BY: COLE WAGNER, CONTRIBUTOR
If there’s one thing that Eric Martel knows, it is how fast things can change.
Three years ago, Martel might not have ever dreamed that following graduation, he would be going down to California to join an elite varsity water polo team at the University of California – Davis. His passion at the time, like a lot of young athletes in Abbotsford, was for another sport played on (frozen) water.
And for most Canadians, the decision to leave a promising start in high-level hockey (a sport where Canadians are the undisputed kings) for a chance to play – what is it called again? – water polo, might seem a little baffling.
For the kid they used to call “Shark Bait,” the switch was a stroke of genius. While his nickname from the days of swim racing with the Abbotsford Whalers didn’t stick into his adolescence, Martel’s natural ability in the pool never faded.
And since making the switch from hockey to full-time polo in his Grade 10 year, Martel’s rise in the sport has been meteoric.
Last summer, the Abbotsford native was selected to represent Canada at the Junior Pan American games in Kingston, Jamaica.
This summer, he’ll be getting acquainted with his new teammates at UC Davis, preparing for a season of Division I NCAA polo at one of California’s top schools.
How quickly things change.
“I signed the letter of intent with UC Davis in February,” said Martel. “I’ve always been a good student, so getting a good education while playing high-level water polo was something that really appealed to me.”
Though the odds of a Canadian polo-playing kid cracking an NCAA Division I roster are not completely equivalent to a young hockey player aiming to make the NHL, they are similar longshots.
When Martel joins Davis next season, he will be one of only three Canadian athletes playing Division I polo. The fact that Martel was scouted, and actively recruited, by a number of California universities before signing with Davis makes the feat even more impressive. Simply put – Canadian kids don’t make these teams.
It’s something that Martel doesn’t dwell on too much – more Canadian guys, younger than him, are starting to see the NCAA as a possibility after graduation, said Martel.
But the centre-forward is gifted with a uniquely powerful frame to go along with his skill set. He stands, at 18 years old, over six feet tall, and weighs more than 210 pounds – size that will be essential as he moves on from competing against boys to playing against full-grown men.
“I might have to adjust my game a little bit playing against bigger guys,” admitted Martel. “But for the most part, I’m going to be trying the same stuff I’m doing at this level.”
Martel will have to make a number of other adjustments as he moves to the NCAA next season – among them, playing under a coach who doesn’t share the last name “Mitchell.”
Since being recruited for the Whalers’ program when he was 10 years old, and then moving into Fraser Valley Water Polo‘s development program, Martel has played for teams coached by the Mitchell brothers – Ian, Kevin, and Justin – every season.
That relationship has proved fruitful for both parties. Martel has had the benefits of being mentored by a former Canadian Olympian in Kevin Mitchell, while the hulking centre forward has provided consistent offence for the Fraser Valley Water Polo Club throughout his tenure with the team.
This season, Martel is leading the way again for the U19 Valley men’s team. His 54 goals places him within the top 10 scorers in the nation-wide National Championship League.
To put it another way, Martel contributes almost a quarter of the team’s total goal scoring by himself.
To achieve success at the next level, Martel will need to stick with what brought him to this point: his work ethic, said Kevin Mitchell.
“Eric’s size and skill make him elite, but what really sets him apart is his attitude,” said Mitchell. “Some guys understand what it takes to succeed, and Eric is one of those guys,” he added.
In the meantime, before he moves to California this summer to settle in with his new teammates, Martel said he’s looking forward to playing out the rest of the season with his longtime Fraser Valley squad.
“It’s nice to get one thing off of the list of worries, but I’ve still got lots to do,” said Martel – a guy who seems to always be ready to get to work on the next challenge.