My journey with Penguin has been a rollercoaster spread over 25 years, through the highs of international competition to the lows of injuries and a lot of surgery. The constant through it all has been my amazing teammates and coaches, the biggest of these was John Lake (Shakey). Even at 80 years old he continued to inspire and motivate me, he helped prepare me for big competitions and was always there to support and pick me up when things were tough. His loss has been greatly felt not only by me personally but through the whole Club.
My water polo journey started after reading about the GB team on a British Airways flight. I was not from a swimming background; as a teenager I’d been a middle distance/cross country runner at Scottish national level but after spending time training in America I was suffering ongoing injuries. When starting at university in London in 1994 I was looking for a new challenge and went along to the freshers fair at UCLH where I met Karine Hales and signed up for the University water polo team.
Karine was so enthusiastic and welcomed me, even as a non-swimmer, with open arms. I had no idea what was involved and I emerged from my first session half-drowned and beaten up. For most first timers the initial session either makes or breaks you, and I was instantly hooked. The training was tough and perhaps it suited my ‘feisty Celtic blood’. Plus the team spirit was infectious.
After two years playing university water polo (and learning to swim!) I joined Penguin in 1996. At that team the time was in the second division of the national league. Training and matches were a step up, but I loved the challenge, and in truth I probably became a bit obsessed. Playing alongside Manda Hackett, Karine Hales, Charlie Parkinson, Pamela Campbell, Lis Holmes, Katie Collins and Sally Woolhouse – to name but a few – I made lifelong friends.
By early 2000 we were playing first division and challenging the top teams in the UK. We qualified for the European Cup and had a second team in the third division. I took over the captaincy from Karine and captained the Penguin women for around 15 years on and off. Looking back these really were golden years: Penguin was flying high.
I started training with the Scotland squad and was proud to captain Scotland from 2000 until 2006, competing with the team in the Commonwealth tournament in Perth, Australia in 2006. This was an amazing experience shared with fellow Penguins Karine and Jerome Reed from England and others from South African, and Singapore. We played and won the World Masters in 2004 in San Marino, Italy, what a great trip for polo the and off pitch celebrations!
After 2006 I continued to play domestic water polo with Penguin inbetween having kids and surgery. Then I returned to the international arena to play in the 2014 Commonwealth competition in Aberdeen, opposite another Penguin, Lis Holmes who was playing for Wales.
The noughties were a haze of training camps and international and domestic competitions. Looking back now water polo kept me out of trouble!
The Penguin team was motivated and keen, we were very social, and we pushed and inspired each other in the pool as we fought for team selection. We toured in the summer in Europe, often with the men’s team, enjoyed team nights out and attended the Penguin dinner dances. These really were great times, with some great polo and lots of outrageous ‘what goes on tour…’ fun outside the water!
To be President of a club like Penguin is such an honour, I am so grateful for the part the Club has played in my life. I feel lucky to still be able to play, especially after some major surgeries, although I must admit it’s certainly harder as I get older, and those three-game national league weekends are that bit harder to recover from, even though I am partly bionic.
I can’t imagine ever losing the will to get in the water with my teammates or the drive to fight to get the ball and stuff it in the back of the net; there really is no better feeling.
Thankfully, I have a supporting family. My water polo training and match schedules have often impacted on family holidays and events, but my family have been my best supporters, and they are excited to see the current Penguin team doing well.
Penguin has been through a lot in the last 100 years, and it is still going strong through two world wars, the great depression, recessions, lack of pool investment and most recently COVID-19. Other clubs have not been so fortunate, and the pandemic has sadly led to the demise of many swimming and water polo clubs.
Fortunately, I see Penguin gaining a new momentum, and again I feel excited and re-energised. In the senior water polo sections the coaching team and players are working hard and there is a hunger to get back to the heyday of high level competition. We all feel it and I’m excited to be part of it. Both the women’s and men’s teams fought hard in the first half of this national league season to reach the playoffs, and are now aiming for promotion.
It is great to be playing again, we all really missed the training, galas and national league competitions during the lockdowns over last two years. Despite the disruption, before Christmas and into the new year, Rachel Bull led the Emperors to a three game victory in the first weekend of the Championship 2 in Walsall, putting our statement of intent at the top of the table.
I’ve played with Rachel since she joined as a team junior at 15 years old, a position that was taken this year by Maddie Roberts who has scored an amazing 13 goals for Penguin so far this season. As an older more experienced player myself, it’s great to watch young players like Rachel grow in the Club and then become experienced role models for the next generation of players such as Maddie. And I have loved playing with them all.
The men will be captained by Albie Duffy as they restart their promotion campaign at Haberdashers on the 29th January, we are willing them on all the way.
The Penguin junior teams have also been playing amazingly, with recent success at the National Age Group Championships and national squad inclusions.
It feels like the momentum is with us. A really big thank you to all the coaches who give up their time and energy to the Club, we really couldn’t do it without you.
The masters swimmers are thriving, with record membership numbers and a great social side. While not big on pool-base competitions at present, the lure of open water events is stronger. A number have entered the annual Herne Bay Pier to Pier https://activelifeltd.co.uk/pier-to-pier-swim/swim, and it would be great to see lots of Penguins entering from all sections of the Club as part of our Penguin 100 celebrations.
I have met so many amazing people over the last 25 years, it feels like we share a special bond and memories that inspire lifelong friendships. So many of them are now spread across the world with their families or pursuing new adventures, but I regularly stalk them on Facebook. There are too many to name so I’m sorry if I didn’t mention you personally.
Equally there are just too many stories to reminisce, but that’s probably a good thing!
I really hope the Centenary Dinner in April allows us to meet up again and celebrate the great times and lasting friendships made through the Club. I certainly feel in need of a shindig with my Penguin besties.
This post is part of our Penguin 100 series of stories from Penguins past and present, recording what being a member of the Club means to them as we celebrate our centenary.