Many coaches give all the credit to those on their team rather than taking credit for their success, insisting that it’s the players that make the team while humbly standing in the background as their players stand victorious in the spotlight.
Fullerton College women’s water polo coach, Gabriel Martinez, is no different when he speaks about the winning streak the Lady Hornets accomplished last season. Martinez led his team to an undefeated 35-0 record and won a state championship. The Lady Hornets record 48-game winning streak began at the end of the 2013 season spanning all the way through the first 12 games this season.
Throughout all of the success he has accomplished in his lifetime, Martinez continues to stay humble and strives to reach new goals every season, rather than allow the pressure of being at the top consume him.
Born in Mexico, Martinez came to the United States when he was just 11 months old and became a naturalized citizen when he turned 18.
Growing up in Bell Gardens, Martinez eventually made his way to Cerritos College, and then transferred to Cal State Los Angeles where he played water polo and majored in finance.
His history with water polo, however, started long before college when he was just heading into the eighth grade and wanted to play a sport before he got to high school.
“I’m not the biggest guy in the world, so football, basketball and all the sports I enjoyed playing, I realized I wasn’t gonna be big enough for those sports. So I had to find another sport to compete in,” said Martinez.
He and a friend were walking around their campus one day trying to figure out what sports they could play when they heard a whistle in the distance. His friend suggested they play water polo, but at that time, Martinez had no idea what water polo was.
“I walked on the deck and saw them treading water. I thought the pool was shallow. I didn’t realize they were treading water with their heads above the water.”
Luckily for Martinez, he knew he would be able to keep up with everyone and ended up surpassing others who had been playing for many years.
“Being one of the smallest [of] all our friends, when we would go swimming in the deep ends, and they were able to stand, I wasn’t able to stand. I had to tread water. So when I went to water polo, the treading water was easy for me.”
With experience in swimming prior to trying out the sport, Martinez was prepared for what was to come and explains that it eventually came easy to him. He was able to use all the skills he learned from other sports he enjoyed and applied it to water polo.
Martinez credits his high school coach, Mark Schmidt as the best coach he ever had.
“He taught me water polo and changed my life,” said Martinez.
Martinez made the varsity team his sophomore year, which definitely helped a lot of coaches know who he was as a player.
However, he decided that he would attend a junior college before transferring to a university. He felt that at Cerritos College he would be able to get used to the college system and academics, and that it would be a better route for him.
After finally transferring to Cal State LA, Martinez continued to play water polo, but during his senior year, the school dropped the water polo program. Unfortunately, that meant that the money he was receiving through his scholarship was now lost, and he needed to find another way to pay for school.
With good graces on his side, Martinez found an opportunity to coach a club team in the city of Commerce and has been working there full time for the last 17 years. The job even reimbursed him through the Cal State system. So even though his own program fell through, he was able to continue to be around the sport he loved.
While initially becoming a coach, he would watch and talk to other coaches to see what they did to make them successful. Eventually, he was offered something with a bigger team.
“I was given the opportunity to coach the United States national team and travel the world and see how the game was played internationally, which helped me a lot to form my style, which is similar to styles in Spain [and] the Netherlands.”
This experience allowed him to broaden his coaching style and he found a lot of success when he was able to bring back what he learned to his club.
As a coach at Fullerton College, he has also found much success, making the state championships all but one year since joining FC.
Every year he and his team are driven to win the state championship, even though they may face adversity along the way such as players getting hurt.
Last season there were many difficult games where he said it would be okay for the team to take the loss so they wouldn’t feel the pressure, but through it all, they were still able to go undefeated. They beat the second best team in the state six times, showing just how dominant they have become.
“He had a lot of faith in us. He’s always very encouraging. He’s hard on us, don’t get me wrong, we have our cones and tennis balls thrown at us when we’re not behaving, but it’s just the eagerness of wanting to do better,” said Ana Flores, a kinesiology major who has played under Martinez for two seasons.
Recently, the team had their first two losses of the season back to back. Though they may have been discouraged, Martinez believes that his team can still go very far saying that many of the players are hurt and were out for those particular games. He knows that once these players come back, they’ll continue to do very well throughout the season.
“I think we will be in that state championship tournament, and we will play to our best and win it,” Martinez said.
Martinez truly has faith in his team, and that’s what continues to make him a strong coach, and his team feels the same about his coaching style.
Sociology major, Melodie Carbajal wasn’t planning on playing this season, but Martinez, who coached her in Commerce last year, convinced her to play for her first season with FC.
“He is, by far, the best coach I’ve ever had,” Carbajal said in regards to having five different coaches in the last 10 years. “You win together, you lose together. He teaches you how to play water polo to the best of your ability.”
As a coach, he is tough when he knows his team can do better. According to his players, he is “100 percent right most of the time,” and knows when they can give more of themselves to the game.
“What motivates me as a coach is that we’re trying to get every athlete to play to their full potential and not just their potential in the water. The matriculation and their attention in the classroom is also very, very important to us,” Martinez said.
They’ve had a successful transfer rate from their program for students going to universities like University of California, Irvine and even Cal State East Bay. Those athletes have also continued success after they’ve moved forward with water polo.
Martinez said that he is most looking forward to the games with Golden West and Riverside since they are top teams, but he also believes that the real competition are themselves.
He isn’t worried about what the outcomes of those games are, though. He focuses on how his team can continue to focus on getting stronger and playing with confidence.
“When that time comes, we will play to our best and what happens, happens,” Martinez shared.
At this point in time, it seems like no matter what happens, Martinez will continue to find success regardless of whether they win or lose. Rest assured, he will stay humble through all of his wins and allow the few losses to be a learning experience and motivate his team to keep improving.