US college the first step to international water polo dream

28 August 2020

Meriden student Nioka Thomas is the first female athlete from outside the USA to be invited to join the champion water polo team at the University of California, Irvine. Nioka, who has already represented Australia at a senior level, has recently accepted a place at UCI in 2021, where she will undertake an academic degree whilst competing amongst some of the best athletes in American college sport.

Meriden Head Water Polo Coach, Chloe Wilcox, herself a former Olympian, congratulated the Year 12 student on this historic milestone. She said Nioka joins the UCI squad with a wealth of experience and unique skills that will make her an asset to the team.

“Nioka has already gained so much experience playing water polo in Australia and internationally which has helped her develop an incredible sense of the game,” she said.

“She plays centre forward, the main attacking position. A squad’s set plays and attacking structure are built around this position and the player can dictate how the opposition defends against the team. Nioka is dangerous as centre forward because of her refined ability to hold a position, to get shots away when the ball is passed to her and to out-smart her defenders to gain an extra-man advantage for her team. She leads by example during matches and she steps up in moments when the pressure is on.”

Nioka is Meriden Water Polo Captain and plays for the School’s Senior Firsts Squad. She is a hardworking member of a number of high-performance squads, including the NSW Institute of Sport Senior Women’s Squad, the Australian Women’s Youth Squad and the Balmain Australian Water Polo League Squad.

Nioka said she was thrilled to hear about the offer from UCI Women’s Squad Head Coach, Dan Klatt, who is currently in his sixteenth season in this role at the university.

“I have dreamed about playing water polo in the USA for a long time and I am so excited to be training under Dan Klatt who, in addition to being Head Coach at UCI, is also the Assistant Coach to the US Women’s National Water Polo team which won gold at both the London and Rio Olympics,” she said.

“I really like Coach Dan’s approach to seeing athletes holistically and helping players to find a balance between academics and sport.”

Indeed, UCI is known for the rigorous academic standards met by its sporting stars: in the 2019-20 academic year, twenty of the college’s female water polo players were included on the academic honour roll for achieving a GPA of 3.2 or greater.

Nioka is hoping to undertake a degree in environmental management and policy but will finalise this selection following the HSC exams. She said she was also looking forward to living, studying and playing in the USA from September 2021.

“I’m interested in experiencing American culture and the American water polo game,” she said.

“NCAA water polo is highly competitive and I’m excited to be joining such an amazing team. I’m looking forward to learning from the players and the coaches and being able to grow as a player and become more creative in my own game.”

Nioka has been supported by the Olympus Program at Meriden, which assists emerging athletes in balancing sport and study, accessing professional coaching staff and maintaining health and wellbeing. Following the HSC, Nioka hopes to leave Australia on a high at the FINA Junior Water Polo World Championships and will continue to train and undertake some coaching work before leaving for the USA.

“The first big step in my plan was always to play in America and after that I’m hoping to play in Europe, like my dad, who played in Spain, amongst other places,” Nioka said.

Nioka’s father, Nathan Thomas, played over 300 games for the Australian Men’s Water Polo Squad, including at the Sydney Olympics and at the Athens Olympics, where he captained the team. Nioka’s sister, Zoe, has recently been selected to join the Born 2005 Cadet Girls Australian Squad.

The Meriden community wishes Nioka all the best as she continues on her sporting journey with her trademark optimism and enthusiasm.