We sat down with Team USA’s Dani Jackovich, decorated water polo player, and Universiade veteran, to find out what her life is like, both in and out of the pool.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about water polo, how you got involved, what’s the community like?
A: So the community is kinda small in the USA, It’s very popular in California. I personally am from Chicago, Illinois, and water polo wasn’t too big, like they didn’t have a lot of under high school age programs. When I first started playing, I actually started playing with a high school girls’ team. I was a pretty good swimmer, and I wanted something a bit more team like, and more dependent on other people, like more fun contact, and after I got into water polo, I just fell in love. The community — it’s funny because if you’ve been in it long enough you pretty much know all the coaches, all the players you’ve been playing against since you were like twelve years old…
Q: So would you say there’s a rivalry between Stanford and other schools..?
A: Oh, for sure. There’s always a rivalry in college sports: everyone wants to be the best and everyone’s always fighting for it. There are definitely rivalries, but at the end of the day, especially in Team USA, you put aside your rivalries and colleges and everyone bands together because you’re all playing for something bigger than yourself, and all that matters is the team USA across your chest and not your background. So it’s easy to still be friends with everyone — be competitive when you need to be competitive, be friends and teammates when you’re friends and teammates.
Q: So thinking about the upcoming Universiade: I know that the teams you’re forming are all from different schools and different kinds of backgrounds — how easy or hard is it to form that kind of rapport, if there are people you don’t know that well or haven’t worked with on a team?
A: It definitely takes some time to form that special connection with someone, like you can tell who’s been playing with each other for a very long time at games like these, the countries that they’ve been playing in. If it’s not a college team and more like a national team and they’ve been playing together, but at the end of the day each country has a way of playing, a style, a system. Everyone learns that system so that it’s easy to play with each other and it’s not so much just you on your own. Honestly, at this level, if you just take a few days’ practice with someone you can get that connection and know how they play.
Q: So how much training will you guys be doing as a team, like for the games?
A: So we’ll do one week of training. Actually, this Sunday, I’ll go down to Irvine, we’ll practice for six days together, and then leave on the thirteenth to go out there and we’ll practice more there, but also against other teams before the actual competition starts.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about the last time you went to the Universiade in Gwangju, what was your experience there? What do you hope for this time?
A: it’s kinda cool that I get to go again because at the end of last time it was all just so much to take in that I had wished I had another opportunity to do more things. The first time Stanford University went as a team, so we took it as an opportunity to educate ourselves on culture and grow as a team. We did a lot of stuff together. This time, being a part of USA it’s definitely a time to grow as a team but it’s also an opportunity to meet other people and just like watch the games and support Team USA. I think this time I’m gonna try to go to more events for other sports, go around the village more, meet more people. So I’m definitely excited that I have a second opportunity to do that, especially now that I’m not in college anymore, it’s more freedom to meet people, make new connections now that I don’t have Stanford to fall back on.
Q: Congratulations on having just graduated! So what’s next? Looking forward, what do you see yourself doing?
A: That’s a great question! So I’m gonna pursue playing with Team USA as long as possible, but we pretty much just focus on the summer right now. So during the school year, I’m actually coming back for one more class at Stanford in the fall, and then in January I’m gonna go play abroad in Spain in Barcelona for San Andreo — it’s a club. So I’m very excited about that, I want to continue playing as long as possible. And then in the meantime, like during the summer, or whenever I’m back here, I’ll just try to get work experience, like internships. I’m a biomechanical engineering major, so eventually, one day when I put away my suit I hope to work with prosthetics and biomechanical devices and design them.
Q: How did you balance your athletics life when you were in college — how do you balance athletics and academics?
A: That’s a good question. I honestly think that athletics help people to balance, because it gives you very good time management. so you have so little time to do academics that when you’re there, you put all that effort into studying, you know you’ll be away this weekend, you’ll be traveling. So you’ll be more proactive about it, whereas with people who don’t have athletics, they have so much free time that they procrastinate a little bit. So I actually think that having that “I need to get things done in time, not necessarily the due date, but like before practice or before I travel this weekend” mindset really helps to get my work done. There have definitely been some long nights, but everyone in college can say they had those. At the end of the day, I made it. I don’t really know how, but I made it.
Q: So thinking about water polo, what would you say was your biggest challenge or weakness that you worked on throughout your career?
A: I’m very hard on myself and if I mess up, I hold it against myself especially towards the end of my career, because I knew that on the team as an upperclassman, I was a leader on the team, and I had to be doing my job. Any time I mess up, like I miss a goal, or if I missed an assignment on defense, I’d take it very personally. I’ve always been hard on myself, like even more than the coaches or my teammates had been hard on me. My hardest critic was always myself. So that’s definitely hard to overcome because towards the end I would just get mad at myself and all my teammates and my coaches could see that. There was a point in senior year when I think my classes were very hard, where I was really down in the dumps, and then there was a point where I just changed my outlook on everything and overcame that. I told myself that the reason I play this sport is that I have teammates to depend on — when I mess up they’ll cover for me, and I started playing so much better and our team started playing so much better. That was an overcoming moment for me, definitely turned the tables.
Q: That’s awesome. Can you speak a little about your role in the team, like what position you play and explain a little bit about that?
A: So I play center, which if you don’t know in water polo that’s the one right in front of the goal when we’re on offense. So the job of a center in international water polo is like — so the team works together to send the ball to the center, and your priority number one is to take a shot because you’re right in front of the goal so it’s a high percentage shot, or to draw an injection penalty foul. A penalty is most commonly drawn and so the center gets great position on their defender. That’s very valuable to the team — it’s a shot from five meters and there’s no defense and only the goalie. So that’s a high percentage shooting opportunity, and also an injection means that a defender has to leave the pool playing area for 20 seconds, and your team on offense is up a player, so that’s also a very high scoring percentage as you have more players than the defense has. So the center’s job is to try to create those opportunities by getting a good position on their defenders. On defense, we get countered out of the back court. So our job is to try not to get countered and play defense with the rest of the team.
Q: And lastly, can you tell me about a particularly memorable game or an experience that you had that has stuck with you while playing?
A: I definitely have to say that the most memorable game for me was my last game as a Stanford Cardinal — it was the national championship game this year. Going into it win or lose I knew that would be the last time I ever wore the S on my chest that represented Stanford. So it’s a very meaningful game as I’m sure it is to all seniors when they play their final game. It’s also cool because the tournament — going into each game before the final — if you lose, you don’t advance, so like if you have lost up to that point you didn’t know it was your last game, but this one was for sure my last game, and so that was probably the most meaningful to me because I was just playing my hardest for my teammates and the outcome was we won, so that was an amazing feeling, but any outcome at that point would’ve been just to leave it all and win for my teammates, and I’m sure they’d do the same for us.