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Tod Leonard | The San Diego Union-Tribune | April 20, 2018

UC San Diego freshman Ciara Franke stars in two sports -- in the same season

  In 28 matches, Franke leads the water polo team by a wide margin in steals (56) and is sixth in points, including 32 goals.

It was an exhilarating and exhausting 11 days, and UC San Diego freshman Ciara Franke wouldn't have it any other way.

On the second weekend in March, Franke played in five women's water polo matches for the Tritons, and they won four of them.

The last game -- a hard-fought victory over Harvard in the Aztec Invitational -- ended at about 5 p.m. on Sunday.

A little more than 12 hours later, Franke boarded a flight to North Carolina, where the NCAA Division II Swimming and Diving Championships were being held.

Starting on Wednesday, Franke competed in two individual events and three team relays and earned four top-eight All-America honors.

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There wasn't another athlete at nationals who had pulled off that kind of water sports double.

Oh, and after she flew home Sunday, Franke had finals Monday.

"It was crazy," Franke said.

"A freak of nature," added Tritons water polo coach Brad Kreutzkamp.

In his nine years of coaching at UCSD, Kreutzkamp has experienced only one other case of an athlete being able to handle the two very different disciplines of water polo and swimming.

Tritons swim coach David Marsh, who graduated from and later coached for 17 years at Auburn, joked, "The only dual-sport athlete I knew was Bo Jackson. I tried to get him in a Speedo. He was a good swimmer for being a bulky football player."

This type of drive runs in the Franke family. Ciara's dad, Randy, swam and played water polo at UCSD from 1984-88.

Following graduation, Randy Franke coached goalies for the men's and women's programs at UCSD, and after doing the same work at La Jolla during Ciara's time there, he has rejoined the Tritons as the goalies coach.

"It's not easy," Randy Franke said of his daughter's double duty. "Ciara might not be one of the most naturally gifted athletes out there, but she is probably one of the hardest workers. She will put in the time and effort that's needed to accomplish something. And she wants to learn. You tell her what you want to do, and she will do all she can to accomplish that.

"She really enjoys working hard and kind of pushing the limits. She's on the self-motivated side of things."

Ciara -- pronounced as Kira, thanks to the heritage of her Irish-born mother, Kathy McGee -- had to be driven and disciplined to accomplish what she has.

As she neared graduation from La Jolla High, where she had a 4.3 grade-point average, UCSD wasn't much on her radar. She wanted to get out on her own and, as a coveted recruit, she made trips to Brown, Michigan, UC Davis and UC Irvine.

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Then a couple of Franke's La Jolla teammates visited UCSD and raved about it. The school's sports programs were heading toward Division I status, and they were beginning to offer money for scholarships.

The clincher, however, came when Kreutzkamp agreed to let Franke speak to Marsh about being on the swim team. Marsh was happy to oblige, understanding water polo would take top priority.

"I love swimming," said Franke, who turned 19 earlier this month. "I've been swimming competitively since I was 6 years old, so giving it up was going to suck. And then when I had the opportunity to do both, I was so excited. I couldn't wait."

The swimming season started in September, followed by the opening of water polo in late January. Franke managed her time practicing between the two. She felt immediately accepted by the other water polo players, though it took more time with the much larger swim team.

"There was maybe a little bit of resentment at first -- a water polo player joining the swim team," Franke said. "But after a week or two, everyone seemed super excited. I love the swim team; it's just that the water polo team is so much smaller, so we're a lot closer."

The coaches said they've had no problem with Franke splitting her time, because she's been such a significant contributor in each sport.

"She has been unbelievably valuable for us," Kreutzkamp said.

"She's big and fast, and right now she doesn't know how good she's going to be. I kind of equate her to a baby giraffe. She's a little wobbly and unsure of herself right now, but when she reaches her potential, she's going to be an All-American."

Tallest on the water polo team at 6-feet-2, Franke's ability to swim faster than every other player makes her a huge threat in transition between offense and defense. She wears out opponents and her long arms lead to plenty of blocked shots and steals.

"I like the physicality of it," Franke said. "Going up and down the pool, working hard and getting into other players."

In 28 matches, Franke leads the team by a wide margin in steals (56) and is sixth in points, including 32 goals. The Tritons, who host San Diego State at 6 p.m. Friday in the Harper Cup, are 20-11 overall -- they went 11-1 in March -- and 4-0 in the WPAA, where they are trying to win a sixth straight league title.

For Franke, swimming is vastly different, of course. Many water polo players are bored with, as they call it, "following the black line."

But Franke started competing at 6 for the Wind N Sea Swim Team, and she's gone few days in her life without diving into the water.

With the limited time Marsh got to work with her, they focused on turns and technique.

"We didn't quite know what we were getting with Ciara," said Marsh, who has coached more than 50 swimmers who have gone to the Olympics. "We didn't know she would be this good, this soon."

In her college debut at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, Franke scored wins in the 50 and 100 freestyle, and she was selected the Pacific Collegiate Swimming and Diving Conference (PCSC) female swimmer of the week in early December.

Franke's season times in the 50 and 200 free qualified her for nationals, where she also was part of the 200, 400 and 800 free relays.

Reaching the top eight at the championships earns All-America status, and the three UCSD relay squads made it, ultimately finishing fifth (800), seventh (200), and eighth (400).

Franke missed out on the 50 free finals, but she was thrilled when she touched the wall in the 200 free prelim and saw her time had vaulted her into the final, where she finished eighth.

"I couldn't have been happier. It was so cool," Franke said.

In the prelim, Franke posted a season-best time of 1:49.33 -- taking .66 seconds off her season qualifying time, an enormous jump.

It was impressive for a woman who four days earlier, in two time zones away, had played five water polo matches in three days.

"Her times would have been even better," Marsh said with a laugh, "if she had been able to sleep a week before nationals."

This article is written by Tod Leonard from The San Diego Union-Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.