You never know when you might get that tap on the shoulder.
Edwin Carrera received his last May, when the Orange Lutheran aquatics coach was asked to compete with the Ecuador men’s water polo team at the Pan Am Games in Toronto.
He was 40 years old.
He had six weeks to prepare.
What happened over the next two months was a roller coaster of emotions, heavy doses of self-discipline and self-doubt and a lesson in coaching he’ll never forget.
“For me, it was about showing the 12 guys who were there that I could contribute and I could help and I wasn’t just along for the ride,” says Carrera, head coach of the boys’ and girls’ swim teams at Orange Lutheran High School and an assistant with the water polo teams.
Carrera passed on an opportunity to play for Ecuador at the 2012 South American Championships—mainly because he and his wife, Kaylen, had just gotten married. Now the father of a 2 1/2-year-old son and 6-month-old daughter, he knew his chances of competing with his second homeland wouldn’t get any easier.
Still, he had plenty of questions for himself and whether he was joining the team for the right reasons.
Was he doing it just to pump his ego? Was he doing it because he thought he could really help? Was he doing it just to experience a free trip?
Carrera had one request for the national team: permission to remain in Orange County and train independently, rather than travel to Ecuador and practice with his teammates.
He was given the OK and immediately hit the weight room at Orange Lutheran, sought advice from the school’s trainers on proper workouts, swam laps, took shots, changed his diet and even competed against 20-year-olds in master’s competition.
“I can’t work out hard if I don’t have an end goal,” he says. “That Pan Am thing was sort of like the carrot in front of me.”
Carrera left for Canada on July 5 and, two days later, faced the gold-medal favorite U.S. squad in the tournament opener. Ecuador lost 27-0.
Not only was the one-sided loss to the Americans quite frustrating, but Carrera barely played. At one point, he made the mistake of asking the head coach to put him in the game, but that seemed to evoke anger and Carrera was promptly benched.
Carrera happened to be roommates with the head coach and apologized that night. More frustrating games and more one-on-one conversations with the coach ensued, and the pair finally seemed to meet eye to eye on July 13, when Carrera was named a starter in a consolation game against Mexico.
In the end, Ecuador lost all five games in Toronto but, following the final game, Carrera approached his coach, grabbed his shoulders, looked him in the eye and thanked him for the opportunity.
“He taught me, there’s no such thing as paying your dues,” Carrera says. “As many years of experience as I had, as great of a career as I’ve had, in that moment, it doesn’t matter. In that moment, you have to gain your respect.”
In that same locker room after the final game, Carrera informed a handful of teammates that his run with the Ecuador national team was likely over. At 40 years of age, it was time to hang up the swim cap.
His teammates, some of whom were more than half his age, urged him to change his mind. After all, the 2016 South American Championships were just seven months away.
“As an older athlete,” Carrera says. “I felt validated.”