Nic Carniglia had always loved to swim, but until his mom signed him up for water polo at the age of 9 he had never played a team sport.
A friend had started to play at a local club, and after just one practice, Carniglia was hooked.
“I could swim fast and throw a ball into a net; what wasn’t to love?” Carniglia said.
Carniglia is now 21 years old and not only a leader on the national champion Cal men’s water polo team but also a member of the U.S. team that is representing the country this week at the FINA Men’s Intercontinental Tournament in Australia. The U.S. team took on Japan to open pool play on Tuesday and came from behind to win, 10-8; the men followed that up with a 15-10 win over Kazakhstan Wednesday. The six-team tournament concludes on Sunday.
Carniglia, of Lodi, California, continued to swim and play water polo both relatively seriously until he was a junior in high school, when he began to focus exclusively on water polo. He already knew at that point that he wanted to play in college and beyond, having attended his first Olympic Development Program pipeline event for the national team the summer after eighth grade.
“I realized that there was a possibility for me to play the sport that I loved at a top-tier college and made it my goal after that,” he explained via email to TeamUSA.org. “I used the pipeline to train against the best competition I could find in order to prepare myself, eventually earning a spot on the youth team.”
Carniglia’s international experience includes playing in the 2013 Pan American Championships in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the 2014 youth world championships in Istanbul and the 2015 Australian Super Series. Then last year he took the spring semester off from Cal and was one of the final members of the national team group training for the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” Carniglia said. “I learned so much about myself and gained lifelong friends. We trained for over 30 hours a week for about five months. Physically, I had never pushed myself so hard for such a long period, and I loved it. Mentally, I learned to rely on myself and accept challenges head on. Most of your weaknesses are created by yourself, and learning to overcome them was the most important part. It created habits that helped foster the mental mindset to be the best in the world, both in and out of the water.”
Then, halfway through a summer training trip to Europe, Carniglia hurt his shoulder and had to return home. He spent the next three weeks in full recovery mode, he said, eager for one more shot at earning a place on the 13-man Olympic roster, but once he returned to the team he lasted just three days before the pain returned.
When the roster was announced, Carniglia’s name was not among the 13, but he was told they respected what he had done in the months prior.
“I put in the work and was fully committed to the program at all times, something that would set me up for success if I continued down this path,” he said. “They told me everything positive that I had done up until this point, but the day I was cut was the day I started preparing for 2020.”
Carniglia returned to Cal in the fall and had to not only readjust to the college style of play but also continue his shoulder rehab and balance an academic load that was heavier than usual as he tried to make up for the semester off.
The 2016 water polo season, however, ended up being what Carniglia called the proudest moment of his athletic career as Cal won its 14th national title.
“It was the first championship I had ever won with water polo, at any level,” he said. “We worked hard all season but the key to winning was having the whole team buy into the structure and culture that our coaches were trying to establish. We had all the talent to win, but we united as a team when it really mattered. We relied on each other and sacrificed ourselves for the whole. The result was the best water polo Cal had played in recent history.”
Carniglia, his shoulder healthy, is now happy to be back representing Team USA in Australia. It’s the first major tournament for the U.S. team since last year’s Olympics, when the team finished in 10th place.
Facing a Japanese team with more Olympians than any of the countries competing this week, the Americans notched an opening victory. Team USA won silver in the same tournament last year but has just two players on the roster that competed in Rio.
“As a team, we are relatively young and have little experience playing together,” Carniglia said. “We will make mistakes, but we will learn from them over the course of the trip, and that will make it successful.”