It’s game day at Marian Bergeson Aquatic Center. Volunteers sell snacks to fans who slowly filter into the bleachers, waiting for the game to begin. Players stretch on the pool deck, snapping on their swim caps and sizing up the competition. When given the go-ahead, they jump in the pool for some warm-up laps. They focus on their legs, and then their shoulders. In groups of two to four, they practice passing. Finally, when the goal opens, they shoot.
With tanned, taut physiques and bleached-blonde hair, they can only be water polo players. And at the start of every game, Corona del Mar junior Mitchell Cooper is bound to be among them.
The first-year starter is entering his second year on varsity. Cooper has played water polo for eight years. He spends the majority of the year playing club with CdM polo; only two months are devoted to the high school season. Both teams have similar rosters and coaches.
Cooper plays on what is known as the 4-5 side, which is the right side of the offense. The 4-5 side is generally played by left-handers. Cooper, however, has distinguished himself as a uniquely valuable player by developing skills as a right-hander. On the defensive side, he guards the top-tier right-handers of the opposing team.
Win or lose, for Cooper, water polo is about the bonds he shares with his fellow teammates.
“We have a great camaraderie among us,” he said. “They are all like a second family to me.”
If the team is a family, then Head Coach Barry O’Dea is the inspiring father to all the boys.
“Coach O’Dea can really elevate the entire team’s spirits before a big game. All it takes is ten minutes before the entire team’s blood starts pumping,” Cooper said.
And he rides that high from start to finish. “I love the adrenaline rush that comes after we score a goal in tight games,” he said.
He admitted that the game is not without its challenges and that sometimes, “you will wake up at 5:00 a.m. for morning practice and realize that this is not what you want to be doing.”
“Water polo requires an ‘I want to be here’ attitude,” he explained, “even more so when it starts to hurt.” That attitude is especially impressive given Cooper’s rigorous class schedule, which includes Enhanced Math III and Advanced Placement courses in Biology, English, and Spanish. He is also heavily involved with Triton Tech, CdM’s robotics club.
Though the days can be hard and long, Cooper says they are well worth it.
“Every time you leave the pool, make sure you go home, eat some cake, and take a nap,” he advised. Somehow, this regimen leaves him with enough time and energy to practice parkour and freerunning and “a little bit of rock climbing.”
Cooper credits his supportive parents with helping him juggle all the aspects of his life.
“My dad has inspired me to excel in and out of the water, and my mother has encouraged me out of the pool with school and other extracurricular activities,” he said.
Cooper has learned many lessons over the course of his water polo career. He has formed lifelong friendships, built a strong work ethic, and proved a powerful addition to a solid team in a competitive program.
When asked if he had any more advice for young players, Cooper deadpanned, “And finally, don’t do anything stupid.”
So long as Cooper takes his own advice, there is no reason why he will not continue to dive to new depths and soar to new heights, in and out of the pool.