On the largest stage in the world, Aleksa Saponjic hears a lot of distractions.
It’s Sunday, Aug. 12. Aleksa is a starting player for the Serbian national water polo squad, and his team is in the bronze-medal match against Montenegro in the 2012 London Olympics.
The summer Games drew millions of spectators from around the world who were glued to their TVs. Five thousand spectators packed the Water Polo Arena, nearly drowning out the noise of the athletes in the pool.
But among the fans, in the arena and around the world, the only sounds Aleksa hears are the cheers from his family.
For Aleksa, life in the water has always revolved around family. His parents introduced him to the pool at a young age, like most kids in Serbia. The aquatic culture there is strong, almost like football in the United States.
But Aleksa only began as a swimmer — it took a little family prodding for him to get into water polo. His older brother, Luka, began before him, and Aleksa decided to follow.
The sport was new to 10-year old Aleksa. Eight years later, he had established himself as one of Serbia’s best up-and-coming attackers. Unlike the large, overpowering Luka, Aleksa struck with more agility and speed.
While in high school, Aleksa competed for one of Europe’s top water polo clubs — VK Partizan. In his last year, he helped the program win the prestigious 2010 European Club Championship. Partizan even offered him a professional contract, an opportunity most water polo players would accept.
But Aleksa isn’t just any water polo player.
So just as he had done eight years ago, Aleksa followed his brother’s lead.
The decision wasn’t easy, but the temptation was too great — Aleksa chose Cal in 2011 for the rare opportunity to play alongside Luka.
“We didn’t get to play on the same team a lot when we were younger,” Aleksa says. “I wanted to come here in my first year and his last year and win the NCAA championships together.”
Luka was about to enter his final year as an attacker for Cal. He too had turned down immediately going pro, instead opting for a collegiate career in America.
Aleksa was also acutely aware that water polo wouldn’t last forever, but a degree from a top-tier college would. Luka knew that as well and was back in Serbia starting for Partizan after graduation.
The younger Saponjic has the same plans. If Aleksa doesn’t continue playing, his life after water polo will bring him back to the source of his inspiration: family. His father owns a distribution company in Serbia, and Aleksa hopes to join him and Luka once their lives in the pool conclude.
Despite his worldly talents, Aleksa faced difficulty adapting to an American style of play at the start last year. Europeans play more methodically, with fewer counters and fast-break plays. Americans emphasize speed and more aggressive, risky defense.
But with Luka’s guidance, Aleksa caught up quickly. He began his collegiate career with an impressive eight goals in his first seven matches, all while coming off the bench.
“Playing with my younger brother is something I’ve always dreamt of,” Luka says. “It improved our trust in each other to put it all out there together.”
Aleksa gives so much heart in his play that it might just be his greatest problem.
In the Big Splash at Stanford, he witnessed a defender throw a cheap punch at Luka’s head. While physicality is common in water polo, that was too much for Aleksa. This wasn’t just any foul — it was one toward his teammate, friend and family.
“All his problems are my problems,” Aleksa says. “He was in pain and I got really upset. So when the coach saw that, he had to pull me out of the water because I was losing focus.”
His rage just made it all the more clear: Family comes first. When the coach finally put him in, he turned his emotions into scores. Aleksa scored a career-high three goals en route to a 11-4 demolition against Stanford.
“I guess it’s my biggest strength and weakness,” Aleksa says.
Aleksa would go on to finish the year with 30 goals in 22 matches in 2011, good enough to be third-leading scorer for the Bears, right behind his brother. Together, the brothers accounted for more than a fifth of the goals Cal scored that year.
But for Aleksa, the season was disappointing in hindsight.
The Bears lost in a heartbreaking 7-6 loss to UCLA in the MPSF semifinals. That defeat meant no NCAA postseason and no chance for a title with his brother.
Aleksa admits he didn’t take the loss well. His parents had already planned on coming to Berkeley, where the NCAA finals were to be hosted. It would be the first, and last, time they could see their sons fighting for an NCAA Championship.
But by the time they realized the Bears wouldn’t be going to the postseason, it was too late. The plane tickets were bought, and the Saponjic parents were on their way to Berkeley.
While they didn’t see their sons play in the championship, their presence alone was just as important. That night, they went out to dinner, just the four of them. For the first 10 minutes, there was anger and frustration in silence.
But for the rest of the night, they ate and had fun. Just as families do.
“They don’t care if I win or lose,” Aleksa says. “They’ll be there during all the ups and downs.”
After a hectic offseason, Aleksa returns to Cal more accomplished than ever. Immediately after the season ended, he claimed gold in the 2012 Men’s European Water Polo Championships. He followed that up with an Olympic bronze medal.
Immediately after his Olympic game, he remembers seeing his parents crying in the stands but with different tears than the ones shed after the loss to UCLA. Even though this time they were tears of joy, there’s one thing he knows doesn’t change.
“Whether it’s the Olympics or some other tournament, I know my family is right there next to me,” Aleksa says.
Vincent Tzeng covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected]