Luis Nicolao Jr. was born to be a competitive swimmer. After all, it was ingrained in his genes as both parents were accomplished swimmers.
Luis Nicolao Sr., who swam at Stanford, was a three-time Olympian representing his native country of Argentina. He held the 100-meter butterfly world record (57 seconds flat) for five years until it was surpassed by American Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics.
Lee Davis, who grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, was a distance swimmer who at one time held world records in both the mile and 1,500 freestyle. She set both marks while swimming for Vesper Swim Club in Philadelphia before moving to northern California, which is where she raised young Luis.
Luis Nicolao Jr. could accurately have been described as a prodigy, an age-group national champion in the 100 and 200 freestyle by the age of 10 while swimming for San Jose Aquatics. He seemed destined for success at the collegiate level with prospects of joining his father and namesake as an Olympic competitor.
“Unfortunately, I peaked at a young age. I did not grow to be 6-foot-5 like most great swimmers. I was more of a wide-body,” said Nicolao, who was born in Brazil and raised in San Jose, California.
Make no mistake, Nicolao became an outstanding swimmer at Bellarmine College Prep, an all-boys private school in San Jose. However, as a freshman he was introduced to water polo and wound up finding even greater success in that sport.
At the time, Nicolao never dreamed how far water polo would take him ― literally across the country to the Naval Academy, first as a standout player and currently as head coach. Now the sport has carried Nicolao to an esteemed and exclusive place of honor.
It was announced last week that Nicolao has been selected for induction into the Collegiate Water Polo Association Hall of Fame. Chosen strictly for his accomplishments as a player, Nicolao will be formally enshrined during this year’s Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference Championships.
That tournament is being hosted Nov. 20-22 by the Naval Academy, barring a postponement brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Nicolao will fittingly be feted in Lejeune Hall, where he was molded into an All-American player and now strides the pool deck as Navy’s third-year head coach.
“I feel very, very fortunate. I was a poor kid from San Jose whose life was forever changed by being introduced to water polo,” Nicolao said. “Bellarmine opened the door by admitting me and exposing me to the sport. If I had not been accepted to the Naval Academy, I probably never would have played college water polo.”
Nicolao becomes the third Navy man to earn induction into the CWPA Hall of Fame, joining former teammate and current assistant Tom Popp along with legendary head coach Mike Schofield.
“Anything like this is unexpected. It’s a great feeling. I really appreciate being nominated,” Nicolao said. “This is an individual award in a team sport. Any success I had was due to the talent around me. I think it says a lot about all the success we had Navy, which was a national powerhouse at the time I played.”
Schofield boasts the distinction of being the winningest head coach in Naval Academy history, having compiled 631 career victories during a 29-year tenure. He led the Midshipmen to nine Eastern Championships and 13 NCAA Tournament appearances.
Nicolao ranks alongside Popp as one of the finest players in program history, a three-time All-American who still holds the Navy career records for points (377) and goals (282). He stands sixth in assists (95) and was also a three-time, first team All-East selection.
“Luis was a difference-maker right away and we took advantage of his talents for four years,” Schofield said. “Luis had been a nationally-ranked swimmer and was as fast or faster than anyone we played against 100% of the time. He was extremely strong and had very good game sense."
Nicolao scored 95 goals in 1990, which ranks second all-time at Navy. He amassed 118 points that season and 114 in 1991, which still stand fourth and fifth in program history.
“Luis going into the Hall of Fame is a no-brainer. Congrats on his well-deserved selection,” added Schofield, who stepped down as Navy head coach in September 2013.
Bellarmine Prep Pipeline
It all goes back to Bellarmine Prep for Nicolao, who was taught how to play water polo by one of the most successful high school coaches in the country. Larry Rogers captured 23 Central Coast Section championships in 26 seasons at Bellarmine and sent a slew of players to the collegiate ranks.
Popp also starred at Bellarmine Prep, and his decision to attend the Naval Academy instead of Stanford piqued the interest of Nicolao.
“Every San Jose resident’s dream was to attend Stanford. Tommy changed his mind at the last minute and went to Navy,” Nicolao said. “I was wondering why in the world Tommy would ever turn down Stanford.”
Popp, a two-time All-American and two-time Eastern Division Most Valuable Player at Navy, helped pave the way for Nicolao. They were part of a long line of Bellarmine Prep products to play for the Midshipmen under Schofield.
“Larry Rogers kept telling me Luis was the real deal. We were able to get him to visit Annapolis to see what the Naval Academy was all about and he fell in love with the place,” Schofield said.
Nicolao was grateful to have an immediate friend and mentor in Popp, a senior who looked after his Bellarmine Prep little brother during the 1998-89 school year.
“I had a really tough time adjusting to the academy. I really struggled academically as a plebe,” Nicolao said. “Tommy and his classmates helped create an environment that was welcoming and opening.”
Nicolao played hole set, the offensive position that touches the ball most often. Water polo has been described as basketball in a pool and the hole set is similar to a center that posts up inside near the basket.
Powerfully built at 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds in his prime, Nicolao was known to establish position just outside the 2-meter line and operate with impunity.
“Luis was almost impossible to defend one-on-one once he set up in front of the goal. He was extremely strong, powerful and physical. It was like trying to move a boulder,” Schofield said.
Added Popp: “There was no one Luis could not manhandle in the post. He was very dangerous inside because he could hold that position close to the goal and knew how to finish.”.
Nicolao also swam at Navy for two years under head coach Lee Lawrence, and that competitive background set him apart on the water polo course.
“One of my strengths was that I was fast. I was able to utilize my speed to get open a lot and was very good at getting up on the counter-attack,” Nicolao said. “My teammates used to tease me about not playing much defense, but I made the player I was guarding ineffective offensively because they were always concerned about me transitioning to the offensive zone.”
Schofield seconded that assessment, saying “If Luis got a stroke or two on you, it was over. He was like a jet. It’s called cherry-picking in basketball; Well, Luis picked a lot of cherries.” Nicolao reached another level of performance as a junior and senior after leaving varsity swimming behind. It marked the first time he focused on one sport instead of two.
“I got challenged from the get-go at Navy, which had so many great players in the program throughout my career,” Nicolao said. “Mike Schofield was an awesome coach and really built on the foundation of solid fundamentals I’d learned from Larry Rogers.”
Nicolao got his first taste of coaching while still serving in the Navy, serving as assistant and academic liaison to the water polo team while stationed at the academy for two years as a first lieutenant.
Princeton contacted Nicolao “out of the blue” and offered him the position of head coach of men’s and women’s water polo at the Ivy League school.
“I figured I’d go up there for a couple years and get a master’s degree while I was coaching,” he said. “Two years turned into eight, and the next thing you know I was there for 20.
Nicolao, who earned a master’s in education from the University of Phoenix, transformed Princeton into a perennial powerhouse. He compiled a combined record of 844-312 ― leading the Tigers to 442 wins on the women’s side and 402 on the men’s side.
Princeton men’s water polo captured nine Southern Conference championships and four Eastern Division crowns ― each of which led berths into the NCAA Tournament. Nicolao led the women’s team to nine Southern championships, four Eastern titles and three NCAA berths.
Nicolao saw his close relationship with Schofield strained during those two decades as the two became bitter rivals. That situation was exacerbated by the fact Nicolao would work Schofield’s summer camp and spend a good portion of the week recruiting the many talented products of the water polo program by the Naval Academy Aquatic Club.
Brendan Colgan, Elyse Colgan, Tommy Donahue, Peter Sabbatini, Sam Butler and Constantine Nakos were among the future collegiate All-Americans Nicolao recruited from Annapolis to Princeton.
“Schofield and I didn’t speak to each other for about 10 years,” acknowledged Nicolao, noting the two are close friends again now.
Nicolao returned to Navy to replace Mladen Stanicic, who could not maintain the success established by Schofield after being promoted to succeed the man for whom he served as a longtime assistant. Athletic director Chet Gladchuk announced the hiring of Nicolao as the program’s third head coach in January 2018.
“I wasn’t the best midshipman, wasn’t the best officer. I felt I could at least serve Navy well as a head coach,” Nicolao said. “Yes, I had it going at Princeton and created a program that was self-sufficient. I just felt I owed it to Navy to help turn around the program. When Chet called, I didn’t even hesitate. Now that I’m back, I can’t stop smiling. I can’t believe I have a chance to coach these kids.”
Nicolao could very well wind up in the Collegiate Water Polo Association Hall of Fame a second time as a head coach. He is determined to return Navy to national prominence and hopes to stay in Annapolis a long time.
“Luis has come back and cleaned up the culture a bit. He is recruiting really well, and I have no doubt he will get Navy water polo back to where it once was,” said Popp, who jumped at the opportunity to return to his alma mater as an assistant.
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“One of Luis’s most admirable traits is that he is so real. He knows how to keep athletes motivated and enthusiastic ― largely because he understands the importance of making it fun, especially at the Naval Academy where water polo is an outlet,” Popp said. “Luis has a lot of fire in his belly and is not done by a long shot. He could be at Navy for another 20-plus years.”