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A Knight’s Tale

Blog October 16, 2014 SportStars 0

Menlo water polo is pointed toward a CCS title behind its national-talent captain Nick Bisconti   By DAVID KIEFER, Contributor   Nick Bisconti’s best...

Menlo water polo is pointed toward a CCS title behind its national-talent captain Nick Bisconti

  By DAVID KIEFER, Contributor

  Nick Bisconti’s best day was one of his worst. 

  The greatest news of his life was tempered by the sudden realization of what he would be missing. The Menlo School water polo star was caught somewhere between elation and distress.

  Bisconti, a high school junior at the time, had just received a call to join the U.S. National Team — not the junior team, but the BIG BOYS — for a June exhibition series against Serbia. He would follow up with the FINA World Youth Championships in Istanbul, Turkey, in August.

  “It was mind-blowing to get the call,” Bisconti said. “I was through the roof.”

  But just as he digested the news, Bisconti realized he would miss Menlo’s trip to Coronado, for its annual preseason training camp in the San Diego-area beach town. The trip always ends with a two-hour workout under the direction of Navy SEALs. And when it is done, the exhausted Knights gather in the ocean, and let the sweat wash away as they float beyond the breakers. They grasp hands, and dedicate themselves to the upcoming season and one another.

  It is an intensely moving and emotional moment, one that remains a highlight of Bisconti’s year, and even his life.

  But, with the national team call-ups, Bisconti realized he would miss his final Coronado trip, the one that would bring his senior season into focus.

  Bisconti didn’t play a lot, but he learned a lot. He trained with the team for 6-8 hours a day and learned from players like Olympian John Mann and up-and-coming two-meter man Conner Cleary.

  Bisconti learned how physical water polo can be. He was lifted out of the water by a single hand of a Serbian player and discovered ways to use his body to make up for his relative lack of strength, at least until he adds some bulk. He discovered the kind of effort and persistence it takes to compete at the highest level in the world. And, above all, he learned how much he loved water polo.

  Nick came home and told his mother, Dana, that he wanted to pursue water polo to the highest levels possible, and to the Olympic Games. “It’s a lifestyle decision,” Bisconti said. “That experience showed me what I want to gain from the sport.”

Bisconti feels he has just begun a new phase of his water polo career, one beyond that which earned the 6-foot-6 center Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division Most Valuable Player, first-team All-Central Coast Section and fourth-team All-America honors as a junior while the Knights finished second to Atherton rival Sacred Heart Prep in the CCS Division II final.

  “Nick has natural ability combined with a sense of passion,” Menlo coach Jack Bowen said. “He’s very self-motivated. He’ll tell me, ‘Push me as hard as you can.’ He’s watching more game film than I have. He’s engaged with everything he’s doing. And he’s still not comfortable. He wants to go beyond that.” 

  Bisconti did not come to the sport naturally. He never was a competitive swimmer, and didn’t begin to play water polo until seventh grade. In fact, he may never have discovered it if not for a serious ski accident. 

  On a family trip to Vail when Nick was in sixth grade, the conditions were icy when he lost control, launched off a cliff and landed on a frozen pond. Nick had grown up skiing and was only an hour into the trip when the accident happened. He woke up in the hospital with a broken pelvis.

  He always had been athletic, playing baseball and basketball. But when Nick regained the ability to walk three months later, conventional sports were off limits. Someone suggested water polo.

  “It was making the best of a bad situation,” Bisconti said. “But after a week of playing, I fell in love with it.”

  Bisconti on the Menlo pool deckThis is where Bowen came on to the scene. And this was not insignificant. Bowen, Menlo’s coach and a former U.S. National Team goalie, has become an example of who Bisconti wants to be. 

  Bowen was a philosophy major at Stanford and his insights into the human character provoke thought and learning tools for his team. A published author — he has written several books — and once a drummer in a rock band, Bowen was so entranced by goalkeeping that he wrote his honors thesis on the psychology of the position. 

  Bowen is a coach who has a lot to offer and appreciates a player willing to accept that knowledge, and says that this entire senior class fits into that category. Bisconti embraces it, even being inspired by Bowen’s out-of-the pool interests, such as writing. Bisconti often creates his own short stories and poetry. Bowen, who writes a blog for Santa Clara University’s Institute of Sports Law and Ethics, finds Bisconti not only reads his work, but takes the time to understand and even debate it. 

  Bisconti follows-up with his teachers if he misses a class. He treats others with respect and remains humble. 

  Menlo’s senior class is irreverent yet serious. They can dance on the pool deck, but be focused at game time. Bisconti is not the only standout. Players like Weston Avery and Andreas Katsis take as much responsibility for the Knights’ success as Bisconti. 

  The team is close and has been since they first took the pool together under Bowen as Menlo middle schoolers. Victories and titles, such as last year’s in the PAL Bay Division, are almost secondary to their friendship and camaraderie. Part of that was developed with the Navy SEAL training.

  The tradition began in Bowen’s second year at Menlo. Coronado was chosen because that’s where Bowen went to school and the Islanders’ high school program annually is one of the best in the state. Menlo will train with the Coronado team and have planned activities on the island.

  During this first trip, the team was scheduled to have a barbecue mixer with the Coronado girls soccer team. The Menlo players were out touring and only one arrived at the event on time. Bowen was livid. The next day was supposed to be another day of sightseeing, but Bowen instead called a friend, a former teammate-turned-Navy SEAL and proposed a Navy SEAL lesson in humility.

  When the Knights arrived, the soldier immediately ordered the on-time player to do 50 pushups. This player had just transferred in and was something of an outsider to his teammates, who watched as he struggled onward. Finally, one of the senior leaders dropped to join him and within seconds the entire team were struggling through their pushups together. 

  This is more like it, Bowen thought. And every year since, the Coronado weekend concludes with a series of physically demanding team-building exercises. By the end of the two hours, their muscles can take no more. Every task is painful and challenging. Sweat dries into salt crystals, leaving white streaks on their faces as their muscles shake and tremble, and the mind tries to find a reason, any reason, to allow the body to continue. 

  For Bisconti, the player who demands to be pushed, this is what it’s all about. As the team holds hands in the ocean, Bowen looks everyone in the eye and reminds them, “We’re in this together.”

  That’s why Bisconti’s national-team high was immediately met by a Menlo team low. Bisconti was in Turkey playing for a world championship when the Knights were getting pushed to the limit on the remote Silver Strand beach. When it was over, after being pushed to the point of collapse, the relief and satisfaction showed on their faces. They did it. The only thing missing to make the day complete was their senior captain. 

  As they regained their strength, Bowen called the team together. They gathered arm in arm while Bowen talked about the values the team is based on. When he was done, he unfolded a piece of paper. It was a note from Bisconti.

  “I wish I could be with you,” Bowen read out loud. “My Menlo team is important to me … I miss you guys … I’m thinking about you every day …”

  Bowen could hardly keep his emotions in check as he put the letter away. Then the team stepped into the ocean, swam beyond the breakers, and held hands.

  “It’s hard to find those moments when you can get really practical core values explicitly shared by people who care about each other,” Bowen said.  

  It’s a bond forged beyond the breakers among young men who have learned what it takes to push through pain. That’s what builds a winning team and that’s why Bisconti, even as he wore national-team colors, remained, unshakably, a Knight.

Bisconti during a late Sept. match vs. Redwood-Larkspur

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