In Sapapali’i in Savai’i, like in any other village in Samoa, the locals don’t rate themselves as experts on water polo. Same story in Papamoa, just outside Tauranga.
But, even though they probably haven’t been aware of it, they have a connection with Joseph Kayes, one of the stars of the game.
It’s just that this particular 24-year-old, Kiwi-Samoan has mostly been plying his trade for the last five years in Budapest, Hungary.
That’s a part of the world where the top water polo players are national heroes – rather like the All Blacks here in New Zealand.
Hungary’s nine Olympic gold medals in the sport help explain the game’s status there, something that Joseph has learned and felt as a high profile, professional centre forward for the Ujpest club in what may be the world’s top league.
He says, in Hungary everyone knows you when you are a water polo pro.
“There’s a lot of recognition. There are billboards around the pools for the players. And it’s the water polo players who’re on the cooking shows, if you know what I mean. It’s definitely a different deal over there.”
But it’s not just Hungary where he’s been making a name for himself. He has played two seasons in Perth, has toured Europe as part of the Australian national team – and looks set to pull on the green and gold cap again at the Olympics next year in Rio de Janeiro.
Wait a minute. How did a Kiwi-Samoan kid from Papamoa land in this situation?
Well, it goes back to when Joseph was at intermediate school in Mt Maunganui. His father, Paul, who taught marine studies at the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic, built a pool at the polytech – and then founded the Tauranga Water Polo Club.
Joseph, who grew up as a swimmer and surf lifesaver, made an unsurprising move into the sport.
A big, lean, muscular kid, Joseph was a natural, making all the Kiwi youth teams with ease, before his break came in 2007.
A Hungarian youth team was touring New Zealand, and he caught the eye when they took on the Kiwi youth team. A couple of their coaches (legends in Hungary) were impressed and invited him over.
He made that move in 2009 after a season in Perth, and landed a contract with Szeged, one of the top Hungarian clubs.
That meant coming under the wing of Tomas Molnar who knew a thing or two about the game after making it to the Olympics three times as Hungary’s centre forward.
Joseph says the timing was just right for him.
“They were looking for a young centre forward to bring up through the ranks – and it happened to be me. It just took off from there. I made their top team, so I was in at the deep end.”
Joseph played four seasons for Szeged, then one for Perth, where he is fulfilling his residency requirements to play for the Aussie national team.
So, for most of the year, his life is full-on water polo. At times, he says, it’s a “perfect lifestyle” with all the travel, the financial rewards and other perks that he and his mates enjoy as celebrity sportsmen – although he has some reservations about the European winters, and has patches of really missing New Zealand.
During the tough times, Joseph draws inspiration from his family history.
His Samoan whakapapa comes through his mum. Her parents, James Pau and Elena Lees, made the move to Auckland from Sapapali’i in the early 1960s.
“It was one of those stories,” says Joseph, “where they made the sacrifice, left their families behind, trying to make life better for their kids.”
For James, that meant any number of jobs including, as a labourer, helping build the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Much of Elena’s energy went into raising their eight kids.
One of them was a daughter, Dorcas, who became Joseph’s mother after she and Paul Kayes, a Palagi from Mt Albert, took a shine to each other and married.
That sort of family story hasn’t been at all unusual in New Zealand for some years.
It’s a source, though, of pride and strength for Joseph, especially when there are lonely moments in Budapest.
For his Ujpest team-mates, it hasn’t been so straight forward. But, they’ve taken an interest in what, for them, is a strange, exotic and appealing background. And with the help of Google search, they’re getting that sorted.
“It’s pretty funny”, he says. "But it’s pretty cool too”.
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