Palm Desert’s Sarah Nichols proved recently she’s not just one of the best players on a CIF champion water polo team, nor is she just one of the best players in the Coachella Valley or southern California.
After numerous tryout phases with hundreds of girls 17 years old and under from around the country, Nichols was chosen as one of 26 girls for the 2016 USA Water Polo Women’s Youth Team after four days of practicing, scrimmaging and training at Corona del Mar High School.
Nichols, no stranger to pressure in the pool after clinching a CIF Southern Section title with the Aztecs in February as a junior, said she felt a bit of pressure entering the selection process.
But a drive to become the best has been what’s driven Nichols from the start of her water polo career when she was just 8 years old.
“I really love to compete, a lot, and I really love to win,” she said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way, and when I’m not in high school or club season in August when I’m off, I get bored. I’m missing something, that competitiveness.”
The selection process began last September with an initial evaluation period before about 250 girls were selected for regional teams that competed against each other in March. Only 50 of them were kept around for the youth team’s tryouts before the field would be cut nearly in half.
Instead of being one of the best two or three girls in the pool, which Nichols got used to during her junior high school season, she had to quickly adjust to finding ways to stand out among older girls with just as much – if not more – experience.
“I was really nervous, ‘cause as I’m aging up, I knew there were a lot of good girls. It’s basically upperclassmen from high school,” she said. “I was playing with girls committed to these big schools who could be at the NCAA finals next year.”
In the tryout process, though, particularly in scrimmages, Nichols settled into her natural spot as the center defender, not having to worry about doing it all on the offensive and defensive end.
“You’re on one of these teams, and they’re all good, so you get to work on your specialties,” she said. “In high school, I do everything, but coming into national team stuff, I’m a center defender. That’s my job, and I can trust my other teammates that they’re going to do their jobs.”
Doing her job is exactly what got Nichols a spot, even by the slimmest margins. After the final round of scrimmages on Monday morning, the coaches called eight girls – including Nichols – for a four-on-four scrimmage lasting six minutes, which Nichols called “the bubble game.”
The Aztec star was very confident all four girls on the opposing team were safely on the roster, meaning she needed to earn her spot in those final six minutes of evaluation time.
“It’s hard for them to really see you, so I wasn’t upset I was in the game. They just want to see you more, but it was exciting getting out of the pool knowing I did a good job,” she said. “I had a couple people tell me ‘I think you did it.’
“It’s good knowing I’ve got to show them my stuff and prove to them I shouldn’t even be in the bubble game. I should for sure be on the list, and that’s exciting.”
The 26 will now go through another training phase next week, and 15 will be kept around, 13 of which will travel to New Zealand in December for the World Youth Water Polo Championships to defend the title the Americans took home in 2014.
It may be too early to start thinking about Tokyo, the site of the 2020 Olympic Games, but it wouldn’t be out of the question. There’s one future high school senior on the current women’s national team roster and another two girls who will be younger than 20 when this summer’s Olympics roll around.
For now, moving on from “the bubble game” to the final 13 is a tall enough task for Nichols, but one she has no fear of facing head-on. Hard work isn’t new for someone who spends 16 hours a week driving alone for club water polo practice.
“I really, really want to be on the final 13 for sure,” she said. “I’m the kind of person that nothing is ever enough. I’m always motivated to keep going.”