Olympics icing on the cake for water polo star
Kiwi water polo goal-scoring star Emily Nicholson has whipped up new hope of realising her dream to make Olympic history.
Making the Tokyo Olympics would be the icing on Emily Nicholson's many-layered cake.
These last few months have been tough on the New Zealand water polo player, who's also studying criminology and runs her own baking business.
On the eve of flying out to Italy to play in the Olympic qualifying tournament in March – trying to make history as the first New Zealand water polo team to play at an Olympics – Covid-19 stopped them in their tracks.
Nicholson couldn't practise in the pool for nine weeks during lockdown - the longest period she’s spent on land since taking up water polo in primary school.
She’s unsure when she can return to the United States, to her criminology degree and her college team-mates in the Fresno State Bulldogs.
But at least she’s been able to make use of this unpredictable time to expand her cupcake business at home in Auckland.
And she's also whipped up renewed hope of making the Tokyo Olympics, with the postponed qualifier in Trieste now pencilled in for next January.
“A week before we were due to fly out to the tournament, Italy was hit really bad with Covid, which was pretty heartbreaking. Hopefully it’ll go ahead, but things are still up in the air at the moment,” says Nicholson, recently selected in the 2020 New Zealand women’s water polo squad.
“But with everything that’s happened, pushing back the qualifiers gives us an extra opportunity to train and work on things - which is definitely to our advantage, I think.”
The 22-year-old knows it's going to be “super hard” to qualify, because New Zealand will be up against the big European powerhouses of the sport - like Hungary, Russia, the Netherlands and Italy - for the two final Olympic spots for Tokyo 2021. But Nicholson says anything can happen.
“We have a really talented team and on a good day, we can do it,” she says.
“We’re quite a young team but over the past year or two, we've made such huge strides. We’ve really pushed some top teams, and to be able to compete there and for it to pay off will be incredible and a dream come true.”
Nicholson has been working on her craft in the US for the last three years, after picking up a scholarship at Fresno State University in California.
She’s in her third year studying criminology and Nicholson says the scholarship has been one of the best experiences of her life.
“I think college life is such a cool experience - living with my teammates, having a nearly professional training schedule, getting to travel and play top players across the country, it's just amazing,” she says.
She celebrated her 100th career goal with the Bulldogs earlier this year (watch the video above) and was leading scorer for the past two seasons.
“I absolutely love being with my team; we’re like family, and I’ve already learnt so much water polo-wise. And I still have so much to go.”
Nicholson tends to come home for the college summer break, and usually returns to the US in August. But with the current situation, she’s unsure when she will leave again.
When she’s home, Nicholson keeps herself busy with training, alongside her cupcake business and a part-time job looking after children at a holiday programme.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve always loved to bake,” she says. “When I finished high school I had a bit of extra time, so I got into it a little more. One of my friends was like, ‘You could sell these, they’re actually pretty good’ and it grew from there.”
Eventually she sold enough cupcakes to purchase equipment to make cakes, so she now offers both while she’s here in New Zealand.
Nicholson admits her initial dream was to be a Silver Fern, but her love of the water eventually overtook the netball court.
“I was a very keen netballer when I was younger, so I wanted to be a part of the Silver Ferns, which I think most young Kiwi girls dream of,” says Nicholson. “But eventually I realised I loved water polo more than I did netball and so it was time to let go of that dream and start another.”
It was an easy switch, as the North Harbour player has always loved being in the water. She was a crucial member of the Westlake Girls' team who won three national schoolgirl titles in a row, and named MVP of the tournament in her final year.
The centre forward has been part of the New Zealand senior women squad for several years but made her debut at the FINA World Cup in Russia two years ago.
“It was in a super interesting place in Siberia. It’s always a huge honour being able to travel and represent my country,” she says.
Nicholson has experienced terrifying moments too. Last year, after the world championships in South Korea, the mezzanine floor she was standing on in a nightclub collapsed, killing two people. She suffered cuts to her legs and needed stitches in her wrist, while team-mate Bernadette Doyle fractured her tailbone.
But she still wants to see more of the world. After she graduates from college, Nicholson aims to secure a professional contract in Europe.
“I'd love to play there again to get that experience and help develop myself as a player even more,” she says. “Then I can obviously use that to help the New Zealand team because we would love to qualify for the Olympics.”
Her teammates inspire Nicholson to play better, especially the Fresno State team, who Nicholson says have gone “through thick and thin together”.
“We’ve got such an intensive training schedule, so we constantly push each other and have each other's backs,” she says. “They're always there to help whether that’s staying late to help pass to me or give me shots. They're always pushing me to be better.”
Not being allowed in a swimming pool during Level 4 lockdown was “super difficult” for Nicholson.
“That was the longest I’ve been out of the pool since I started playing. So I definitely had to change my routine a lot. I'm obviously not a land athlete, so running was something I had to force myself to do,” she says.
The different training regime, however, could prove beneficial in the long run. And mentally, Nicholson realised how much she loves the sport and will never take things for granted again.
“Every opportunity I can, I'm going to train. I'm going to get in the pool whenever I can because not having that really showed me how much I miss it,” she says.
There are no upcoming international tournaments for the New Zealand team, but players will get a dose of action at senior club level, and in a new national premier league featuring four women's and four men's teams in Auckland in November. The national squad will also have training and preparation camps before the qualifying event in January.
“There’s a lot of time for our coach to see where everyone is, especially after lockdown, and where we can build up to,” says Nicholson.
“We won’t be able to play together as such because we’ll be split between our clubs, but we’ll still be getting games, which is a lot more than most countries right now. So we’re grateful for that.”
A big motivator for Nicholson to keep training and pursuing the Olympic dream is the desire to be the best player she can be. “I know I'm not there yet,” she says.
“I still have so much to learn, so many more experiences I can have. And that’s the main thing for me - I want to keep improving, keep learning, and just help my teams out, whether it’s in New Zealand or America by being the best player.”
If she keeps her eyes on the goal, Nicholson may get that cherry on top – and play in Tokyo in a year’s time.