It’s not often that a water polo player is compared to seven-time Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis. But for Michigan coach Marcelo Leonardi, it was the perfect comparison for senior Ali Thomason.
Thomason has put together a strong campaign for the No. 6 Michigan women’s water polo team. She leads the team in goals scored and ranks second on the team in assists. But what’s more impressive is her ability to consistently improve during her time as a Wolverine. In each of her four years, Thomason has broken her previous season’s goal count, and this season, she is just 15 goals away from tying the school record of 84.
As a second-year captain, Thomason’s job is to be a leader, and to do so she has to set an example in all that she does. She has to be the best attacker. She has to be the best student. She has to be the role model for the rest of the team.
Thomason’s water polo career at Michigan took a turn after her sophomore season, when the Wolverines hired Leonardi. Prior to his arrival, Thomason was primarily a defensive player and had scored just 57 goals in her first two years combined. In her first season with Leonardi, she scored 58.
After he saw her play, he knew immediately that she needed to be part of the offense, not just the defense. He found a way to incorporate her on both sides of the pool, which allowed her to elevate her goal-scoring ability while maintaining a high number of steals.
It takes an impressive skill set to score as many goals as she does, but Thomason also uses her keen athleticism in the pool. This season, she has won 90 percent of her sprints, often putting her in prime position to score.
“She has a very unique style of play,” said fellow senior captain Kelly Martin. “No matter if one person is guarding her or three people are guarding her, she is always able to get a shot off.”
This brings it back to the Darrelle Revis comparison, which Leonardi made as a testament to her athleticism. At first, it might seem like a stretch to compare the two. One plays on a grass field, the other plays in a pool. One plays defense and the other is an attacker. But they are similar in how they both require so much attention from the other team, providing their own team with more opportunities.
“You put her (in one area of the pool) and we don’t need help,” Leonardi said. “On the opposite spectrum, the other team has to help because she is that good. She can cover so much water and put so much pressure on both sides of the pool because of her athleticism.”
But Thomason wants her impact to transcend her play in the pool. She is not afraid to do the little things to make a team run smoothly. From motivating before a tough practice to laying lane lines after practice, she has become a role model for others on the team.
When Leonardi took over, he introduced three pillars for the team: culture, teamwork and leadership. When he presented the team with the new philosophy, Thomason was one of the first to buy in.
“Change is always difficult,” Thomason said. “It’s a whole new system. From the beginning I believed in what Marcelo was doing and I bought into it and really tried to get other girls who weren’t as sure to buy into it. I think that’s a big thing that has led to our success, especially this year.”
Leonardi’s second task as the new coach was to name captains. The team had a tradition of naming captains for the following season at the end of the current season; however, he felt this was too early. So he waited. And waited. And waited.
Finally, a couple weeks prior to the start of the season, he named seniors Danielle Robinson and Elizabeth Williams, along with Thomason, as captains. Though she was a junior, he felt she was a perfect fit for the role, both for the upcoming season as well as heading into the future.
“Knowing I only had those seniors for very little time, I felt I need to develop a captain in training, and Ali would have been the perfect fit,” Leonardi said.
But as a junior captain, Thomason initially was hesitant in finding her place as a team leader.
“I wasn’t the most confident leader and (the seniors) were showing me the ropes of how to truly run a team, how to deal with conflict, how to communicate best,” Thomason said. “By being a leader last year, everything they taught me and everything Marcelo taught me has crossed over to me helping the other captains this year.”
Her ability to be a leader through teaching others plays a significant role on the team, as the rest of the team looks to emulate her actions both in and out of the pool.
Though her confidence has grown in her second year as captain, it is not to be mistaken for arrogance. Leonardi is continuously impressed by her humble nature. Thomason does not have her eyes set on her own personal records or accomplishments. To her, those feats are just ways to help the team reach its ultimate goal of winning games and being the best it can be.
“She is the perfect combination of the best player on the team with a big slice of humble pie,” Leonardi said.
When Thomason is outside of Canham Natatorium, her life as a student is just as important to her as her life as a college athlete. She is studying neuroscience with a minor in writing. Though her NCAA eligibility expires after this season, she still has another semester before graduating and will be conducting research this summer.
It is no secret that being a student-athlete is difficult, especially at Michigan. Though it can be tough to balance sports and academics, she never questioned her choice to become a Wolverine. To Thomason, Michigan provided her with the perfect combination of athletics and academics.
“You won’t see anything at any other schools like Michigan,” Thomason said. “We have absolutely amazing athletic facilities, and we also have absolutely amazing academic facilities and athletes are held to such high academic standards.”
Thomason has taken what she has learned from being a leader in the pool and used it in the classroom. Just as she is dependable for her teammates, she is dependable for her classmates as well.
Thomason works with two other students in a writing workshop, and her professor Cody Walker said she was dependable and always someone he knew he could expect to be ready when needed.
Much like Leonardi, Walker was also impressed by her humble character and willingness to help others. He sees her leadership skills play out in the classroom, just as they might in the pool.
“You would never know she is a star of the team,” Walker said. “She doesn’t carry herself that way. She is going to let that work do the talking and she is not going to talk about herself. She’s a really good citizen within the workshop.”
Though she takes her schooling seriously, she is still determined to finish the season strong for the Wolverines. She wants to prove that Michigan is a powerhouse in water polo, and hopes to bring a championship back to Michigan, something the Wolverines have never done. Perhaps, then, it would be apparent just how important Thomason’s leadership has been.
Correction Appended: An earlier version of this story misstated a quote from professor Cody Walker. He said Thomason was dependable, not dependent.