One of the many quotes attributed to famed UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden states that “Sports doesn’t build character, it reveals it” and one of the Bruins athletes exemplifies those words.
Brooke Martin was recruited by UCLA in part for her character, little did she know it would be tested so often in her short women’s water polo career.Martin was a widely sought after player in Southern California, lettering in the sport all four years in high school. She definitely caught the attention of UCLA Head Coach, Brandon Brooks.
“From a coaching standpoint I liked that she was a fairly tall athletic shooter,” Brooks said. “She has all the skills and traits you look for in a really good water polo player. We thought she could contribute to our success.”
She did just that, playing in 21 matches, making four starts and scoring 17 goals on 46 attempts. The next year as a sophomore, she played in 30 matches and scored 23 goals on 72 attempts.
“I loved the sport so much,” Martin said. “My life revolved around water polo since high school and it was my identity.”
While Martin’s sophomore year was successful, she had to deal with her mom battling thyroid cancer.
A year later she had no idea that same disease would affect her. It was right before Thanksgiving in 2012 and doctors told her she had the exact same cancer her mother had the prior year.
“When I first diagnosed my first thought was how was I going to tell the team,” Martin said. “My mother had the year before so I knew everything that was going to happen. I wasn’t nervous about it because I knew it was treatable and I was going to beat it.”
The news stunned Brooks.
“She told me and it was devastating,” Brooks said. “You think cancer and that’s big and there’s no good kind of cancer, luckily this was something that was very treatable and beatable. Once you realize first and foremost she is going to live then you try moving forward and keeping your head up and looking ahead.”
Martin took 2013 as a redshirt year and had a successful operation to remove her thyroid and all the cancer.
“There was a small part that worried me, but the doctors told me they had never seen it so small and they caught it so early,” Martin said. “So I was pretty reassured by them. They took out my whole thyroid and I have to take medication so that was an adjustment that was rough.”
Still doctors told her she would be able to play water polo again, something that excited her and her team.
“I tried to look at her as a person rather than a player,” Brooks said. “Sports are a wonderful thing but they are a vehicle for life. They reveal character and a part of life and not totally everything.”
Unfortunately it was hard for Martin to grasp that. For most of her life water polo was a part of it, so being out of the water was difficult for her.
“At that point I was going to take a year off and I was under the impression that I was going to come back,” Martin said. “I had the hope of coming back and that was motivation for me.”
The date when she could rejoin the team was even circled on her calendar and by the end of the Spring she was getting antsy. Finally the summer came and she was able to play.
“When it came I started practicing with them and about half way through summer I tore my labrum and capsule,” Martin said. “I tried to rehab it but it kept slipping out so I had to get surgery. That’s when I knew I couldn’t play through. I didn’t want to say I called it quits, but I knew it was over. It was a difficult decision that I tried to put off as long.”
With the sport she loved taken away from her, Martin wasn’t sure what to do next, but during her layoff she was coaching a 10 and under water polo team.
Even though she couldn’t help the team in the water, Brooks thought maybe she could out of it.
“I approached her about being on the staff and it was a no brainer. You know when someone gets knocked down and they get back up and they get knocked down and get back up and this happens several times you don’t know if they want to distance themselves,” Brooks said. “I didn’t know if she wanted to be a just regular kid and I brought that up and she looked at me like I was crazy. She wanted to do everything she could for this team so it was a short conversation. It is a great fit.”
“They mentioned possibly staying on the staff and I was like anything I can do to help the team I want to do it,” Martin said. “They came back at me with undergraduate assistant coach and I was eager to do it.”
The same qualities that Brooks saw in Martin as a player, he saw as a coach.
“She exemplifies high character,” Brooks said. “Her loyalty to the program to the girls on the team is an incredible thing. She has a willingness to do anything asked of her.”
Martin believes it is the least she can do after her teammates were so supportive.
“I found out that it wasn’t water polo I was connected to it was the people around me,” Martin said. “They taught me so much about Bruin pride and family. Seeing it up close was so incredible. It was hard going through everything I went through but I honestly wouldn’t change it. If I did I wouldn’t have the view on life I have now.”