Luca Sandri: hard work delivers great results

13 March 2024

Last year, 2023, was a very good one for Kearsney College‘s Luca Sandri. He helped South Africa win gold in the swimming pool at the BRICS Games, he was part of the KZN u16 team that won the Schools Water Polo South Africa Inter-Provincial title, and he helped Kearsney win the Stayers Water Polo Tournament for a first time. Not bad!

Watersports, obviously, have played a large role in his successes and they began when he decided to take swimming seriously while in grade 3 at Highbury Prep, which led to him joining coach Nick Gray at the Kloof Amateur Swimming Club.

“Initially, we did everything,” Luca said. “We eventually decided that I would focus more on the sprints, because of my build. We saw that the long-distance swimmers were slightly skinnier, a little bit taller. Sprinters are a bit larger, with a lot more power.”

Later, when it came time to select a high school, he narrowed it down to a choice of two: Westville Boys’ High, the best swimming school in South Africa, and Kearsney College.

He has a pragmatic nature and he decided that Kearsney would be better suited to his needs.

“I decided that one can only get a certain distance in life with swimming. Once your swimming journey is finished, what do you have after that? With swimming being a very individual sport, you can always have your coach. I decided to come to Kearsney. My coach was 20 minutes away.”

Sure, there have been times when he’s watched Westville dominate gala after gala, but it’s about controlling the controllables for Luca: “For me, it’s not that big of a deal. I get to have fun with my mates. When I get in the water, I make sure I get there and back as quickly as I can. Whatever happens afterwards, I sit back, and I laugh with my friends. There’s only so much you can do in a relay.”

The best swimmer at Kearsney College? Every picture tells a story (Photo: Hannah Shirley)
The best swimmer at Kearsney College? Every picture tells a story. (Photo: Hannah Shirley)

A demanding schedule

Despite his successes in the pool, he, inevitably, began to question the demands of the sport, including very long hours spent working hard by himself. Even after he had ordered his life to accommodate swimming, water polo and academics, and not necessarily in that order – he’s a committed and strong academic – it was a tough slog.

So, at one point, he decided to give swimming a break and try his hand at rugby. As part of that decision, he became a boarder at Kearsney, even though his parents live only five minutes away from the school. His swimming coach was none too pleased with that rugby decision, but Luca had to see what it was about.

He enjoyed rugby enough, but after the season it was back to swimming. “The risk to reward factor for me was not adding up,” he explained. But boarding was something he enjoyed wholeheartedly, and he stayed on in the hostel. And his mom was always there to help ferry him to swimming training at with coach Nick Gray at St Mary’s DSG. The best of both worlds.

Swimming for South Africa

Life, of course, is filled with twists and turns, and Luca described one of those when recalling how he was called up to swim for South Africa at the BRICS Games in Durban last year.

“That was a crazy experience. Actually, I remember it quite vividly,” he said. “I was in class, during history, and I’m on my phone, when I really shouldn’t be, and I get a message from my mom – ‘call me ASAP.’ I say ‘I’m sorry, I’m in a lesson, I can’t do that.

“She said, ‘I need you to call me right now.’

“Sorry sir, please may I quickly take a call?

“This was a week after I decided I wanted to take a bit of a break and focus a bit more on water polo. Maybe just a month of water polo and recovery.

“‘Luca, would you like to come swim for South Africa?’

“‘Are you being genuine? ‘” because this was just out of the blue. I go ‘okay, sure when is it?’

“‘Next week.'”

“Oh, lovely!”

There was little time to prepare, and Luca would not be competing against swimmers his age. Then in grade 10, he would be competing in the u21 age category. What did his coach think? He urged Luca to accept the challenge. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to represent South Africa.”

He had a number of events to compete in, including the 200m individual medley (IM), which, without specialised preparation, was a tall order. But he was told if he didn’t swim the IM, he wouldn’t swim anything. He didn’t turn it down.

He had only a week or so to prepare. “It was horrible,” said Luca, because he was trying to jump-start his system, prepare it for the biggest swimming competition of his life, after feeling in need of a break.

However, facing top level competition, he rose to the challenge, swimming a personal best in the 100m freestyle and winning gold in the 4x50m and 4x100m freestyle relays.

Wearing the green and gold of South Africa, Luca Sandri shows off the two gold medals he won at the BRICS Games.
Wearing the green and gold of South Africa, Luca Sandri shows off the two gold medals he won at the BRICS Games.

Water polo

Water polo – some refer to it as like playing rugby in the water – is also close to Luca’s heart and it has, over the seasons, been a test of character and taught him lessons alongside his teammates.

It’s different, as he learned when, to his puzzlement, he lost a number of swim offs. Then, he realised that he relies a lot on his underwater work when swimming. A different technique is needed in water polo. And he wasn’t too proud to admit when he was tired and not ready for a swim off.

It’s the team aspect that water polo brings to the pool that means so much to him. At Highbury, he was the best player in the pool, because he was the fittest and the fastest. But when high school awaited him, his dad said he would have to choose between swimming and water polo. He liked both and he wanted to embrace the individual and team challenges, so he worked out a way to do both.

Playing for the Kearsney 1st team from a young age was a very physical and also a mentally demanding challenge. Initially, Luca said, being a swimmer, he didn’t enjoy the physical aspect of water polo.

“I would always try and swim away from all the big guys and I still do use my swimming if I have to go sit in the hole,” he explained. “I’d much rather try to be as mobile as possible. Swim and make the guys at the back move, because they’re not necessarily the smallest guys. They’re quite large, so I try to make them move as much as I can and play from there.

The physical challenges of water polo are inescapable, however, he admitted, and if a player is not prepared to battle it out in the water he will be targeted.  “If you want to be a good water polo player, you have to learn how to deal with that. Being younger, in grade 8 and grade 9, it was tough. You would literally watch the teams point and the biggest guy in the pool would get in and start marking you.”

The team aspect of water polo is a welcome change for the solo nature of competitive swimming for Luca Sandri. (Photo: Brad Morgan)
The team aspect of water polo is a welcome change for the solo nature of competitive swimming for Luca Sandri. (Photo: Brad Morgan)

A programme on the rise

In 2023, he was a key member of a very young Kearsney 1st water polo team. They lost some games, but they won plenty more, and they never went down without a fight, despite playing many of South Africa’s top sides, which featured older and far more experienced lineups.

Something special was brewing, and in October last year coach Nick Rodda‘s charges proved it by capturing the Stayers Tournament title for a first time, winning all seven of their games.

In the first term of 2024, they turned the promise they showed at the Stayers Tournament into dominance. Playing with assurance they twice drew with a tough Hilton College squad and won the remainder of their fixtures, which included capturing the Reef Cup at St Stithians College.

The champions of the 2024 Reef Cup, Kearsney College.
The champions of the 2024 Reef Cup, Kearsney College.

Provincial achievements

In December 2023, Luca flew the black and white of KZN at the Schools Water Polo South Africa Inter-Provincial Tournament in Gqeberha. There, the KZN u19 team finished third, the u15s placed second, the u14s were second, too, and the u13s were also runners-up. But the u16 team, in which Luca played, captured the Inter-Provincial gold.

This year, Luca was selected to represent KZN at the Junior Nationals, the Currie Cup, in East London, which take place from 14-16 March, playing under coach Rob Ambler, who was in charge of the u16 team that won in Gqeberha.

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Academics and the future

He has one more year to go at Kearsney – he’ll be in matric in 2025 – and it will be difficult to top what he achieved in the past year, but as a committed academic, Luca Sandri has another string to his bow that he would like to explore fully.

He’s in the top 10 in his class in a school that has established a very proud tradition in the IEB exams. Therefore, given his hard work and focus, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Luca Sandri in the academic spotlight, too.

“I have always said to my parents that my academics come first. If anything does go wrong, I can fall back on them.

Looking towards his tertiary education, he said: “I said why don’t we see if I can get somewhere with my swimming or my water polo or my academics. We’ve signed up with a scholarship programme, and we’re looking at the USA and, with me being an Italian citizen, as well, we are also looking at Italy.

“I soon have to write my SATs and prepare my CV. It is probably going to be one of those things where I will accept admission to the best possible university I can get into – whether that comes with me having to swim, or play water polo, or whether it is for academics alone, I will take it.

And when one looks at it like that, meeting all the demands he has met, working hard when his friends are enjoying down time, Luca Sandri’s choices make sense.

He is extremely driven, and one senses that whatever he sets his sights upon he will achieve. Now one of the three activities in which he excels but which have asked so much of him – swimming, water polo and academics – will give back to him.

It will prove to be the stepping stone that affords Luca Sandri the best possible opportunity to create a life that, hopefully, will be a little less demanding.

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