Walking on Water: Water Polo Star Mariah Walker

By Andrew Bensch

Imagine being 12-years-old and competing against 18-year-olds—in a sport you had only been playing for the past 18 months.

If there was ever a natural-born athlete—with intelligence to match her athleticism—it would have to be Santa Clara Bruins’ sophomore Mariah Walker.

Walker first entered kindergarten as a two-turning-three-year-old. Even though Mariah was enjoying school, her mother, Shameka Walker had her repeat a year of kindergarten before sending her to first grade as a four-turning-five-year-old.

Considering many parents hold their children back a year before starting kindergarten, Walker is a full two years younger than many of her classmates. This didn’t stop her from earning a starting spot on the Bruins’ varsity squad as a 12-year-old freshman.

“I was 100 percent convinced it was not true,” chuckled Mariah’s Head Coach Aja Bumbaca when she first heard whispers that Walker was only 12. “But she and my youngest daughter share a birthday so when I was telling the kids we weren’t going to have practice because it was my daughter’s birthday, they were like ‘Oh it’s Mariah’s birthday too’ and I was like ‘cool, how old is she going to be?’ and they said ‘13’ and I was like ‘what!?” So I actually had to ask her mom. I was in shock for probably about a week.”

Arguably equally shocking to her age is that Walker only began playing water polo in March 2015, about a year and a half before her freshman year.

“At first I wasn’t sure about it, but I had been doing softball and when I first started getting into water polo I was like ‘it’s kind of like softball with the throwing,’” recalled Walker on getting her feet wet with polo. “It took me like about a year and then I really started liking it more and more. It’s different than swimming, because swimming is boring, you just swim back and forth, but water polo is very social, you get to meet a lot more people.”

Walker plays the position of “hole set” for the Bruins, a spot also referred to as the “center.” The position requires the ability to take a lot of contact from defenders, as it calls to be in the middle of the pool right in front of the opponents’ cage. In other words, she often scores goals from close up. However, she also possesses a cannon of a shot and is equally dangerous shooting from distance.

“She’s just got natural ability,” admitted coach Bumbaca. “Last year when she tried out for my team and came out on the pool deck, I made the decision early on that she was going to be on the varsity roster. She’s one of the best players in all eight schools in our league. She’s young, but she’s only going to get stronger and better.”

Playing center and taking a lot of contact in the pool from her opponents sometimes makes watching a tough job for mom.

“It’s hard, quite a few times I’ve had to bite my tongue,” chuckled Shameka on watching Mariah get dunked under water by an opponent. “Not only do I have to worry about the other children around and the other parents, also the refs. I don’t want the refs to penalize us because of an outburst from me.”

Even with two more years of high school ahead of her, Mariah is already looking at what colleges she might want to attend, to both study and play water polo.

“I’ve been looking at colleges that are the best for women’s water polo and they are at the top of my list,” noted Mariah with a beaming smile. “I have been to Stanford and San Jose State games to watch the college game.”

“I’m excited she’s thinking about college,” added Shameka. “Playing polo would be great, but just that she’s focused on going to college. That’s something we’ve told them since they were little, ‘you’re going to college, no questions asked.’ And playing polo is a great thing for her to focus on because with sports you have to have good grades and she doesn’t let her grades slip.”

Coach Bumbaca doesn’t see anything limiting her star protege if she continues to work hard.

“I don’t see a ceiling for her at all,” noted the head coach.  “The only question is her age entering a college program as a 16-year-old playing with seniors in their early 20’s. For an individual sport it’s not as big of a deal, but a team sport, is she going to have a lot in common with a 24-year-old? It will be important for her to find a program where she can see herself growing and being comfortable.”