Former White Rock Christian basketball star reflects on March Madness memories

Tyrell Mara now focusing on discus as he takes aim at 2020 Olympic Games

A lot of old basketball memories came flooding back for Tyrell Mara this week, as he trained in a completely different sport.

The 31-year-old former White Rock Christian Academy basketball star – who led the small South Surrey school to a provincial title in 2005 – has been, for the last few years, aiming to qualify for the 2020 Summer Olympics in discus, a sport he competed in as a teenager.

He’s recently started spending part of each week in Kamloops, training with Canadian Olympian Dylan Armstrong and famed Russian coach Anatoly Bondarchuk, and it was after a training session last weekend – alone, with his wife Natasha and two young children back home in Langley – that he found himself channel surfing, eventually landing on a NCAA men’s basketball playoff game.

It was then that he realized it had been a decade since he last played on an NCAA court himself, as the co-captain of the Portland State University Vikings.

“I didn’t even realize it had been so long, but it had probably been eight years since I’d watched a full college basketball game,” he told Peace Arch News this week, just a few days before the NCAA’s March Madness tournament was set to tip off in arenas across the United States.

“I ended up watching so much basketball this week. It was just a flood of memories coming back – I have so much nostalgia for that time. I watch these games now, and I (relate) to what those guys are going through, and all the work they put in.

“It’s really fun to watch now, and kind of re-live it a little bit.”

The 68-team NCAA tournament began with a handful of play-in games earlier this week, and the first-round began Thursday.

Mara played in the prestigious event twice, in both 2008 and ’09. The first year, his PSU squad was a No. 16 seed, which meant a first-round date in Omaha, Neb. against the No. 1-ranked University of Kansas Jayhawks and their starting lineup that included three future NBA players – Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush and Cole Aldrich.

Kansas won the game 85-61 and went on to win the NCAA title a few weeks later.

Portland State – who had never qualified for the tournament before – made it back a year later, this time as a No. 13 seed against No. 4 Xavier University. That contest – played in Boise, Idaho – was won by Xavier 77-59.

Though a handful of Surrey athletes have played basketball at the NCAA men’s Div. 1 level over the past 20 years – WRCA’s Kyle Wilson and Riley Baker, Tamanawis alum Sukjot Bains and South Surrey resident James Karnik among them – only Mara has been part of a team that competed in the March Madness tournament.

And though his team was unable to pull off an upset victory in either game, what Mara remembers most fondly about that time are the moments leading up to the games, rather than the on-court action itself.

“For me, it was really fun thinking about the two years (prior) to that – years that it took to build the program and the culture,” said Mara, who graduated from PSU and then played a fifth year of basketball while studying closer to home at Trinity Western University.

“I remember that I had keys to the gym, and we’d go and open it up late at night and get extra workouts in. There was just so much work put in to get us there.”

Mara – who came off the bench and had five points, one rebound and one steal against Kansas – also recalls the “surreal” experiences surrounding that first tournament, too.

“Getting a police escort to the airport, then getting on a chartered plane, and then getting another police escort to the arena in Omaha… you aren’t starstruck, because you know what it takes to get to that level, but it’s still something else,” he said.

“That first year, it was massive. You can feel the entire buzz of the city behind you. I remember taking the bus from our hotel to the stadium in Omaha. You get like 10 blocks out and you start seeing these little hordes of people on the street, and then the groups grow as you get closer, and suddenly the streets are full. You get this little ‘ego’ moment where you realize all these people are walking to the stadium to watch you and your team.

“It’s a moment I’ll never get back again, playing on that stage, but just to be able to remember that, and have a snapshot of it, is pretty special.”

Mara is certain that his experiences in those high-profile hoops games have helped him off the court, too – and serve him well in his new discus pursuit.

“I’m taking a risk in going on the journey that I’m on, and throwing discus, because I don’t have 15 years of experience throwing at a world level,” he said.

“But what I do have is a whole bunch of experiences from playing basketball, and there’s something that translates, for sure. I don’t think it’s a fluke that, if I look at all my personal bests in my last three years throwing discus, every single one has come at a national championship or international meet.”

Mara plans to continue training in Kamloops for the next few months, as he works his way toward achieving a qualifying standard for national championships as well as the Pan-Am Games later this year.

He’s confident he’ll be able to get to that point under Armstrong – as well as his longtime coach with the Richmond Kajaks, Garrett Collier – but he’s also prepared for the possibility that he doesn’t reach that mark.

To compare it to his former life on the basketball court, he is the proverbial 16th seed, up against a slew of more experienced number ones.

“That’s part of the risk of pursuing this. I told Dylan and Garrett, ‘You guys have to tell me when I’m done. I’m going to give it everything I have… but when you don’t see a path (to success), just tell me,’” he said.

“But I know I’m in the right place, and I know I’m doing the right work. I’m just doing the best I can do.”

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