The man at the eye of the storm: Nikolaos Papanikolaou’s journey to the top

photo of Cal Water Polo player Nikolaos Papanikolaou
Eliana Marcu/Senior Staff

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Water polo games can be quite taxing on one’s mental state.

As the band, fans and players fight for attention, it’s a sensory overload that’s not suited for the faint of heart. With the roaring crowd, the heat of the sun’s relentless rays reflecting off of the water and the frenzied calls from coaches as the scoreboard clock ticks away, it’s extremely easy to get caught up in the moment.

But Nikolaos Papanikolaou never does.

Standing in the center of it all, he deflects the intense emotion threatening to consume him and holds his ground. Papanikolaou doesn’t get nervous as he firmly believes he has to enjoy the game to guide his teammates to victory. Instead, he feels a strong sense of purpose: to win for his team, to make sure that every pass and shot he executes will be memorable and to be the best possible version of himself.

Sporting a pair of glasses, messy brown hair and a book that appears tiny in his large hands, Papanikolaou doesn’t seem like he would be an athlete if you crossed paths with him in the street. It’s hard to tell that the easygoing man so full of humor and wisecracks exhibits such a commanding presence in his sport, holds two consecutive MPSF Player of the Year titles and is arguably the best collegiate water polo player in the entire country.

Endearingly known as “Papa” to those around him, Papanikolaou is a big man with a big name — and big dreams for his time at Cal.

“My short-term goal is to win the NCAA (championships) this year,” Papanikolaou said. “And for a long term goal, win more than one.”

Cal fans know that if the ball makes it to Papanikolaou — positioned between the crossfire of his attacking teammates and mere meters away from the opposing goalkeeper — it’s game over for the other side.

It doesn’t matter what kind of situation the team is in — far ahead on the scoreboard or falling hopelessly behind. He is always present and a dependable figure that his teammates can rely on, both inside the water and out.

But one doesn’t just become the best athlete in collegiate water polo out of nowhere.

L
ike most Greek heroes, Papanikolaou’s story began in the city where democracy was born: Athens, Greece. Growing up in Athens, sports were always a big part of Papanikolaou’s life, but he wasn’t introduced to water polo until later on.

Papanikolaou’s first interaction with a water sport wasn’t water polo — it was swimming. He began his life in the water when he was only 4 years old, and in the meantime, had also tried his hand at soccer, or football, as they call it in Greece.

However, none of those sports were for him. Papanikolaou wasn’t the most agile on land, and although water was more of his element, he hated swimming laps with a passion.

When he was 9 years old, his father walked into the house one night and told the young Papanikolaou he had something exciting for him. That exciting thing turned out to be water polo.

“I was the one who decided that he should play water polo,” said Papanikolaou’s father. “He was made for it.”

Papanikolaou wasn’t very familiar with water polo at the time. None of his family members played, and although he knew the sport was quite popular in Greece, he didn’t really know what it was about.

Even so, he was tired of swimming and thought it wouldn’t hurt to try something new. He took on the sport that would eventually lead him across the ocean to Berkeley, California.

Don’t expect a typical athlete-sport love story here, because with Papanikolaou and water polo, it wasn’t love at first sight. Between the ages 9 and 15, there were countless moments when he wanted to quit.

“I was too lazy to swim,” Papanikolaou said. “But my father never took me seriously and he said, ‘You’re not going to give up water polo just because you don’t want to swim one hour a day,’ and he was right.”

A turning point came when Papanikolaou was 16 and selected to be a member of Greece’s junior national team. Training and competing at the international level opened his eyes to just how good he could become if he dedicated himself to the sport.

After his time with the national team that summer and as he began training with his new club team, his love and respect for the sport grew. There was no turning back.

“Swimming was too boring for me,” Papanikolaou said. “But being in the water with the ball, shooting and competing with a team, that’s what I wanted to do.”

Making the national team every year wasn’t easy. Out of the 40 players at training camp, only 13 actually end up making the team. But Papanikolaou was determined. The hourlong car rides to and from practice every day gave him opportunities to bond with his father, who supported him every step of his career. The long conversations he had with his father also added to his desire to become even better.

Before long, Papanikolaou found himself standing on top of the podium in Hungary at the 2018 Youth World Championships.

“The only game where I didn’t watch him play was the one where he became a world champion,” his father said. “It was also the game where he was awarded MVP Player of the World.”

It was also at that very World Championships that Papanikolaou received his first invitation to come to the United States. Prior to that, the thought of playing polo in the States had never even crossed his mind. At first, he was against the idea, wanting to stay in Greece where he could be close to his family. But his coach at the time, Dimitrios Mazis, managed to convince him otherwise.

“You would expect that he would try to convince me to stay there and play for him,” Papanikolaou said. “He told me, like, he sees me as (his own) child and … (he) would want (his) child to go get a very good education.”

With a long history of Greek water polo players and stellar academics, Cal was just what Papanikolaou was looking for in a college. And so, in 2019, he boarded a plane bound for California.

“When he first got off his flight, he didn’t speak very good English at all,” said Papanikolaou’s freshman roommate and teammate Garrett Dunn. “He was really nervous and sleepy, and he met my entire family that day, so it was probably a lot to take in at first.”

When Papanikolaou reflected on his first season at Cal, the one thing he remembers clearly is how enthusiastic his new teammates were. They would cheer and hype him up in practice, something that Papanikolaou says wasn’t a common occurrence on his previous team.

Living in Blackwell Hall right in the center of Berkeley, Papanikolaou found the city to be a bit too fast-paced compared to Athens. He experienced numerous culture shocks as well, from the friendly energy of his teammates to the time of day meals were served.

“The whole culture is different,” Papanikolaou said. “Here, dinner is at 5 p.m., but back home, we would eat at 9 or 10 p.m.”

There are differences between playing center in Greece and in America as well, but Papanikolaou found a way to bring his teammates the best of both worlds. In Greece, where the main objective of centers is to earn exclusions, games can get way more rough and physical. His experience back home has landed him at the top of the leaderboard for total earned ejections this season.

“The referee doesn’t see what is happening underwater,” Papanikolaou said. “And under the water, that’s where things get really physical because anything is legal as long as the ref doesn’t see it.”

In the United States, where student-athletes are usually the same age as him, he tries to get a hold of the ball to shoot whenever he can. Water polo is a sport where practice makes perfect, and Papanikolaou has the “Midas touch” — everything he touches turns into a goal.

“His humility is inspiring,” said his teammate Nikos Delagrammatikas. “He will joke around, but he never brags, and that’s something that players should look up to.”

Despite the obvious pressures that come with playing center, Papanikolaou always finds a way to steer clear of the stress that comes with being a top-tier athlete. His pregame routine involves talking with his family and teammates, and listening to music — Greek rap, American hip-hop or anything that has an upbeat, hyped-up tempo — from the playlists that he’s created depending on his mood to the opponent his team is about to face.

“I don’t like seeing people being stressed before a game,” Papanikolaou said. “I like being relaxed, and (to) listen to my music, make some jokes and talk to my teammates.”

In terms of academics, Papanikolaou is also at the top, with one of the highest GPAs on the team. His teammates praise him for his incredible time management skills and ability to keep up with classes. As an economics major considering a minor in data science, he has already gone through a learning curve of balancing athletics and academics at Cal.

“His work habits are just as pristine in the classroom as they are in the pool,” Dunn said.

As an athlete, Papanikolaou hasn’t changed much in his time at Cal. He is still just as dominant, if not more commanding, than the day he first stepped foot on campus. But as a person — from the way he sees things in and out of the pool to learning at one of the top academic institutions in the world — he has greatly matured.

With his stress-free and laid back attitude, he was always one to have a conversation with and someone his younger teammates could look up to and respect.

“It’s a pleasure to see a friend of yours start from freshman year and grow into the man he’s becoming now,” Delagrammatikas said.

A
t the moment, Papanikolaou isn’t sure if he wants to keep swimming on the path of water polo after graduation. He’s not sure if he wants to stay in the United States or return to his family in Athens, either. For now, the future he has in mind is unclear.

But water polo or not, one thing is clear: He will always be there for his teammates whenever the waters get rough. Papanikolaou is the man at the eye of the storm and the one who will always remain calm amid frenzy and chaos.

Yuqing Qiu covers men’s water polo. Contact her at [email protected].