April 25, 2013
By Jonathan Okanes - Cal Athletic Communications
The following is an article originally published in the spring edition of the Cal Sports Quarterly magazine.
After missing out on the chance to lead her country to the top, Emily Csikos hopes to do so for her college instead.
Csikos, Cal's standout senior women's water polo player, sat out the 2012 season to train with the Canadian National Team. The Calgary, Alberta, native hoped to help Team Canada qualify for the Summer Olympics in London, but her nation's squad narrowly missed a spot after losing to Russia during the Women's Water Polo Olympic Qualification Tournament in Trieste, Italy.
Now back in Berkeley, Csikos is trying to help the Bears go one step further than they did in 2011, when they lost in the NCAA title match.
"If I could be part of winning a national championship, I think it would be amazing," Csikos said. "It would be even more amazing because I was part of the creation of the team getting there. It would be awesome to be part of that."
Csikos is a three-time All-American and one of the best players in Canada, if not the world. After graduating from Henry Wise Wood High School in Calgary, she moved to Montreal for two years as a full-time member of Canadian National Team. She arrived at Cal in 2009 and the following year helped the Bears secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.
After bringing the program to the cusp of a national championship in 2011, she decided to rejoin her Canadian teammates full-time with the hope of fulfilling her lifelong dream of becoming an Olympian. A heartbreaking 7-6 loss to the Russians ended those aspirations.
"It will probably be the hardest thing I ever experience in my life," Csikos said. "Obviously, everyone has regrets on my team, myself included. It's just tough. I don't know how else to put it into words. I'll never forget how I felt. I guess I have to decide at some point, am I going to go for it with water polo, am I going to try hard, or am I just going to pout about what happened? In the end, the Olympics are great, but that's not why I play water polo."
Csikos isn't sure whether she plays water polo because she likes it, or because she has become obsessed with it. Like many elite athletes in all sports, Csikos has gone all in with water polo. It was her full-time job for two years immediately after high school, and even while in college, she is frequently required to return to Montreal for a few days to participate in training camps. As soon as she wraps up finals this spring, she will resume her full-time status with the national team.
"I think I like it," Csikos says with a laugh. "I'm pretty sure I like it. I had a conversation with my dad, and he said the elite athletes become obsessed with it. I've become obsessed with succeeding and perfection. But I really do like the common drive to some goal and working with other girls and seeing how far you can push yourself."
Csikos' return to Berkeley last fall provided an interesting dynamic. Since she was away for a year, she not only had to get to know the incoming freshmen, but the current sophomores as well. And because of her time with the Canadian National Team right after high school and in 2012, she is as much as six years older than some of her new teammates.
"Because of her experiences internationally and in this country, it puts her in a leadership position," Cal coach Richard Corso said. "I think she has immediate credibility with the younger players. They know that she knows the game really well and when she says something, they listen. Not only is she giving instruction and encouragement, she does a great job of holding herself accountable and her teammates accountable."
There was never really any doubt water polo would be a big part of Csikos' life. Her father, John, coached Canada's Men's Na-tional Team and Junior National Team. Her older sister, Julie, played on Canada's Youth National Team and went on to play at York University in Ontario. Csikos was swimming by age 3 and playing water polo at age 8.
But at first, it wasn't just water polo. Csikos also played soccer, basketball and volleyball as a child. As her childhood pro-gressed, she gradually dropped all of the other sports.
"She really understands the game at the highest level," Corso said. "She's been playing since she was a little kid. She's a coach's kid. She's been around it all the time. She has the physical talent with the high water polo IQ as well."
With no Olympics to prepare for, Csikos found herself with no upcoming water polo commitments last summer, a rarity in the life of a national team player. Corso told her to go "sit on a beach," and while Csikos stayed out of the water for awhile, it wasn't exactly a time for relaxation.
"I still had the mentality that I had to train," she said. "I would go for a run, do little random classes. You can never go on vacation or you can never go more than maybe three days at a time without making sure you can train somehow. But it was nice to create your own schedule. It was definitely nice to not smell of chlorine for a little while."
Csikos recognizes she has the responsibility of being a leader and role model for the 2013 version of the Bears. She hasn't been hesitant to offer advice, constructive criticism and encouragement.
"I definitely have a different role on the team than I've had before," Csikos said. "It took me a little bit of time. I just wanted to kind of observe who everyone was before I really dove right in there. But they are a really good group of girls and they all gen-uinely want to succeed and work hard."
Csikos has had physical problems with her hip and shoulder, but says if her body holds up, she'd love to make a run at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. That process will begin as soon as she returns to Montreal, which will be five days after the NCAA Tournament.
"A lot can change in our years, but that's been my goal forever," Csikos said. "I wouldn't want to give up on that."