Croatian sensation: How USC prepared a future Olympian

Senior driver Marin Dasic grew up in a family of water polo fanatics. Now, in his fourth and final season at USC, Dasic will soon turn his attention to his next goal: playing for the Croatian Olympic team. (Jo Danielle Esteban | Daily Trojan)

About three weeks before Marin Dasic, a senior driver for the USC water polo team, made the over 12-hour trip from his hometown of Zagreb, Croatia to Los Angeles, he had doubts that he would ever board the plane. 

Last Wednesday, over three years later, Dasic had just finished an interview and was looking at photos from a recent water polo photoshoot. Upon seeing the results, he excitedly asked water polo Associate Sports Information Director Darcy Couch if it was possible to PhotoShop an “eight-pack” into his picture. 

When Dasic talks about how he grew to love his experience as a Trojan, that same humor and candor shines through. 

When he left Croatia, Dasic knew that he was leaving behind a culture that put water polo at the forefront. Because of this, his childhood and family life had always been impacted by the sport. 

“It is how I grew up,” Dasic said. “That’s what I did. My whole family and my whole love was dedicated [to] water polo.”

Given his lifelong ties to the sport, it’s understandably difficult for Dasic to choose the best moments in his water polo career. Still, one stood out, which he remembered with a smile.

“It’s my first goal ever for water polo. It was in practice. I was with older guys. Those guys were like two, three years older than me. I was playing with them. And [the] ball literally bounced in front of me, [in front] of the post, and I just, like, pushed it in,” Dasic said, laughing. “I was so happy. I still remember it.”

When he received a call years later from former head coach Jovan Vavic to talk about playing for USC, Dasic was already representing Croatia on the national stage. While he was drawn to an education in the United States, Dasic also received multiple offers to play professionally for European teams. In the end, he was most attracted to a USC coaching support system whose knowledge and love for the sport was matched only by his own.

“I think it was the coaches, I would say. I knew I wanted to play [for] someone who has a similar background [in] water polo as me,” Dasic said. “And I think there was no better combination than Jovan and [current head coach Marko Pintaric] to be a part of here in [the] U.S. I think that was my good chance to come here and continue playing good water polo, as I always wanted.”

Dasic described his freshman year as a steady improvement process, getting used to the team dynamic and the level of play that was expected of him. Judging by his performance in the pool, he adjusted quite well.  

That year, Dasic earned an All-MPSF Honorable Mention and NCAA All-Tournament Second Team honors while ranking fifth on the team with 30 goals scored.

“I think my freshman year was a great learning experience for me, and to see those older guys at the time,” Dasic said. “You know, right now and back then I would say [are] way different. The team chemistry is different. The guys are a little bit different. Not saying anything was bad back in the days — on [the] contrary, it was awesome. Everybody was working hard. I saw what USC is all about.”

When the time came to represent his team as an upperclassman, he wanted to make sure that the younger players felt comfortable working constructively with him, and he still has that mindset today. He noted that this aspect of the team’s dynamic is critical because, at the end of the day, he knows that everyone has the same goal in mind.

“If I’m messing up, [teammates] can tell me; [they] can feel appreciated and accepted. And so there’s no difference. You know, in the water, there is no difference,” Dasic said. “He’s [a] freshman, I’m [a] senior, that doesn’t matter. If you’re awesome, you’re going to play. If you get to work, you work your way up, and you earn your spot. Everybody’s valuable.”

That collaborative leadership proved effective in his junior year. He scored 35 goals, earned an All-American Honorable Mention, another All-MPSF Honorable Mention, received NCAA All-Tournament Second Team recognition and led USC to the 2018 NCAA Championship.

With his time at USC coming to a close at the end of this season, Dasic doesn’t see his personal goals shrinking — only expanding. After turning down the opportunity to join the Croatian team in the Olympics before his freshman year at USC, he is excited to begin that process again. 

“I want to start all over again, earn my spot and show everyone that I can still play and hopefully go to the Olympics one day,” Dasic said with a grin. “It’s on me to work, to improve, to believe and go to practice every single day, you know, until I reach my goal.” 

Going back to Croatia doesn’t just mean focusing on water polo: He gets to see his family once again. He remembered how as he contemplated Vavic’s offer his family supported him to pursue not only a USC education, but a college experience.

“At that time, they said, ‘We think you can do [it] … you should do this,” Dasic recalled. “If you don’t like it, you can always come back home, you always have a place to come back to, you know, you’re not going to lose much. If you don’t like it, come back. If you love it, you have a great degree, you did not lose anything.’ And here I am, graduating in December.”

With 28 goals so far this season, Dasic will be a key player to watch as he and the rest of his Trojans enter the latter half of their season with hopes of defending their NCAA Championship title.