“My expectations were not big, just to learn English. But they were exceeded.”

Gabriel Mendes.

The Humber Hawks varsity athletes shine as symbols of academic dedication and athletic talent. These students work hard to juggle their schoolwork and their sports commitments, always striving to make sure the Hawks are elite in every sport.

We got a chance to sit down with Gabriel Mendes, an outside volleyball player for the Humber Hawks. Mendes talked about the challenges he faces as a varsity athlete, with the added struggles of being an international student.

Despite his passion for volleyball, Mendes’ interest falls under more than just the game itself. He enjoys learning about nutrition, fitness and the mental aspects of the sport. He considers himself a “hybrid athlete” and likes trying out other sports like soccer and jujitsu.

Mendes’ volleyball journey began in his home country, Brazil, when he was just nine years old. His father introduced him to the sport and started bringing him to practice with people older than him. For this reason, neither Mendes nor his father envisioned him being able to keep up with them. However, Mendes showed up and excelled at practices, opening up new opportunities.

At the age of 12, Mendes started playing competitive volleyball in Florianópolis. He had to travel six hours a week for practices, and he kept this routine for six years. Then, in 2020, Mendes moved to Rio de Janeiro to join a bigger volleyball team, Flamengo.

After playing for Flamengo for a year, Mendes moved again, this time to São Paulo. The Brazilian player wanted to study abroad, but he didn’t know English. So, while still focusing on volleyball and hitting the gym, Mendes dedicated himself to studying for the TOEFL exam every day.

With three options on the table – St. Francis College in New York, Douglas College in British Columbia and Humber College – Mendes chose Humber as his destination. He mentions the support of the Hawks’ coach Wayne Wilkins and the college’s structure as pivotal reasons, which made him feel more comfortable about his choice.

Gabriel Mendes with his teammates and Humber president Dr. Ann Marie Vaughan posing for a picture after he earned the Hawks Player of the Game award.
Photo by Diego Guillen via Humber Hawks

Before coming to Humber, Mendes didn’t have high expectations; his main goal was simply to improve his English. But, upon arriving in Canada, everything changed. He mentions his surprise to see how big the school was and describes the culture of the men’s volleyball team as “crazy.”

The structure offered to student-athletes was what shocked him the most.

“When I played in Flamengo, I saw their men’s basketball team playing; one of the main basketball teams in Brazil. The structure they have for the team room was smaller than the one we have just for Humber men’s volleyball. I got really surprised,” Mendes said.

Even though Mendes was amazed by the facilities and support at Humber, he thought he would have a tough time adjusting to life in a new country. But thankfully, he found the coaches and his teammates to be extremely helpful, which helped smooth his transition.

At first, Mendes was worried that his English skills would affect his grades. He even recalls the coaches talking about the importance of having a good team GPA.

Not to worry, though, Mendes did even better than he thought he would. He ended up with the second-highest GPA among male student-athletes at Humber, scoring an impressive 94 average.

Gabriel Mendes laughing with his teammates at the Alex Barbier Gymnasium.
Photo by Kyle Gilmor via Humber Hawks

Being a varsity athlete poses its own set of challenges, but for international student-athletes like Mendes, the demands are even greater.

Mendes talks about how tough it is to be away from his family. Not only is he living in a different country now, but even back in Brazil, he had to move around a lot to chase his volleyball dreams.

Being an athlete since he was a kid, Mendes has been busy with sports, which meant missing out on time with his family and friends. But he’s grateful for his family support, who frequently calls and texts to stay connected.

“Being away from my family is the worst part. But their presence online was essential for my growth,” Mendes said.

Mendes’ father has always been a huge supporter. I had the pleasure of meeting him myself in January when he visited Mendes in Canada. Chatting with him during a Humber volleyball match, I could see firsthand how passionate and supportive he is as a father.

Mendes likes to joke that he calls his father his sponsor. He believes that without him, he wouldn’t be playing the sport today.

“He loves the sport, he loves watching me play. I would have stopped [playing] years ago if it wasn’t him, that’s the only reason I play. He’s the best one,” Mendes said.

Gabriel Mendes with his father after he earned the Player of the Game award at the Hawks' Nest.
Photo by Diego Guillen via Humber Hawks

With one more year left before graduation, Mendes is happy with everything he has achieved in both sports and academics.

For the Humber Hawks, Mendes is part of the team that made history by capturing the first-ever four-peat in Humber men’s volleyball. And as a business administration student, his main short-term goal is to finish his degree and do great things at his father’s company.

Mendes is one of the many international students who are part of the vibrant Humber College and the University of Guelph-Humber communities.

If you are always on the go and share Mendes’ passion for sports, the IGNITE Soupbar keeps you fuelled and ready for your next workout or class. Visit IGNITE Soupbar and learn more!

Feature image courtesy of Kyle Gilmor via Humber Hawks.

Are you wondering how student-athletes manage school and varsity? Check out Alec Loney’s story!

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