Meet Matej Matijevic

Student first, athlete second. That is the motto Croatian water polo player, Matej Matijevic, lives by. Student athletes have a reputation of only caring about one thing, their sport. I can guarantee you that was not the case with Matej. Growing up with a professor as a father, he always knew how important getting an education is which is why he is majoring in international studies. He was delightful to speak with and his laughter was contagious. It was inspiring to hear him speak so highly of his team, UCI, and his passion for water polo. The way he talks about his sport and education makes you feel motivated to do better. Although he is not sure what his post graduation plans are, with his bubbly personality and passion for the sport, Matej will undoubtedly be successful in whatever he chooses to do!

When did you start playing water polo and how did you get into the sport?

I started practicing with a club when I was 11. My family has a vacation house on the coast of Croatia. There was a local club that would run during the summers, so as a kid I would join them which is how I got into water polo. Then when I would go back to Zagreb after break, I still wanted to play. So I decided to join a real club that plays year round and that’s how I fell in love with it. At first I was a field player then they were like you're tall and have long arms so you can be a goalie. I liked that position so I just stayed.

At the time, did you know it was something you wanted to pursue at the college level?

No, actually I signed my professional contract when I was 15 or 16. My dad is a university professor so he always believed in school first. He said I have to go to college, I can't just play water polo. Around my junior year in high school I was thinking about coming to the US. A couple of my friends went before and they were saying it is pretty cool. They said how you can play water polo and get an athletic scholarship that will pay for your school. I looked it up online and I liked the idea of coming to the US and playing water polo while getting a great education. It was appealing to me so that is how I decided. Otherwise, I would have stayed in Croatia and played water polo professionally but I think this worked out better for me.

 

 

Did you play any other sports prior?

I was trying out soccer and basketball but I never got more into it compared to water polo. I did basketball for two months and soccer for three months but that was it.

You are originally from Croatia, how did you end up playing water polo at UCI?

At first, I went to junior college at Long Beach City because I was playing for the Croatian national team and we had European championships. It was ending in early September so all the schools I wanted to go to wouldn’t let me in because the classes started earlier. So I went to junior college. After junior college, I went to San Jose State where I got a scholarship. I played there for a year but didn't like it. Then I got recruited at UCI and have been here for the past two years.

 

What do you miss the most back home?

My friends and family. I pretty much go home every winter break and every summer break. By the time I get to go back I miss them a lot. Then I get back home and see nothing has really changed and everyone is doing their own thing. I get over it after a month then I come back here. It’s actually a perfect balance. I also really miss the food. I am not a good cook, I eat out a lot so I really miss homemade food. It doesn't matter what as long as I don't have to eat out.

Are there any differences between playing water polo in the US versus in Croatia?

I would say Croatia is on a higher level. We were 0lympic winners. You guys here don’t have a professional league. College level is the highest level of competition and you only play in California. The players in Croatia are more skilled in a way and it’s a lot more serious. Here it’s more about how fast you can swim. The players are much more physically dominant. In Europe they rely a lot more on skills. It’s interesting.

 

 

Why is water polo known for being such a grueling sport?

I think it’s because a lot of things happen under water that spectators can’t see. You’re trying to get in a better position for yourself so there’s a lot of pushing, grabbing, and fighting. It's all under the surface. Bigger guys are trying to take advantage of them being big and smaller guys swim faster. It’s physical.

Would you consider yourself superstitious?

Yes, very. This year we got new team shoes but I really like our current ones. Our whole team was going up to Nor Cal and was like, “You have to wear the team shoes.” But I was like, “No way am I going to wear the team shoes, I like these shoes!” I think I play better because of something. Also, my warm up routine is always the same. I never switch it up, I only add to it. If I add something and do a little better in that game, I keep that part. So I guess you can say I’m really superstitious.

Have you had any major setbacks or injuries?

No, not really. I had a groin injury last year in spring and had to sit out for a month. It wasn't hard because it happened during the season. Since the season is so short, I decided to play. Mike Martinez, our athletic trainer, and I agreed that I am going to play until the season ends and then I am going to start recovery. It was not too bad to be honest. It healed after a month or two.

What was your ultimate goal this season and do you feel as though you have accomplished it?

My goal was to do my best every game. I am super competitive so I want to win every game. After every game I like to look back and figure out what I did wrong and how I can improve. My personal goal was pretty much aligned with the team’s goal, to win as much as we can and get the final game of the conference tournament and win, which we did. We beat UCLA which was a top ranked team at the time. It was a good run. I think as a team, we did really well. I really enjoyed it. If you’re doing it with the people you love, the ultimate outcome doesn't matter.

As you leave UCI behind, how do you want your teammates to remember you?

As a good teammate because as a team sport, being a good teammate is the most important thing. Also, see what I am good and bad at and take the good parts and forget the bad parts, of course.

 

 

Rapid Fire:

Best concert you have ever been to?

Tiesto

What language do you want to learn?

Chinese

Who would play you in the movie of your life?

Keanu Reeves

Go to starbucks order?

Venti Iced Vanilla Latte

Celebrity crush?

Chrissy Teigen

If you won a million dollars, what would you do with the money?

I would take all my friends to travel. I really want to go see all of Asia. Like North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, etc.

Many thanks to Matej for taking part in this interview!