The sun has already dipped below the horizon on a chilly day in early 2016 as Paige Bennett begins an all-too-familiar pilgrimage from her house in Abbotsford to the Walnut Grove Recreation Centre in Langley on a Friday night.
The frost on the windshield of the car, the stretch of dead-straight highway which connects the two cities, and the warmth of the indoor pool upon arrival are hallmarks of the journey. Almost every Friday for the last eight seasons, Bennett has made this trip to practice alongside her Fraser Valley Water Polo Club teammates. By this time next year, all of that will have changed.
Bennett will be navigating a new route to practice – one that likely won’t include scraping ice off of a car – as a member of the women’s water polo team for California State University – Long Beach. The Canadian import will be far from home, jumping into the most competitive conference in NCAA water polo as one of the youngest freshman in the league (Bennett doesn’t turn 18 until December).
“I’m ready for the challenge,” said Bennett.
“It’s just who I am.”
Bennett, who will graduate from W.J. Mouat Secondary School this May, signed a letter of intent to play with Long Beach back in October of 2015. As one of the top scorers on a talented Fraser Valley team, Bennett possesses the scoring touch, along with a level of physicality and swimming speed that most water polo teams covet.
“The experience will be the best – being an NCAA athlete, away from my family might be a little sad and scary, but I’m pretty independent,” said Bennett, who will study sports psychology and leadership at the university.
Moving on to compete in the NCAA is the natural next step for Bennett, who has been working her way through different levels of aquatic sport for the vast majority of her life. She was first recruited to play water polo by her current coach, Justin Mitchell, who was running a recreational program out of Abbotsford at the time.
“I’ve been swimming with the Abbotsford Whalers since I was five – I was about eight when I said to my mom, ‘Oh my gosh, water polo, water polo!’… They didn’t let me play until I was ten because they didn’t want my swim strokes to get messed up.”
Mitchell, who has coached throughout her career, said Bennett possesses the skills and the mental fortitude to be a difference maker at the NCAA level. But the pressure will be on - Bennett will compete against other Mitchell-coached athletes in California, including Gurpreet Sohi and Alexa Tielmann, who play with Stanford and UCLA respectively.
“She’s a leader in and out of the pool, and we’re definitely going to miss her at Valley… But we’re unbelievably proud of her as well,” said Mitchell.
But before shipping off to the Golden State – and reuniting with former Fraser Valley teammate Virginia Smith (a sophomore at Long Beach) – Bennett has work left to be done at home. She and the rest of the U19 Fraser Valley women’s team have their eyes on a berth in the national championship this season, and high expectations for the results.
“We are going for gold,” Bennett said bluntly.
Between training, keeping up her studies ahead of graduation, and preparing for a summer spent running water polo and swimming programs for the Chilliwack Stingrays, and Abbotsford Whalers, Bennett may even find some time to enjoy the dark trip down a two-lane highway in the cold of winter – it may be the last time she has to make it for a long while.