Water polo gave Nathan Thomas many great thrills and wonderful moments as a player, and now it is doing the same as a father.
The former Tamworth High protege’s daughter Nioka is making waves in the sport that took him to two Olympics, and saw him have the distinction of captaining his country.
The 15-year-old has been in camp with the Australian Born 2000 women’s squad this week and was recently invited to train with the Australian women’s team.
It comes on the tail of a meteoric 12 months in which she was named the most valuable player at both the state and national under 14 championships.
She was also co-captain of the NSW Blues team that won the East Coast Challenge, was named in the team of the tournament at the recent under 16s state championships after helping Balmain claim an historic gold, and was elevated to the club’s first grade side.
She has since been included in Balmain’s National League squad, and is set to become one of the youngest players to play in the country’s premier competition.
“She’s getting lots of opportunities and when she gets those opportunities she is taking them,” Thomas said.
Proudly wearing the green and gold in Sydney and Athens, and earning over 300 caps for his country, seeing Nioka shine has provided a greater thrill for Thomas than anything he achieved.
“Watching Nioka play, she does things that regularly stops people,” he said.
Nioka grew up on pool decks, with Nathan still playing until recent years. She said for as long as she can remember she “wanted to try this sport that dad played”.
“I love it,” she said.
She hasn’t completely followed in his footsteps though. While he was more of a utility player, she has chosen possibly the toughest position – centre forward.
“It’s a pivot role that really gives the offence opportunities. If you don’t have a strong centre forward it makes it very difficult for the team to attack,” Thomas said.
As such they are a target of opposition defences.
“Nioka has a really determined temperament in the water and plays hard and fair,” he said.
He believes she has the physicality and work ethic to go far. But with the wisdom of someone who has experienced it all before, he knows there is a long journey ahead.
“The advice we’ve [Thomas and wife Lee] given Nioka is to go and learn and enjoy being part of an elite program,” he said.
“Certainly at 15 it probably does suggests a bright future for her if she wants it.
“At the moment she does.”
He recalled an eight-year old Nioka telling him she wanted to go to the Olympics.
“The reality is that it is an insane thing to say, but in her mind her dad did it,” he said.
Nioka is taking it all in her stride.
“That was an amazing experience. Learning from some of my idols was amazing,” she said of the Stingers camp.
The youngest at the camp, she said she couldn’t comprehend it at first.
“I was really excited and learnt heaps,” she said.
“The moment I got in the water for the senior camp people noticed little things I hadn’t noticed before.”
Reflecting on 2017, she said “everything was amazing” but taking out the state championships with Balmain was the highlight.
“Balmain had never done that before,” she said.