Graduating senior Cortney Collyer is almost done playing water polo. She maintains a single proviso in the contract she keeps with herself. She’s been playing water polo since she was 12 years old, and has no intention to play on past the end of this season. But that doesn’t mean she’s ready to have this season end.
“It’s weird being done,” she said. “I’ll definitely miss it, I mean, I could potentially have two weeks left of water polo, ever. But hopefully I have more.”
The UC Irvine women’s water polo team is entering the Big West Tournament as the No. 1 seed. They just finished their regular season 5-0 in conference play. They are the favorites to win the Big West Tournament and if they win they would be guaranteed a bid in the NCAA Tournament. And Cortney Collyer hopes she gets more.
Cortney describes herself as a water baby. She first got into her grandparent’s pool to learn how to swim when she was 2 years old. She grew up in Santa Barbara, where the proximity to the coast led to innumerable trips to the beach. She was always athletic. Her sports career began on a club team playing soccer. But it was watching her older brother play water polo, watching his team navigate the water in heated competition without touching the bottom or the sides of the pool that lured her back toward the water. She maintained playing both sports for as long as she could, but in high school, she was faced with a difficult decision; soccer and water polo seasons played at the same time at Santa Barbara High School. For the first time, she had to choose between the two. With her collegiate career in mind, she chose water polo. She explained that water polo has a smaller, more intimate culture than soccer, and she felt that she would be more likely to get a scholarship opportunity through water polo than soccer.
She did get scholarship offers from several universities, but none looked more attractive than UCI. Here she knew would get the chance to play under Head Coach and former Olympian Dan Klatt, and she would get to play with former teammates from her Santa Barbara club team.
Water polo requires great stamina and athleticism. Players never touch the bottom of the pool, but rather they engage in eggbeatering, which is a circulating of the legs to keep themselves above the water as they watch the pool and consider where they need to position themselves for the ball. When the ball moves across the pool, the players frantically swim at full pace to get back into position on defense or offense. The game is structured, in many ways, like basketball. There are four perimeter players called drivers and a center in front of the goal struggling and jostling for scoring position. Cortney is a driver on the outside perimeter, working to either get the ball to the center or drive in and score herself.
Her favorite moments playing water polo have been the two championships she’s won with her fellow Anteaters. In 2009 and 2010, UCI went into the Big West Championship seeded third and fourth, respectively. By every right, UCI was a Cinderella team not expected to win in 2009 and the vulnerable champ with everybody gunning for them in 2010. Cortney recalls the tournaments and the drive and motivation to win.
In the 2010 championship game against Cal State Northridge, UCI squared off against a team that had beaten them twice during the regular season. But the defending champion Anteaters believed they could win.
Cortney’s not sure what’s going to happen after she graduates from UCI. She knows that she wants to go into business and stay in Orange County. Both her father and brother are in the business world, and she intends to follow in their footsteps.
Many UCI alumni have gone on to play in professional leagues in Europe, Collyer acknowledged, but she knows that’s not the path she wants to take. At the same time she’s torn. She doesn’t want her water polo career to end in two weeks, and even if she plans on moving on toward new goals, the desire of a champion for one more moment of glory is still there.
“I want to win a national championship,” Collyer said. “I think we can win. We’re ranked 10th in the nation right now. Anything can happen if we’re playing good water polo.”