Tuesday January 18th, 2011

An Olympic athlete needs help. This is a call to action for anyone who might hear of anything, see anything, have a lead or even a hunch. Over the holidays, some thieves broke into the home of Merrill Moses' parents in Manteca, Calif. In the middle of the night they swiped some jewelry, a flat screen TV and other valuables from Max and Marlene Moses.

The thieves also took the silver medal that Merrill, now 33, won while playing goalie for the U.S. Olympic water polo team in Beijing. It's out there somewhere and there are enough distinguishing elements to the medal that there is only one like it.

First, some history. Merrill grew up in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. As a teen he switched from football to water polo and led Pepperdine to an NCAA title in 1997. The vocal and energetic goalkeeper worked his way through the national team system, spent some time with a Spanish League club and eyed a spot on the U.S. squad that would go to Athens for the 2004 Games. Instead, Moses was the team's final cut and, with Beijing four years away, he began to doubt if he would ever become an Olympian. After the Athens Games, he left the sport for a year to run a mortgage firm.

In the meantime, the 2005-08 version of the U.S. water polo team was in crisis. U.S. teams and athletes receive various levels of USOC funding for being ranked among the top eight in the world, and the U.S. squad, then seeded ninth, lost its funding. They went through three coaches in three years, and when the players left their club teams to convene in Thousand Oaks, Calif. to train for the Beijing Games, most stayed in host homes with families who boarded them as though they were exchange students in college.

Dr. Terry Schroeder, a chiropractor who had been a member of the 1984 and 1988 Olympic teams, took over as coach in June 2007 and soon proclaimed his squad a "dysfunctional family." Schroeder had won silver medals with the U.S. team twice, then watched as the nation took fourth, seventh, sixth and seventh at subsequent Games. The U.S. men's squad hadn't won the Olympic water polo tournament since 1904 and still has never won a world championship medal of any color in 12 tries. In one of his first acts as coach, Schroeder asked Moses to rejoin the team.

Despite its low pre-Olympic ranking the U.S. progressed through its early matches in Beijing. Moses played a superb game in a 10-5 semifinal upset of Serbia, holding the world's top scorer, Alexander Sapic, to one goal in nine shots and holding fort in three straight man disadvantages in the fourth quarter. After Moses made a save in the game's closing moments, he held the ball and saluted Max and Marlene in the stands as the clock expired.

The U.S. team then entered the final game as heavy underdogs to Hungary, a country known to spill their blood in the pool. (During the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, a semifinal clash against the Soviet Union, the country that was then invading Hungary's borders, turned into a violent spectacle.) Despite the odds, the U.S. team pulled into a 9-9 tie in the third quarter, before the Hungarians pulled away and won their third consecutive Olympic gold medal with a 14-10 victory. The U.S. team walked away with silver.

"We are brothers now," Moses said after the match. "We all fought for this together."

Moses was named to the all-tournament team for the Games. He received an Olympic watch and a ring from the USOC. But the medal mattered most.

"As time went on and you get over the disappointment of losing to Hungary," he says, "you realize how special it is to have that medal. It was so hard to grasp at the time that you just won it."

Since there are no European-style pro water polo leagues in the States, the U.S. team only convenes during Olympic years to train together for the full year. Moses plans to make one more run at an Olympics and now plays for an Italian team.

In the meantime, he was always proud of the medal he had fought so hard to earn. He would take it out and show it to neighbors, friends and especially kids, so he could show them where earnest striving could take them. During one speaking engagement, Moses took a liking to one student's older sister, and soon, he and Laura Bailey, a prospective teacher herself, were inseparable. Up until that point, Moses' willingness to display and share his medal with people had brought him nothing but happiness.

Moses had planned a surprise proposal for Laura over Christmas week in Jamaica. He flew out both sets of parents to be there for the moment and to enjoy the Christmas-New Year's break with their new families.

Then in the wee hours one morning, they got word from a neighbor that someone had broken into the Moses-family home. Fortunately the neighbor, who had been awake to get a glass of water, was able to make enough noise to scare the thieves away by opening and closing their garage door. But the robbers still made off with Moses' medal, which had been left out in the open. The ring and watch were also taken.

The medal is an easily identifiable prize. The front of the Beijing medal depicts Nike, the goddess of victory. The back shows the Beijing Olympic logo, and the medal is circled with jade. The words "men's water polo" are written on the smooth underside. There are 13 of those medals in the world and 12 are with their rightful owners. Moses also had his No. 1 engraved on the medal. There is only one exactly like it, so there is no place for the thieves to go with it. Police are actively investigating, but the case remains open and the medal is still missing.

Granted, Moses has never lacked in confidence, and he says, with great certainty that he isn't done yet.

"I plan on winning another medal in London," he insists.

Still, perhaps there is a collector, a pawnshop, an antique dealer out there who may be approached by somebody offering up this medal for sale with a clunky explanation of its origins. It would be a gesture worthy of Olympism to get it back to its rightful owner who worked so hard to earn it.

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