By Doug Williams | March 09, 2017, 1:55 p.m. (ET)
Luca Cupido shoots the ball against Croatia during the men's water polo preliminary round at the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre on Aug. 6, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

 

A few years ago, Luca Cupido had a choice.

He could stay in Italy and continue to play water polo for the national program while also trying to get a good education. Or, as a dual citizen of the United States and Italy, Cupido could pursue his dreams in the land of his mother’s birth.

He chose to leave for America and has been thankful ever since.

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“It’s one of the best decisions I ever made,” said Cupido, a 6-foot-4 junior attacker at Cal who helped the Golden Bears win an NCAA championship in December.

Four years ago he moved to California to play his senior year of high school at Newport Harbor High in Newport Beach, honing his English and playing water polo. He was accepted at Cal and followed the path of his older brother, Giacomo, who played for the Bears from 2010-2013.

He’d visited the Berkeley school before to visit his brother and watch him play, and he loved the campus, the school’s academic and water polo programs and coach Kirk Everist. It wasn’t a hard sell.

Plus, the U.S. system of collegiate athletics offered opportunities he wouldn’t have had in Italy.

“I always try to put academics first,” said Cupido, 21, who has fashioned a major combining city planning and political science. “It’s one of the reasons I came to the States. … You can combine academics and sports, which in Italy is still separated. You can be a good athlete or a good student. One of the reasons I wanted to come here is I still want to play water polo at a high level and get a great education.”

As a freshman in 2014, Cupido scored 42 goals and was named Newcomer of the Year in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (which includes four Pac-12 Conference teams in Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC) as well as third-team All-America. As a sophomore he scored 43 goals with a team-leading 46 assists in earning first-team conference and All-America honors. This past season he again was a first-team conference and All-America choice, scoring 30 goals while also earning all-NCAA Tournament honors as Cal won its first NCAA title since 2007.

It was one of the highlights in a year of highlights for Cupido. After taking off the spring semester to train full time with the U.S. water polo team, he helped Team USA win a silver medal at the World League Super Final in June, played for the U.S. team at the Olympic Games in Rio and later was an Academic All-America selection.

Team USA had a disappointing run at Rio, going 2-3 and failing to get out of group play, and Cupido regrets that he and his teammates didn’t fare as well as they had hoped. Yet simply being a part of the Games was a thrill.

“Just the experience of being around so many competitors from other sports during the Opening Ceremony, all the fantastic athletes and looking around, ‘Oh, I actually made it where I wanted to be,’ it was pretty amazing,” he said.

Cupido — who had helped the Italian youth and junior national team win world titles in 2012 and 2013 — figures to be a part of the U.S. national program for a while, too. Coach Dejan Udovicic has said Cupido has a bright future.

In Rio, Cupido started every game and scored four goals with three assists, six steals and five field blocks.

“He can be, in one of the upcoming years, the best player in the world,” said Udovicic just before the Games. “No doubt … in the next two or three years, he can be the best player in the world.”

After taking some time off after the Games, Cupido came back in the fall semester to be a key part of Cal’s run to the NCAA championship. He says it was a joy to be a part of a team that put its egos aside to work together “for the bigger glory of things.”

In the championship game against USC, he scored twice in an 11-8 overtime victory. He has another season to go at Cal — plus an extra semester to make up for the one he took off before the Games. After that, he hopes to play professionally for a year as he continues on the road to being a part of the next U.S. Olympic Team at Tokyo in 2020. Already, he’s thinking about Games No. 2.

“It’s not too far, you know?” he said. “I think it’ll be pretty quick.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.