For McKenna Mitchell, the span of her entire water polo career has been inextricably linked with the concept of family.
The youngest of five, Mitchell’s eventual foray into water polo seemed inevitable thanks to the precedent set by her older brothers and sisters.
Each of her siblings attended high schools known for their water polo programs, and have competed in the semi-finals or finals for the CIF water polo championships.
The sophomore center’s first introduction to water polo came at the age of eight, where she was constantly dragged along to attend her siblings’ practices and games by her parents. Unhappy with being an idle spectator, Mitchell did not hesitate at the prospect of getting into the pool herself.
“It was either sit on the pool deck and watch, or get in and play, so I just jumped right in,” Mitchell said.
Despite following in the footsteps of her siblings, Mitchell hated water polo at first, due to the fact that all programs with players under 10 were co-ed. The Santa Ana native would consequently go on a hiatus from the sport, making her return when she was 10 and no longer had to play with boys.
At the prestigious SOCAL Water Polo Club, Mitchell would develop a newfound passion for water polo under the patient tutelage of her new coach Edward Reynolds. Unlike other coaches who were easily upset and resorted to negative reinforcement, Reynolds constantly maintained a positive and enthusiastic attitude towards his players.
“It didn’t matter if it was the best person on the team or the weakest person on the team, as long as you were giving the full effort that you can give he was happy,” the Santa Ana native recounted. “That just struck a chord with me and it helped me grow for when I was on more competitive teams, it helped me keep in mind the fun that you can have in water polo.”
Mitchell also partook in competitive swimming, but would quit after five years. Unlike water polo, which facilitates interaction with one’s peers and opponents during the course of a game, swimming’s relatively solitary nature was very appealing to Mitchell.
Between club practices at SOCAL and team practices in Foothill High, Mitchell would average approximately five hours a day in the pool. Her work ethic would yield massive dividends, as Mitchell would become a two-time league MVP and All-American honoree in addition to becoming the sixth highest scorer in her school’s history.
As a team, the Lady Knights were four-time league champions, as well as CIF finalists and semi-finalists during Mitchell’s tenure.
The highlight of Mitchell’s career came during the summer before her freshman year at UC Irvine, where she competed in the Pan American championships as a member of the U.S. junior national team which placed first in 2012.
“It’s more than just winning a championship, you’re winning something for your country,” Mitchell said of the experience. “That is an amazing feeling that most people don’t get to experience.”
Despite the numerous championships and accolades that she has won throughout her illustrious career, Mitchell is constantly looking to take her achievements to the next level. Case in point: a league championship is great, but a college conference title and a NCAA title would be even better.
“Although every win feels great and every victory is amazing, you just have to look ahead because there’s so much more to accomplish. If you’re always satisfied with how you did, then I don’t think you fight for what you want as much.”
Being that water polo is a team sport, Mitchell isn’t just fighting for her own sake, but for the sake of her teammates as well. Willing to do anything for each other and for the benefit of the team, the ladies of UC Irvine’s water polo team are an extremely loyal and tight-knight group. Considering that Mitchell lives with her fellow teammates, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that the water polo team has become Mitchell’s second family.
In fact, it was this sense of camaraderie that Mitchell encountered during her recruiting visit to UC Irvine that clinched her decision to become a Lady Anteater.
“All the girls had this great sense of family and community and that’s just something that really resonated with me,” Mitchell said. “I really felt like I was part of the team already.”
After graduating, Mitchell currently plans to play professionally in Europe or Australia.
Although where her athletic endeavors will lead her remains to be seen, she can be sure of the fact that her family will be supporting her every step of the way as they always have.
According to Mitchell, much of her success within water polo today can be attributed to her brother Paden Mitchell, a former CIF champion who is currently coaching at Santa Margarita High.
As a mentor figure, Paden was never satisfied with his younger sister, believing that she could always do better.
“He knows how much I can achieve, and he knows how much I can push myself, and he’s not willing to let me by satisfied with where I am. He’s always pushing me to move forward,” Mitchell said.
Of course, one cannot forget about Mitchell’s parents whose devotion and love for their children are what made McKenna and the rest of her siblings’ water polo careers possible in the first place. For the sake of her children, Mitchell’s mother embraced the unenviable task of driving all five of her children to and from games and practices.
Without fail, Mitchell’s father showed up to every single one of his children’s games even during days he was sick.
For Scott and Phyllis Mitchell, the success and happiness that water polo has brought to their family is more than enough justification for the tireless support they have shown their children.
“When we talk about how it’s a family sport, it is a family sport, and we’re all in it.”
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