Graziano Makes Good in Women’s Polo at Michigan

The University of Michigan women's water polo team beats CSU Bakersfield, 11-2, at the UCSB Winter Invite at Santa Barbara, Calif., on Jan. 21, 2017.
Photo Courtesy: University of Michigan Athletics

Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor.

Following in the footsteps of water polo players from Michigan who have enjoyed great success—including Olympian Betsey Armstrong—Kimberly Graziano has been an important contributor in her four years with the women’s squad at the University of Michigan.

A hometown girl who made good, since 2013 the Ann Arbor native has played polo in the Donald B. Canham Natatorium, the same pool where as a young player she watched Wolverine squads backstopped by Armstrong, who went on to win Olympic silver (2008) and gold (2012) with the U.S. Women’s National Team.

A local star at Skyline High School, Graziano will graduate next month with a B.S. degree in Movement Science. First though she intends to help Michigan qualify for a second consecutive NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament. The Wolverines hope to equal last year’s Final Four appearance, the program’s first since 2002 when Armstrong was a freshman.

Preparing this week for a Senior Day match-up Saturday at home against Indiana University, Graziano spoke with Swimming World about playing for head coach Marcelo Leonardi, overcoming a Princeton team lead by Olympian Ashleigh Johnson, and what her future holds.

What has it been like to play for Michigan—not just in your hometown but one of the country’s top programs?

My dad worked at the U, so I’ve always been close to the alumni base and aware of how important tradition is here.

Sometimes it surreal to be part of something that’s so much bigger than you. Our whole town feeds off the University of Michigan’s culture and camaraderie. It’s rewarding to be part of something that’s so connected to your community.

You stayed through a coaching change—which is always a challenge. How was the transition from former coach Matt Anderson to Marcelo Leonardi?

The true test of an athlete is the ability to adapt. There was a big learning curve for all of us in the beginning to pick up [Leonardi’s] style of play. Just adapting to a new playing style was the hardest but once you get in a rhythm you adjust.

I was fortunate enough to have [the coaching switch] happen early in my career. Freshman year was a huge adjustment and I was still in that critical period where it ended up being easier for me.

leonardi-michigan-mar-2017

Photo Courtesy: Maciek Gudrymowicz

What does Leonardi bring to Wolverine polo?

The thing about Marcelo is that he’s not just looking at the physicality of players, but he’s also many steps ahead of what everyone else is thinking. He can tell by playing styles what individual players are thinking. He sees a lot of things that we don’t—and communicates that to us.

He’s smart about predicting the next move a team’s going to make—that’s the quality that I admire most about him.

In 2016 Michigan enjoyed its finest season in program history. What was most meaningful to you about that experience?

Looking back the thing that stands out most to me is how much we were like a family. [My teammates] have always been my best friends but last season we went through things that no other team had gone through and became so close. They’re all my sisters now.

I experienced the joys of winning with that team—we’re so close, and that was my defining moment.

You lost 9-6 to eventual champs USC in the 2016 semi-final…

We were all proud of that game. We weren’t beat because we had a bad day—we all did everything that could be done in that moment [to compete]. There were no regrets.

How has last season motivated your team in 2017?

It’s much easier to fall when you’re at the top. You want to keep inching forward and we keep setting the bar [higher] for ourselves now.

Each year we want to improve, and I believe that we are better now than last year. You don’t want to regress after so much hard work, so we keep fighting though our own obstacles and keep progressing.

A lot of people gun for you when you’re at the top so you’ve got to stick together.

There’s a major obstacle to Michigan qualifying for consecutive NCAA tournaments: Ashleigh Johnson of Princeton. The Wolverines and the Tigers will clash on April 2 in Lewisburg, PA.

We definitely respect her talent as a goaltender. [To prepare] we’ve been going out to California and playing against good goalies. Our freshman goalie Heidi Ritner is pretty good this year and is accumulating to prep us.

We haven’t played [Princeton]; we can only watch from afar. I’m interested to see if we can give [Johnson] good competition.

3/4/17 The University of Michigan water polo team defeats UC Davis, 13-7, at Canham Natatorium in Ann Arbor, MI.

Photo Courtesy: Eric Bronson

This Saturday six Wolverines [Emily Browning, Kaitlyn Cozens, Danielle Johnson, Heidi Moreland, Allison Skaggs and Graziano] will be recognized on Senior Day. What will that be like?

It’s bittersweet. When you’re [in the pool] and you look [in the stands] and see girls that are freshman in high school… It doesn’t feel too long ago that was me!

It’s crazy that you’re coming towards the end. It pumps you up for the game and you get this last, dying burst of energy.

When we all meet before practice this week we’re all talking about: “We do not lose at home or on Senior Day.”

Prior to Michigan you played for Skyline, one of the state’s top programs. What’s memorable about that experience?

It was a bit of a learning curve being from the Midwest to such a California-based program. I went out to California for a few months before college which helped but it’s really cool now to have the extra knowledge from college.

I’m still in contact with Rebecca Godek [Skyline’s head coach] to pass on on knowledge that I’ve gained at this level.

I don’t know how busy my schedule will be for next year but it’s nice to know that I have ties and good relationships so that I can stay involved.

As you look at the end of your playing career, what might you tell players looking to follow you in the sport?

The important thing is once you realize: “I can do this. I have the athletic ability.” It’s seeking the extra steps.

Anyone in that situation has to realize that it’s possible; don’t settle for lesser resources because we don’t have as many here [in Michigan]. They’re available [elsewhere].

Kids should realize that if you can’t play at the DI level there’s so many other opportunities—Division III or Division II schools. It’s great to see people keeping water polo alive at different levels.