The UC Berkeley Men’s Water Polo team was down by two goals in the NCAA Final, when their goalkeeper threw the ball down the pool to his teammate toward the end of the third quarter. With the ball in his hand, Nic Carniglia kicked up out of the water, reached over his defender and skipped the ball into the goal, bringing his team one score closer to a National Championship win.
The Bears wouldn’t lead the game until the last three and a half minutes of regular play, but when the final clock hit zero, they were the ones leaping into the pool in celebration. In an 11-8 overtime win, Cal took the title for the first time in almost ten years in front of a home crowd.
Carniglia’s goal in the third quarter was only one small piece of that victory, but every goal counts in a National Championship. Going into his senior year at Cal, Carniglia is finishing up a Business degree, preparing for one last season of collegiate water polo and hoping to take his shot at the 2020 Olympics. He has a lot on his plate, but the memory of that National Championship victory will continue to drive him for a long time.
“That game was wild,” he remembers, “but preparation started a long time before game day.” Athletes are no strangers to long-term goals; Carniglia’s team started preparing to take home a National Championship an entire year before their NCAA victory: “We’re always thinking about it. It’s always in the back of our minds at practice. Even after we lost in 2015, we started thinking about what it would take to win in 2016.” They put in the effort day-in and day-out, and when it came time for the Championship, they just focused on the task at hand.
“To be honest, that whole day’s a blur,” says Carniglia. “I remember getting up that morning and knowing there wasn’t much more that could be done—we just had to go out and play our game. When it came time to get in the water, we played some of the best water polo Cal has ever played. We played like a team, which was what we really needed to do to win.”
The victory was the first championship Carniglia, personally, had ever gotten to be a part of. “I didn’t come from an area that’s known for water polo at all, and I had never won a championship in anything, so the National Title was the first championship I had ever won. To have that be my first championship was really special, and it’s something that a lot of people never get to experience.” Carniglia learned to swim around the age of three, and was competing by the time he was six years old. A few years later, he went to water polo practice with one of his friends and fell in love with the game.
“You get to swim, and you get to throw a ball into a goal. It’s really that simple,” he says. Since that day thirteen years ago, Carniglia has become one of the top water polo players in America; he is currently a member of the U.S. National Team and is looking at the possibility of playing at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. “Tokyo is definitely attainable for me. The national team is doing well right now, and we have a really good shot at doing well in a few years.”
The next Olympiad is an exciting thought, but it’s still a ways down the road and Carniglia has plenty of other goals to reach before then. He’s planning to graduate from Cal this coming spring with a Business degree, and is contemplating playing professional water polo in Europe for a few years following graduation to keep up his training. After 2020, however, his future is wide open.
“I don’t want to think too far down the road, because tomorrow could be different. It’s nice to plan and have ideas, but I try to stay focused on what I can do now; I can’t do much more than that.” For now, he’s going to continue to juggle collegiate and international water polo along with his school schedule. The balance takes a lot of time management and communication, but it’s definitely a worthwhile endeavor. “A lot of it is just understanding what you can and can’t do,” Carniglia explains. “There’s a lot of communication involved, and proving to your professors that you’re dedicated to what you’re doing, both academically and athletically.”
Finding that balance is a skill Carniglia has gotten down to a science, and one he’s going to need in the future. If all goes well, he just might end up playing his sport under the Olympic rings in 2020.