Mount Royal University midfield Janai Martens plays during a game against the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns. PHOTO COURTESY OF ADRIAN SHELLARD.

Janai Martens’ passion for soccer led her to join the Mount Royal Cougars, a team she now considers her family. But as Martens  was preparing to play her final season of soccer –  a farewell tour of sorts –  the global COVID-19 pandemic cancelled it. Now, Martens must choose whether she should move on from her playing career or attend another year at Mount Royal University, completing the season.

Martens is the team captain of the Cougars women’s soccer team. The 5’8 midfield says she fell in love with the sport at a young age.

Martens played with the Grande Prairie Wolves Soccer Club for nine years before joining the Edmonton Strikers. There, she won gold at the Arctic Winter Games. Eventually, she joined the Grande Prairie Regional College, winning rookie of the year and notching a silver medal at the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference provincials in the process.

“A dream of mine was to eventually play at the university level,” says Martens. “It’s a higher caliber of play compared to ACAC and I wanted to see how far I could go.”

Even when we’re doing conditioning, which sucks, I just tell myself ‘I get to do this. I don’t have to, but it’s a privilege.’

Janai Martens

Regardless of their academic year and institution, every student athlete gets an opportunity to play for five years starting with the very first time they join a post-secondary school team.

That meant, after playing for a year at Grande Prairie, Martens had four years of playing left when she transferred to Mount Royal.

“When I first came I was really nervous,” says Martens. “This was the highest caliber of soccer and I didn’t know anyone coming in. But all the girls made me feel so welcomed.”

The elite-level Martens dreamed of playing at became a reality and she has met all the challenges that came with it.

“I find that, when competing on a high level, the pace is so much faster and the physicality is more intense. But you adapt and improve because of it.”

Additionally, those challenges have been coupled with the camaraderie she’s built with her team.

“I love my experience here so much that I don’t know if I’ve enjoyed the people or the sport more,” says Martens.

Travelling for games every weekend and spending hours a day at practice has strengthened Martens’ bond with her teammates. Now, she considers them more like sisters.

The 2019-2020 MRU Women’s Soccer team. PHOTO COURTESY OF ADRIAN SHELLARD.

“I am a homebody and, being far from home, I definitely rely on my teammates and best friends to support me – which they do here,” says Martens.

“We try to do some fun things on the side like go shopping,” she says. “During the preseason, for team building, we would go on hikes.”

Together, their team has battled for three years in the very competitive Canada-West conference, covering Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

“It’s been a struggle getting past the first round of the playoffs,” Martens says. “That’s been one of our biggest team goals.”

Being bounced out early again this past season, Martens thought she could regroup with her team and come back stronger this year. Unfortunately, like the rest of the world, she was in for a big surprise.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced Canada to go on lockdown by the end of March. Businesses shut down, people started working from home, school ended abruptly and the future of university sports was up in the air.

“When COVID struck, we actually had seasons end early,” says Karla Karch, director of Cougars Athletics and Recreation. “Both our women’s hockey and volleyball teams were at nationals but the games had to be cancelled.”

The Canada-West conference had meetings throughout April and May to figure out what the 2020/21 season could look like.

The Can-West COVID-19 task force, made up by school athletic directors and medical experts, decided to cancel the fall sports, including football, cross-country, rugby 15s, field hockey and soccer.

“These decisions have to be made with enough time in advance to allow schools to make arrangements if it was approved,” says Karch. “In this case, our best guess of the timing of this is we did not have approval for return to sport.”

As a result of the season cancellation, fifth-year student-athletes cannot play out their final year of competition.

Karch and the MRU athletic department understand this and have given their athletes some good news.

“Because there is no season, they don’t lose their eligibility; they still have their fifth year.”

Martens will be getting her degree in health and physical education this year, meaning her soccer career could be cut short.

Head coach Tino Fusco empathizes with the dilemma Martens is now facing.

“I think she’s stuck with making a decision of what to do with her career,” he says. “My suggestion would be to move on with their life and see where she can go with it.”

Outside of soccer, Martens has other interests she would like to pursue.

“I’m really interested in nutrition and exercise physiology, and I’m considering getting my masters for it,” she says. “I would love one day to teach at a college or university.”

Martens and her team continue to practice amidst the lost season.

“We can have our building year and come back stronger without anyone losing a year of eligibility.”

Alexi Watson has been Martens’ teammate since her days with the Grande Prairie Wolves up to now as a Cougar.

Martens considers Watson to be her closest teammate both on and off the field.

“I respect whatever decision Janai chooses in regards to staying or leaving for the next season,” says Watson. “Personally, I want her to stay and play her last year at Mount Royal because I believe it is an advantage to have experienced players like her on the team – and also because she is one of my closest friends and I love playing soccer with her.”

Martens says she is also exploring options for courses she could take at MRU to still play her lost season.

Martens battles for the ball with a player from the UBC Thunderbirds. PHOTO COURTESY OF ADRIAN SHELLARD.

“Along with school, soccer will always be one of those things that come first for me.”

Aside from the sisterhood she has gained, soccer has given Martens life experiences she will forever cherish.

“I have travelled to Las Vegas, Alaska, Washington, Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, B.C. and Manitoba for soccer,” she says. “I have sports to thank for all the travel that I have experienced thus far.”

Though she has yet to make a decision, Martens is still trying to be present for her team.

“I can’t believe that I’m graduating this year already and so I wanted to enjoy my time with the team,” says Martens. “Even when we’re doing conditioning, which sucks, I just tell myself “I get to do this. I don’t have to, but it’s a privilege.”

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