By John DeCoste '77
By the time Zachary Visser graduates from Acadia in May, he will have left his mark on his alma mater in just about every conceivable way.
The 21-year-old Visser, who calls Winsloe South, P.E.I. home, was recruited to Acadia to play varsity soccer by Axemen head coach Findlay MacRae in the fall of 2015. However, as MacRae points out, "while playing soccer is very important to Zach, it is clear that academics is his priority."
Indeed, Visser has maintained a Grade Point Average (GPA) at or near 4.0 during his entire time at Acadia. A three-time U-Sports Academic All-Canadian, he is very likely to achieve that distinction for a fourth and final time for the current academic year.
For each of the past two years, he has been Acadia's male nominee for the U-Sports top-eight Academic All-Canadian distinction. He also recently interviewed for a Rhodes scholarship.
Visser acknowledges, "academics has always been important to me. It's how my parents brought me up – studies came first. I would agree academics is my top priority, which is probably a bit unorthodox in terms of a student-athlete."
Like most 'provincial' universities, UPEI has always had a good reputation for retaining high school students from the Island.
Coming out of high school,Visser "had options on the table," including UPEI and Mount Allison. However, he chose to attend Acadia, which, in hindsight, was "the best decision I could have made."
His sister attended Mount Allison and played varsity soccer there. On the other hand, his father and Findlay MacRae were soccer teammates at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College.
He recalls, "we were over watching my sister play for Mount A against Acadia. My dad introduced me to Findlay, and we made initial contact." During a coaching trip to P.E.I., MacRae "reached out to me. We met, and he made me an offer."
A defender – specifically, a centre back – Visser has been playing soccer "starting at age five or six," which isn't all that surprising given his family's connection with the sport. He grew up playing in the Winsloe club system, at Colonel Gray High School, and also played with the P.E.I. provincial program.
Ironically, though he was certainly talented enough, he never got to represent P.E.I. at the Canada Games. "It was the way things worked out. The first time I tried out, I was too young, three years younger than most of the players they selected, and four years later, I was a little bit too old."
Always a solid defender, Visser got to experience the U-Sports nationals at Guelph in his second season. In 2017, he scored a playoff goal against UPEI – a team that included "a few guys I had played with on provincial teams since U-13, and probably longer than that at the club level."
Visser was fortunate, in his first two seasons, to have all-Canadian Andrew Snyder both as a teammate and a member of the same backfield. "Andrew was a great mentor to me," he says. "I served as his understudy in a couple of different ways, both on and off the field."
Student-athletes who play fall sports are well aware that their varsity sport season is over by mid-November, while the academic year lasts into April. This leaves lots of time to fully experience all the various aspects of what it means to be a university student.
Visser has fully embraced the 'community side' of being a student-athlete. He has been fully involved in Relay for Life, has organized and coordinated team and community fundraisers for the Alzheimer Society and the Heart and Stroke Foundation, served as an instructor in the Acadia S.M.I.L.E. program, and since 2012, has volunteered in the summers at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown.
Following the 2017 season, he was the recipient of both the AUS and U-Sports Student-Athlete Community Service Award for men's soccer.
"To be recognized, particularly at the national level, is extremely gratifying," Visser says. "I take my volunteering very seriously, and I lot of it has a personal connection to me."
He acknowledges, "most of what I do, I do for a reason. Relay for Life, I do for my dad (who passed away in February of 2018 at age 53 following a five-year battle with cancer). I had a grandmother who had Alzheimer's. Other things, like S.M.I.L.E., I do because I enjoy them."
He started with the S.M.I.L.E. program in the second semester of his first year at Acadia. "I had attended a S.M.I.L.E. 'athlete night'. I enjoyed it, and decided the next semester to get involved."
All his extracurricular activity has kept him busy, along with his athletic and academic responsibilities, but Visser suggests, "it becomes a bit of a lifestyle, and it definitely helps if you enjoy it all. I enjoy being a student, I enjoy playing soccer, and I enjoy volunteering."
He points out, "Dad always told my sister and I that if we were busy, we wouldn't have time to get into trouble." He adds, "both my parents were huge supporters of everything we did. We were always encouraged to do everything we wanted to do."
Without question, keeping all the aspects of being a busy student-athlete in the air is a juggling act. "I keep a calendar of all the things I have to do, with all the dates written down so I can keep them straight. Planning is one of the biggest things, and being aware of what's coming up."
Visser plans to graduate this spring with a B.Sc. honours degree with a double major in chemistry and biology. His ultimate goal is to become a doctor.
He had interviews last fall with the medical schools at Memorial and Dalhousie. "I like this region, and I didn't see any reason to look any further afield." In addition, the P.E.I. government "sponsors seats at both those med schools."
He adds, "hopefully I'll be at one or the other of those two med schools come next fall." He admits that at least part of him is interested in maybe returning for a fifth season with the soccer Axemen. "I could potentially choose to defer (med school) for a year, but that's not always the best option."
The competition for seats at medical schools is always intense, but Visser feels he has "a pretty good chance of getting in. My interviews went well. I just have to wait and see."
One thing that could have prompted him to defer medical school was if he had been chosen for the Rhodes scholarship. "I interviewed, and I was the Acadia student who was chosen to move on to the Maritime interviews. I won't get to do that, but I really enjoyed the experience – really cool people doing really cool stuff. It was nice to even be mentioned as part of that kind of a conversation."
His departure will no doubt leave a huge hole at Acadia in terms of all the many things he has been involved in during his time as a student. At the same time, there are already keen and interested people around to mentor, just as Visser himself was mentored by role models such as Andrew Snyder.
"One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give is to make sure you enjoy it. If you want to get into any kind of leadership experience, it really helps if you enjoy inspiring yourself and inspiring others. I have no doubt there will be lots of other good leaders after I'm gone."
Looking back on four busy years at Acadia, Visser says, "there were a lot of highlights. Yes, there were some disappointments too, but all in all, it's been a pretty memorable four years."