was in grade five playing for a top ten high school tournament”

Nicholas Downes: Yea, obviously my brothers, they were such a huge part of me actually playing water polo because of what they’ve achieved. But also like Evan Pérez, all those big names from Spain, I mean the sheer size of [the players there]. It's not really highly recognized in South Africa, but overseas it’s such a great honour so maybe when I’m older I’d like to go play with the Spanish and those guys.
HSSM: And when did you start taking water polo seriously? When was the moment you were like, ‘wow, I’m quite good at this.’
Nicholas Downes: Obviously I knew the game since I was young, I mean parents used to come up to me and ask me when I was ten all about the game, but it was when I met Mrs. Bowley in junior primary school at like, grade four, where she actually took a notice in me and made me train harder. But then Mr. Rowe noticed me in grade five, and that was when I played my first top ten for our high school because they were missing players. So I was in grade five playing in a top ten high school tournament.
HSSM: Was that first team?
Nicholas Downes: [laughing] Ja.
HSSM: What?!
Nicholas Downes: Yea, but that was just filling in…
HSSM: It’s still quite insane.

 “Mr. Rowe. He is probably the reason why water polo is so successful in Clifton and his legacy still continues in DHS.”

Nicholas Downes: [laughing] Ja, and Mr. Rowe took quite a great deal of interest in me, and obviously because my both my brothers played under his coaching, so he wants me to be the best I can be. He made me train harder and in grade six he made me train with the high school, and in grade seven. Then eventually in grade eight he pushed me to the first team at the end of the year.

HSSM: Speak about your brothers, they went to DHS and you have quite strong family ties with DHS. What about you, why not go to DHS?
Nicholas Downes: Well, my oldest brother went to DHS before Clifton was around, but my middle brother actually came to Clifton. He was the deputy head boy in 2008 I think. And basically what happened was my dad was quite involved with Clifton and because all of us came to the junior primary school… When my oldest brother was around there was no such thing as Clifton High School until my middle brother came. […] There was never pressure to go to any school. I didn’t have to come to Clifton and my brother Michael didn’t have to go to Clifton. It was just a choice he made because we’ve grown up at this school since grade one.

HSSM: And on the topic of DHS and water polo, the time your brother was at DHS, water polo at the school was amongst the best in the country, and since Mr Rowe left and came to Clifton there’s been kind of a switch in scales between the two schools. What do you think about that?

“Clifton has been my life”

Nicholas Downes: Well it’s obvious, simply it’s just Mr. Rowe. He is probably the reason why water polo is so successful at Clifton and his legacy still continues in DHS. I mean, he’s coached many of the coaches who are around today. But the reason is passion, he doesn’t stop till everything’s perfect, and while everyone notices how many hours we put into training, he is always by the pool telling us to get in. So it’s a two way street, but it all starts with him where he sets the tone of what our team’s going to be like. And that’s why, because of his passion to the sport and to every sport, he makes us become better.
HSSM: Did Mr. Rowe influence your decision in coming to Clifton High School as a water polo  school?
Nicholas Downes: It probably influenced my brother’s  decision to go there , but personally Clifton has been my life. I mean, I grew up with this school, I used to run around this school, this is basically – my childhood was at this school from everything I can remember. So obviously Mr. Rowe played a big part in my water polo career at this school, but coming to this school was just… I had to for my own personal reasons.

HSSM: Clifton High School has dominated water polo quite successfully in the last couple of years especially for such a young school; you guys are only twelve years old as a high school. What do you attribute that dominance to? Because you are better than most schools that have been around for 150 years and you’ve achieved this in less than twelve years.

“I mean we have to pay for ourselves to go to the world cup”

Nicholas Downes: Well, what our school [does for us], we keep telling ourselves that one person has to act as three people. In some schools we’re only allowed to play one sport. At Clifton they culminate with people playing every sport. Like for the really good sportsmen who want to play cricket and water polo and rugby and hockey, in other schools that are 150 years old you’re not allowed to do that, but at Clifton they culminate with that. Their thing is that there are sportsmen on every side of the field. Personally, I’m not a very good cricket player but I do water polo and rugby […] and then I do all sorts of things culturally because every person has to add up to three people in order to be a big school, not in size, but in actual achievement. So what we aim to do is be bigger in achievements but smaller in people.

HSSM: Next year you’re going to grade eleven, but eventually you will be forced to make a choice between rugby and water polo as most people do. Where do you think that will sway?

“We won’t match up to those big teams”

Nicholas Downes: Well it’s hard because my dad and my uncle played KwaZulu-Natal rugby, my uncle especially who has sixty caps for the Sharks, […] Graham Downes, he was a really big rugby player, went to DHS as well. But personally my passion is in water polo so if there does come a time to make a choice, which hopefully it won’t be because I can do both, it will have to be water polo. I’m here in the pool for about seventeen hours a week when we’re in the middle of the term and it’s just what I love to do, it’s my passion.

HSSM: First of all, congratulations on making the South African team. So how are the nerves, because you guys are playing big water polo countries like Croatia and Australia? How do you guys think you’ll fair out there?

“I’m probably gonna get bullied a bit”

Nicholas Downes: Well you know water polo isn’t a big sport in South Africa so there’s not as much focus as in Croatia. In Croatia it’s all water polo, it’s like our rugby. So they breed them from young and when we have fifty people to choose from for the South African team, they have thousands. So it’s on a completely different scale. We won’t match up to those big teams and we aren’t expecting to; we’re expecting to hold our own. And especially for somebody like me, I mean I’m going to go in there and I’m probably gonna get bullied a bit, but it’s to grow me as a player to see how I compare to the rest of the world and I’m going to be one of the youngest in the whole tournament.

HSSM: What do you think the standard is of South African water polo? Is it that big of a difference when you compare it to those nations?

we actually could be the next powerhouse of the country

Nicholas Downes: Yea, our water polo is nothing compared to what they do, they take it seriously, they get paid for it. I mean we have to pay for ourselves to go to the world cup and for us it’s about playing the game, for them it’s a professional sport so it’s completely different. They’re just that much more on a higher level, especially because they play harder, they’ve got more leagues, there are clubs there, and their international water polo is known in the whole of Croatia. It’s like our rugby players; if they walk on the street they get recognized. With us, we don’t really get recognized.
HSSM: So what do you think it would take for South African schools, the South African country to fully get up to that standard of playing at that level?
Nicholas Downes: I think it’s the backing of the government and actually some emphasis. I mean HSSM, you guys have actually put a lot of emphasis on water polo where no one else has and I think with the help of you guys and the help of other companies it’s going to help everybody see water polo become a much bigger sport, and we actually could be the next powerhouse of the country. Because I mean it’s such a physical game, and it’s a strategy game, so every aspect of what you have to do emotionally, physically, intelligently all happens in the game. Where to pass, how to shoot, when you think you’re tired you have to push through to make it better. Water polo has to be recognized by somebody, probably the government, and then in order to grow it from there we go to more champs, the world champs.

HSSM: What do you think separates the schools? Do you think that it’s the fact that we play water polo at an amateur level and there is no professional level?

“but when government came up with their new 21 sports that they were going to develop, water polo was not one of them”

Nick Downes: I think that our actual schoolboy water polo is extremely strong. KwaZulu-Natal has quite a good league, in Johannesburg there is a brilliant league but after that there is nothing so I think it’s the next step. Schoolboy water polo is so involved that people commit to it, schools commit to it, people recognize water polo but once you take that step to varsity it all fades away. There is only one tournament per year when you’re out of school which is the Old Eds tournament, so I think getting it to get it to the next level, it would have to take that step in varsity and make it big there where you have training camps and more tournaments in order to make your men’s team the best possible.

HSSM: There have been talks of creating a professional water polo in the country, do you think that will materialize or do you think that we don’t have enough financial back behind it?
Nicholas Downes: Well, if there are sponsors it will happen because I personally know a few coaches who are passionate about the sport and they really want to see the sport grow. With their backing, I do think that it should happen and could happen but would have to see it to believe it.

HSSM: Do you think that it’s more government getting involved and putting in money or do you think it’s up to the private sector to sponsor such a league? Do you think that it should be a partnership between government and private sector to put in money?

“Our first team has only lost one game the whole year”

Nicholas Downes: Definitely, but when government came up with their new 21 sports that they were going to develop, water polo was not one of them.  There are sports that people don’t even play at school that are getting financial aid for them to grow, but a sport like water polo is almost getting ignored. I do believe that the private sector should help and they do help. The sponsorship of schools, of tournaments and all that, that doesn’t come from the schools, that comes from mostly the private sector so that really does help. They have put a lot of effort in, maybe from both of them could be quite nice. 

Stay tuned for part two of our One on One with 16 year old SA U18 player Nicholas Downes, as he continues to speak about what sets his school apart from other water polo playing schools and why he thinks government should get more involved in backing water polo in the country.

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