Water droplets ran down the faces of the Indiana water polo players as they stood together in the weight room in March 2020. But it wasn’t sweat. Instead, those tears were the immediate, uncontrollable reaction to the news the team just got from head coach Taylor Dodson.
Dodson delivered the notice that Indiana water polo’s season would be cut short due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. The pandemic would go on to halt almost every sport at all levels across the country.
In what should’ve been a time for celebration for Dodson’s team, after sweeping their own Hoosier Invite and stretching their season-long win streak to ten games, the Hoosiers’ joy quickly turned into anguish.
“There was not a dry eye, everyone was crying,” then-sophomore center Izzy Mandema said.
The announcement came just ahead of a revenge match against then-No. 2 University of California-Los Angeles. After losing by just three goals in their match against the Bruins earlier in the season, the Hoosiers were poised to win. Now, they wouldn’t even have a chance to try.
Related: [No. 15 Indiana water polo finishes 5th at MPSF Championships to end season]
After the abrupt end of center Izzy Mandema’s sophomore season, she had a total of 64 goals in just 41 games played over the course of her two years playing at Indiana.
“The team, we were doing really well, we were working really hard,” Mandema said about the team her sophomore year. “We were all in a great jive together.”
She was an All-Mountain Pacific Sports Federation honorable mention and selected to the MPSF All-Newcomer team as a freshman. By the conclusion of her sophomore year, Mandema would be awarded Big Ten Distinguished Scholar Honoree, Academic All-Big Ten, MPSF All-Academic Athlete and named an Association of Collegiate Water Polo Coaches All-Academic honoree.
After an impressive start to her career at Indiana, Mandema became one of the main dominant forces on her team. However, her fortune turned as she got word of an injury that could change the trajectory of her collegiate career.
“Starting my sophomore year, I figured out that I needed elbow surgery,” Mandema said. “I had an issue with my ulnar nerve, my ulnar nerve was getting trapped on my bone. So I was losing function of my hand.”
She was dealing with cubital tunnel syndrome, an injury in the elbow region of the arm when the ulnar nerve that passes through the cubital tunnel becomes damaged. The news of her unavoidable surgery came at the start of her sophomore year, but Mandema did the best she could to play through the injury.
“Looking back now, I've had such a better perspective on what she was dealing through then, because she never acted like it was a big deal,” Dodson said. “She never used it as an excuse to not go hard or to get out of things that the rest of the team was doing.”
Mandema played in all 18 games in Indiana’s shortened 2020 season, but before the team's trip out to California to face off against UCLA, she got the notice she was long hoping to avoid.
“My athletic trainer at the time, Jen (Jennifer) Wilkinson said ‘I don't think you're gonna be able to play another game’,” Mandema said. “ (She said) ‘Your elbow is really bad, you're lying about it.’”
Mandema was heartbroken by the thought that she would never be able to play water polo again.
“It was extremely emotional for me thinking about this thing that I love so much,” she said. “It's been my outlet my whole life, you know, this is the one place where nothing else matters. And I really felt like I could be myself.”
Related: [Indiana water polo’s comeback falls short in loss against Arizona State to end regular season]
While COVID-19 ended her team’s season, it acted as a savior for Mandema’s road back to the pool. Mandema headed back to her hometown in California following the end of the season, and got her long-anticipated surgery earlier than expected.
Along with her road to recovery, Mandema took the time she had to self-reflect.
“I talked to my friends outside of water polo, which was really refreshing to be like, ‘How can I live without doing this anymore,’” she said. “When I thought about how I couldn’t play water polo, I found my passions more in what drives me outside of waking up every morning to get into the pool.”
While she had come to terms with the looming chance that her career could be cut short, Mandema continued to work hard to get back into the pool.
“I had to think to myself, like, this is not who I am, all of who I am,” she said.
While COVID-19 restrictions remained in place, Mandema was able to perfect her craft.
“Where there's a will there's a way, and she found ways to get in the pool to do all of her rehab,” Dodson said. “She communicated really well with our athletic trainer at the time and with us about her progress.”
After a long summer of training, Mandema reunited with her team to prepare for her junior season.
“I'm probably the only person to ever say this, but I was thankful for COVID,” Mandema said. “(COVID-19) honestly saved me, it saved my mental health, it saved my arm that has now, thankfully, fully healed.”
Ahead of the 2021 season, Dodson didn’t have any nerves about her star player coming back, and from what Mandema has demonstrated throughout the summer to Dodson and the rest of the coaching staff in practice, she had no reason to be nervous.
Related: [No. 14 Indiana water polo wins two out of three during weekend in California]
Mandema returned for the first game of her junior season in 2021 against Salem University, playing in the Hoosier Invite at the same place where her sophomore season ended. She matched her career-high with five goals in her first game back from surgery.
Mandema scored 62 total goals on the season for the Hoosiers.
In 2022, she plays her last season this time as the captain of the cream and crimson.
“She’s always been kind of a leader of the immediate group, she's one who holds herself to a really high standard,” Dodson said. “I've always really admired her own standards for herself.”
Mandema will finish her Indiana career with 193 total goals taking home All-MPSF second team honors at the end of the 2022 season. As for Mandema’s influence on the rest of her teammates and the program, it has proven to be nothing less than exceptional.
“She's been a great example of leaving everything you have in the pool every day,” Dodson said. “She's made the most of every single minute and every moment every day that we've had together.”