Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows have a well-deserved reputation for producing top-notch athletic talent, with the likes of Larry Walker, Cam Neely, Greg Moore, Brendan Morrison, and Andrew Ladd all having grown up here.
However, Maple Ridge is also gaining a reputation as a hotbed of talent for less mainstream sports, like water polo.
Nathan Kotylak, a Grade 12 student at Meadowridge School, has been named to the Canadian national water polo program’s U-18 development program this summer, the only athlete from B.C. to get an invite.
Kotylak is the latest in a long line of locally-produced world-class water polo players, such as Kelsey and Allison Campbell, Carmen and Monika Eggens, and Kevin and Justin Mitchell – all of whom have played in the NCAA or with the Canadian national team.
“There’s been so many great water polo players from Maple Ridge, and I’ve been lucky enough to play with most of them,” said Kotylak. “It definitely helped having such a strong group of players around me.”
Water polo seems to be a family affair in Maple Ridge, so its not surprising Kotylak’s older brother, Julian, is playing for Pepperdine University in NCAA Division 1.
“He’s been a mentor to me my whole life and tried to guide me,” said Kotylak.
He plays for the Fraser Valley Water Polo Club under coach Kevin Mitchell, who competed with Team Canada at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
“He’s been great, he’s really tried to encourage me to take water polo more seriously, hopefully because he sees something in me,” Kotylak said.
He spent last summer with the Canadian junior development team, spending time at the United States’ development camp in California. There, Kotylak and the Canadians went 2-1-2 against their American counterparts in exhibition play.
“That was the first time our team had played together, so we were pretty pleased to draw them,” said Kotylak. “I’ve never experienced anything like that. Playing with high level water polo players, it was a real eye-opener.”
Over the past year, Kotylak resolved himself to take his sport more seriously. He now spends seven hours a day, seven days a week focusing on becoming a better water polo player. Video sessions, strategic theory, and high intensity workouts are all in a day’s work.
“It’s been a big year for me, learning-wise,” he said. “I feel like I’ve come a long way.”
So far it’s been paying off.
At the U-18 national club championships last year, Kotylak and his Fraser Valley Water Polo Club took gold, with Kotylak grabbing all-star honours.
Earlier this month, Kotylak and his Meadowridge Gryphons beat out a team made up of players from Garibaldi and Maple Ridge secondary schools in an all-local provincial final.
Kotylak was named MVP.
After a month in Montreal for national team evaluations, Kotylak will have a chance to travel to Europe to represent Canada in U-18 play.
In addition to receiving a partial scholarship through Water Polo Canada to attend school at the University of Calgary, where he plans to study kinesiology, Kotylak also qualified for an academic scholarship from the school itself thanks to his good grades.
“Last year my goal was to make the national team and I did that,” said Kotylak. “They say your first year in the [national development program] is the toughest, so I want to get through it and learn as much as I can.”
Ultimately, Kotylak has his eyes on the Olympic team.
“That’s my goal,” he said.