Coming to America: Australia’s Nioka Thomas to Join UC Irvine Women’s Water Polo

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Nioka Thomas (right), a high school athlete from Sydney, Australia, has chosen UC Irvine as the next step in her water polo career. Photo Courtesy: The Meriden School

Australian Olympic hopeful Nioka Thomas plans to embark on a grand adventure in the United States. Starting next fall, the 12th year high school water polo player from Meriden School will join the women’s polo program at the University of California Irvine.

A member of the Aussie Stingers’ junior national team, the 18-year-old Thomas comes from a family steeped in water polo success. Her father Nathan was capped 300 times with the Australian men’s squad, representing his country at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and again at the Athens Olympics in 2004, where he captained a squad that finished ninth. Younger sister Zoe has recently been selected to join the Australian 2005 Cadet team.

meriden_logoNioka, entering her final year at Meriden, an all-girls private school in the suburbs of Sydney, has her sights on becoming the first woman from outside the United States to play for the Anteaters, one of America’s most storied collegiate polo programs. Led by Dan Klatt, who competed for UCI under legendary coach Ted Newland, last season the Anteaters were enjoying one of their best-ever campaigns before the coronavirus pandemic halted all sporting events—collegiate and professional—in the U.S.

UCI finished #5 in the final Collegiate Water Polo Association Women’s Varsity poll, it’s highest finish since 2017. Hopes for the future are high in Irvine, with one of the best squads in recent year for the coming season.

Her signing with Irvine will not be official until later this year, but it’s been confirmed that Thomas will be a member of the school’s 2020-21 squad, one likely to be unusually large due to disruption from Covid-19. UCI’s Klatt—entering his 17th season in Irvine—said in a recent interview that next spring’s Anteater team will sport a program-high 32 athletes, including Tara Prentice, an early candidate for the 2020 Player of the Year. Prentice’s return despite four previous years of competition, is a result of the NCAA’s decision to award and additional year of eligibility to seniors impacted by last spring’s shutdown.

[On The Record with Dan Klatt of UC Irvine Women’s Water Polo]

The following season will likely not be much better from the perspective of playing time. Fifth-year seniors will be gone, but the freshmen who will have spent a year biding their time will be sophomores in 2021, and ready to fight for every bit of playing time they can get.

“It’s a challenge for young athletes that have aspirations of playing in a college program to find a spot,” Klatt said. “I’m sure they’re stressed about it because they’re not having the opportunity to play and prove themselves…”

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UC Irvine Head Coach Dan Klatt. Photo Courtesy: UCI Athletics

Not that Thomas doesn’t have a lot to offer Klatt and the Anteaters. She has already made an appearance with Australia’s senior women’s team, and is a fixture on the Stingers’ junior squad.

At Meriden is surrounded by experienced coaches who know what it takes to be among the world’s best polo players. Her coach, Chloe Wilcox, a former Olympian, who competed in 2012 for Great Britain at the London Games, believes her prized pupil is ready for the bigger stage.

“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,” said Wilcox, a key member of the school’s Olympus Program, which helps young athletes balance sport and study by providing professional coaching and focused training in health and well-being.

Being part of Meriden’s Olympus Futures program has proven to be a boon for young Thomas, particularly as she seeks to achieve Olympic status, the highest level attainable in her sport. Making the move to American collegiate play will put her in company with the world’s best female polo athletes. Team USA has dominated international women’s play for the last decade, and Klatt was U.S. Senior Team Head Coach Adam Krikorian top assistant as the program captured gold at the 2012 London Games and the Rio Games in 2016.

[Westcliff’s Preslav Djippov, Aussie Anteater Nioka Thomas with Olympian Father Nathan]

There’s also a sizable contingent of Australian national team players in the States; Bronte Halligan currently competes for UCLA, while Stinger prospects Lena Mihailovic and Maddy Steere recently competed at Arizona State and Michigan respectively.

“I have dreamed about playing water polo in the USA for a long time,” Thomas said. “I’m excited to be training under Dan Klatt. I really like [his] approach to seeing athletes holistically and helping players find a balance between academics and sport.”

Given the international flavor of American collegiate polo—the nation’s top programs, which include Cal, Hawai’i, UCLA and USC all feature athletes from outside the U.S.—Thomas will feel right at home in Irvine, even though she’s almost certain to be the only non-American on the Anteater squad.

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Photo Courtesy: Meriden School

The Aussie may end up being unique among her American teammates, but Klatt says there’s more than enough international students on campus to keep Thomas company.

“There’s a lot of Californians [at Irvine], but we do have a fair number of international students athletes impacting our various programs,” he said. “I’m not familiar with every single roster of every team, but I know that a lot of international students.

“Culturally, there’s a lot that people from other places can offer in terms of the way you look at things. They just offer something different, and it could really impact culture positively,” Klatt added.

UCI’s academics will keep Thomas busy out of the pool. Known for rigorous academic standards, last year twenty of the women’s water polo players were included on the the school’s academic honor roll for achieving a GPA of 3.2 or greater.

With plans to pursue a degree in environmental management, Thomas is looking forward to living, studying and playing in the USA starting in September 2021. And, she’s also thinking about her future beyond that

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

And—like father Nathan—to represent Australia in the Olympics.

With reporting from The Meriden School

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