“I Saw a Lack of Girls Who Looked like Me” – Esihle Zondo on Choosing be a Water Polo Player

Supporters of school sport on television may have heard the voice of 19 year-old Esihle Zondo over the summer holidays, but this teenager has sacrificed much to achieve her dream, and is excited to be representing South Africa at the Aquatics World Championships in Doha. All Photos: Supplied

SA water polo star, the 19 year-old Esihle Zondo, took valuable time out of her busy schedule doing her level best to represent the nation proudly at World Aquatics’ World Championships in Doha to talk with gsport for this interview, and though the humble athlete definitely sees sports commentary as a good Plan B candidate to keep in her pocket for later consideration, the self-confessed water baby just wants to make SA proud in the pool.

Esihle Zondo started swimming at the tender age of 6 months old, so it’s no surprise that she is most at home in the pool playing water polo. 

Zondo has overcome much adversity in her short career, where she has ‘been and possibly continues to be underestimated and overlooked’ in her aquatic sport. However, she has more than overcome her naysayers, as she continues to forge a path of success. She is also hoping that by choosing water polo, she hopes to inspire more women and girls who look like her to take up the sport. 

The teenager is wise beyond her years, and is keen to make a difference in the pool as well as out of it, and given her character, she is destined to be the role model young girls and women can certainly look up to. Zondo chatted to gsport from Doha, after South Africa played their first match of the tournament against Canada. 

How did your journey to water polo begin?

I began my water polo journey in grade 4 around the age of 9 or 10 years old, at school. For a few years before that, I had already been watching my older sister play water polo. This was while I was still only doing competitive swimming. So when I was old enough to join the game, I was able to understand and learn a lot quicker, after having watched it for so long. I thought it was a really cool sport to play, so I joined and went to extra lessons with ex-SA water polo player and coach, Lee Keet, and ever since then the rest has been history. My love for the sport has only expanded.

Why did you choose water polo as sport, it’s seen as one of the less popular disciplines? 

My mom worked so hard to make sure I got to experience and was able to master many sports that are more well-known in comparison to water polo, but I have always been an aquatic child. I have been swimming since I was six months old, so if I was going to choose a sport, it was always going to be in the water. I had been doing galas long before I could even remember, however, going into my more competitive high school years the choice was between becoming a competitive sprint swimmer, or a water polo player.

Knowing the risks, hardships and lack of funding and many other things that water polo currently has in comparison to swimming, I still had to go with my gut feeling that water polo was something I could never get tired of doing. I will forever love swimming, but I think the type of sacrifices I would make to become the type of swimmer I wanted to be would’ve tainted my love for the water. I love being with people. 

I also chose water polo, and more importantly, stuck with aquatic sports as my main, focus because I saw a lack of girls and ladies who looked like me actively competing in these spaces. 

This is something my mum pointed out to me, as my sister and I were growing up in these athletic spaces. It made me feel almost a sense of responsibility, to be that for someone else.

I felt that too many people in our country – as well as the world that forms part of the black majority, shy away from the possibility of competing in aquatics, purely because we have been taught to think that black people and water don’t mix. 

When in fact we do mix so well that we can create magic and miracles the same way we do with sports, such as running or netball. We are more than capable. 

My choice was deeply rooted in my love for water polo alongside my deeply rooted understanding of today’s world of which I have been raised to feel the need to make a difference, make a statement and to challenge people’s ideas consciously or unconsciously with my existence in these spaces.

When it comes to being a woman in your sport, how do feel you are breaking barriers? 

I feel like I am breaking barriers as a female athlete everyday. I have been and possibly continue to be underestimated and overlooked in my water polo career. I have been told that my efforts are a waste, with one of the reasons being my financial background, in context and comparison to that of my teammates in this predominantly white sport. I have and will probably have to continue overcoming the micro aggressions. 

I have seen what the lack of interest in women’s sport looks like. And I am happy that the attitude towards it is beginning to change. 

I have been trying to break down the barrier that many other female athletes have been trying to do for years, before me. I want to break this idea that women’s sport is not as great or interesting as men’s, that we don’t provide the same aggression, attitude, entertainment or physicality that they provide: That is simply not true! 

The barriers I feel that I have broken down are the ones that any athlete has had to go through: The disappointment, the sacrifices, the painful road to achieving my goals, but also I think that I have to do that with the added-on struggles of having to be a black female athlete, from a single parent household, so these barriers and obstacles are ones with their own set of challenges that I myself am still trying to break down.

How do you relax when you are not in the pool? 

I love hanging out with friends and family. To relax, I love reading, knitting, or watching series. I love learning outside of the pool, so visiting museums is something I enjoy. I love music and singing. I just love to be myself and try new things, and learn wherever I am. But don’t get me wrong, I love a good lie in bed as well!

What are your aspirations for yourself and your team during the World Aquatics Champs? 

I have set personal goals for myself that are in support of the team’s main goal of making the Top 12 rankings after the tournament. We love to learn about each other and ourselves at these tournaments which is always a goal for us.We want to work on defensive and offensive plays that we can possibly carry on to August this year.

What are your aspirations for the future? 

Currently I am very zoned in to my goal that I have had since I was like eight years old. The Paris Olympics is the current goal for the near future. From then on, I hope to continue travelling the world, playing water polo with some of the best in each region of the world.

I have been very blessed and hope to continue on this journey of fighting for my spot on some pretty cool teams. Sacrificing, working hard playing and learning in new spaces, all the while, playing some cool polo!

What is your advice to up-and-coming water polo players? 

My advice would just be keep going to training. Milk whatever opportunity or experience that you get with your coaches and such. Watch water polo any chance you get, and work hard. Don’t give up on your dream of being the type of player that you know you can be, no matter what a coach may say. You are capable and can do it! Mental health is so important, and I only realised this a bit later on, but I also think it’s important to have a supportive team behind you. 

I have struggled and continue to struggle with balancing out life, to make sure I don’t burn out and lose the love I have for the sport  If you love water polo, I can guarantee you there is already someone rooting for you and your journey, and it’s me!

How can water polo can grown and continue being inclusive?

Water Polo is a relatively new sport, especially within the South African context we are still very much rookies on the international scene. However, we have many people who care and have grown to love the sport and the people in it. I think with time as water polo gains more traction in school sports and stuff, I think we will see an influx of water polo players coming into the SA setup. As well as a growth in numbers, when it comes to the kids of colour who play. Currently water polo is still a game more popular with private schools and model C schools. So there currently is an element of exclusivity.

I’m hoping the longer we can grow the sport and make it more popular, the more accessible swimming and other aquatic sports can be made accessible. Last year, the South African u20 Ladies had a team of which half of the girls in the side were of colour, and dominant forces within the pool. I like to look at it like this …: We have grown soo much that the water polo we play now, and those who play it, look very different to what they did 10-15 years ago. With the types of people we have as leaders now within the South African water polo community, you can trust that this sport will continue to open up more. 

How did it come about that you were doing commentary on the schools water polo broadcast?

I am very new to this commentary gig. What encouraged me was the idea of staying involved somehow in the growth of developmental waterpolo in South Africa, but ultimately it was my sister who introduced me to the commentating gig. She used to play water polo, but stopped at the end of high school, and she was commentating at the Stayers tournament at the end of last year, and asked if I wanted to hop on. I thought “Why not?”, and that’s where the journey began. I am still very much a rookie in that area, but it is a cool opportunity for me, and I enjoy participating in. 

You sounded so comfortable, do you have background in public speaking?

Thank you, as I said before I am still very much fresh on the scene. I have my mum and my old school, Durban Girls’ College to thank for my public speaking abilities. My mother is a teacher, so she stressed the importance of public speaking, and reading. 

Do you feel you might have a career option in sports commentary, once your playing career comes to a close?

I am not sure where the future will lead, but I am always open to new possibilities for myself. Most importantly learning new skills and mastering them, in the hopes that they will come in clutch later down the line, in whatever path I choose to go down. Whenever I stop playing water polo competitively, I hope to be able to choose whatever career path speaks to me the most, and so commentating can definitely be a part of my future!

Photo Caption: Supporters of school sport on television may have heard the voice of 19 year-old Esihle Zondo over the summer holidays, but this teenager has sacrificed much to achieve her dream, and is excited to be representing South Africa at the Aquatics World Championships in Doha. All Photos: Supplied

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