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South Fayette grad Klimek a natural fit for Grove City water polo

Chuck Curti
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Grove City athletics
South Fayette graduate Grace Klimek plays water polo at Grove City.
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Grove City athletics
South Fayette graduate Grace Klimek dives at Grove City.

When Grace Klimek enrolled at Grove City, she was prepared to focus her energy on diving, a sport that brought her success at South Fayette. Picking up a second sport — let alone one she never played — hadn’t crossed her mind.

But Klimek has spent her three years with the Wolverines as a two-sport athlete. At the behest of friend on the swimming and diving team, she joined the water polo team.

“Most of the new (water polo players) come from the swim team,” she said. “I don’t know if there’s been another diver that’s tried it.”

Diving came naturally for Klimek. As a youngster, she spent much of her time at the community pool playing on the diving board.

When she got older, she decided to pursue diving with South Fayette’s varsity team. It helped that she had an older brother for a role model. Richie Klimek earned the WPIAL Class AA silver medal in diving as a senior at South Fayette then went on to a standout career at Grove City, where he was a first-team all-Presidents’ Athletic Conference selection in 2013.

Grace earned a spot on the WPIAL medal stand three times, and after meeting GCC diving coach Tammy Fritz through her brother, she decided she would follow him to Grove City.

This past season, she placed fifth in the PAC in 1-meter diving and fourth in 3-meter. That helped the GCC women win their eighth straight conference title.

Her foray into water polo was less natural and more nudged. One of her swimming teammates had a locker next to Klimek, and the two often traded playful barbs. Klimek’s flair for spirited give-and-take sparked a notion in her teammate.

“One day she said, ‘You know, you have a good attitude for water polo,’ ” Klimek said.

It’s common for swimmers to convert to water polo, but fewer divers choose that path. Because they spend so much time honing their craft on the board, they don’t do much swimming and often lack the stamina required for water polo.

Klimek played softball when she was growing up, so she at least could throw a ball. But there was the need to build her endurance as well as the ability to fight off opposing players while swimming and treading water.

On top of it, she was tackling the demanding course load required for a mechanical engineering degree. Klimek was willing to accept the challenge, although she admitted to having some misgivings — particularly after taking part in her first match.

“I said to myself, ‘What did I sign up for?’ ” she said. “Water polo is like a lot of sports in one. You’ve got to wrestle people. You’ve got to swim and tread and also be able to throw the ball. I think the only thing I had was I could throw the ball.”

“I think her freshman year she kind of got roped into it,” GCC water polo coach Alyssa Hunt said, “but it was something that she fell in love with and has stuck with since then.”

As might be expected, she initially struggled with swimming. She said when she started, she could get up and down the pool maybe twice before tiring.

Plus, by her own admission, she lacked confidence. She was a novice going up against more experienced and, in most cases, bigger players.

As she has gained experience, that “attitude” her teammate pointed out began to show.

“She brings some tenacity,” Hunt said. “She’s not the biggest person, so she has to definitely use that tenacity to hold her own in there.

“She’s one of the most dedicated and most committed people I know. I can’t think of a time when she’s missed a practice for anything.”

That dedication paid off this season. Klimek started a few matches and contributed to the goal-scoring for the Wolverines (6-8 in the Collegiate Water Polo Association). She even spent some time in goal.

“She’s extremely versatile and does everything I ask her to do,” Hunt said. “We lost one of our goalies this year, so she had to step up in the goal, and she always does that with a smile on her face.

“I’ll ask her, ‘You all right with this, Grace?’ And she’s like, ‘Yep. Whatever you need, coach.’ ”

With water polo season concluded, Klimek can look ahead to her senior year. She still has some goals in mind, like placing in the PAC diving competitions and helping her team win a ninth consecutive title.

She also looks forward to being a leader — with the swimming/diving team and the water polo team. She will have three years of college water polo experience, so she knows her responsibility will increase.

It has been an unlikely progression from never giving water polo a passing thought to becoming a team leader. She said it helps to satisfy a craving that diving can’t necessarily fulfill.

“Definitely the team aspect,” she said. “Swimming and diving is such an individual sport. Your points add up to be counted together, but in water polo, you need the player next to you.”

Though water polo has not come as naturally as diving, the journey has been no less rewarding — for Klimek and for the team.

“Her improvement is astronomical,” Hunt said. “She comes in and puts in 100 percent into every practice, every game she’s put into. She’s there for the team 100 percent.”

Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @CCurti_Trib.

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