Although she may not have realized it when she was younger, Danika Kotylak was destined to play water polo.
With a mother who was a competitive swimmer, and two older brothers, Nathan and Julian, who would go on to play water polo at the college level, it would seem only natural she would take up the family pastime.
But Kotylak was initially resistant.
“The whole family played, but I thought it was awful at first,” she says. “But one day my brothers’ team was a player short, so they asked me to play.
“And I was hooked.”
Kotylak, now a Grade 12 student at Meadowridge School in Maple Ridge, is off to Perth, Australia this week to compete in the World Junior Water Polo Championships as part of Team Canada.
Like so many local water polo players, Kotylak got her start with the Haney Neptunes, before joining the elite Fraser Valley Water Polo club under the tutelage of Maple Ridge coach Justin Mitchell.
“I’ve grown up with Justin as my coach,” says Kotylak. “He’s always pushed me really hard to be my best. Even after all these years, he still keeps things interesting. [Our practices] are never dull or repetitive.”
Having two older brothers playing the sport provided added motivation to train harder, she says.
“They’ve helped me so much,” says Kotylak. “We train together and they are always pushing me to be better. We’re all really competitive.”
The Kotylak siblings all played on the same team together with the Haney Neptunes, as well as for the Meadowridge Griffins high school team. The Griffins won the provincial championship in 2011, with Kotylak and her brother Nathan on the team, after years of finishing second at the annual tournament.
As a right side driver, Kotylak’s role in the pool is to set up plays on offence, and disrupt the opposing team on defence.
“I like to be the instigator,” she says.
At just five-foot-seven, she is the second smallest player on the national junior team. She’s also one of the youngest, being one of only two 1995-born players on the team, which is comprised almost entirely of 1994s.
“It was a real boost to my confidence to be one of the only players on the team playing a year up,” she says.
Kotylak’s first international experience with Team Canada came at the 2011 Youth Pan-American Games, where her team won gold.
“That was one of the highlights of my life,” she says.
After a strong tournament in Hungary earlier this year, Kotylak was picked in August to be part of the team representing Canada at the World Junior Water Polo Championships in Perth this month.
With such a long list of accomplishments at just 17 years old , it’s no wonder Kotylak has attracted interest from NCAA programs all over the U.S.
Kotylak says she plans to sign officially with the University of Hawaii this week, the alma mater of Pitt Meadows water polo products Monika and Carmen Eggens.
“I think it will be a really good fit for me,” says Kotylak. “The team is super international, so there will a lot of opportunities to travel.”
Beyond university, Kotylak says she aspires to play for Team Canada at the Olympics someday.
But for now, she’s focussed squarely on the task at hand: finding success with the Canadian junior team.
“I’ll be eligible to play with the juniors for a couple more years, so there’s another [Pan-American Youth Games] coming up and another world juniors,” she says. “The next few years are going to be really exciting.”