There are perhaps a few folks left in the country who are still a bit puzzled about water polo. Isn't that the game where the guys all try to drown each other? Is it a new knit shirt endorsed by Mark Spitz? You mean they really put those poor ponies into a swimming pool? Didn't the U.S. win a bronze medal in that event at the last Olympics?
To answer: Yes. No. Not very often. Yes—and we're still something of an international factor in the sport.
Fittingly for a game played in pools, water polo surfaces in the public consciousness often enough to prove that it is going as strong as ever. Contested by some of the best-conditioned athletes on land or sea, water polo is a trial whose excitement bears elements of basketball, hockey and soccer. The players, coaches and administrators are a tightly knit band with associations going back to playing days. "All of us were teammates at one time or another," says one zealot, "so we don't have any of those AAU-NCAA hassles like they do in track. We call this the water polo family."
When it assembled last weekend, the family had some gains to be proud of: despite woeful budget problems, the national squad had competed in Belgrade against powerful Hungary and Yugoslavia in July, and acquitted itself well. Not world-beatingly, but well enough to merit attention, despite not having had enough funds to rent a pool full-time for training. The swimmers had to work out between 6 and 8 a.m. and 7 to 10 p.m. "We could be the greatest," says Andy Burke, secretary of the U.S. Olympic water polo committee, "if we could just get our hands on a little money."
But everybody needs money in sport, and the familiar squeeze failed to diminish either the enthusiasm or caliber of play that marked the National AAU championships at De Anza Junior College in Cupertino, Calif. One dozen teams competed fervidly before a small but passionate audience which watched some of the best games in tournament history. Indeed, before the Fullerton (Calif.) Water Polo Association finally took the title Sunday afternoon, the fans had seen it all. One game was tied in the last five seconds by a 50-foot goal; there was the splashy play of Fullerton's Eric Lindroth, the tourney's MVP—and the ending came with still another deadlocked game, a situation that left the favorites fit to be tied. For laughs along the way, there were some terrific impressions of barking seals—by every player who got his head shoved under water.
But it was all in the family. The big daddy who stands to benefit most from the action is Pete Cutino, bald and beefy. Bearing a striking resemblance to Telly Savalas is the least of his distinctions; Cutino also is the U.S. water polo coach for 1975 and he may be the only coach in the country who has won both an AAU and NCAA championship in his sport in one year. His Concord Aquatics were the defending AAU champs, and their roster was dominated by Cutino's University of California squad, which won the NCAA title last November.
Still, Cutino discounted any favorite status accruing to his team just because six of his Aquatics had recently returned from Hungary where the U.S. had finished fifth in the Tunsgram Cup competition. "I just got 'em back three weeks ago," he said, "and I don't know yet how good we're going to be."
Concord star Pete Asch, who is 25 and works for BankAmerica, figured that the U.S. might have done better in Belgrade, but allowed that it wasn't all bad. "By the time we got there, everyone on our team was pretty tired from all the travel and time changes," he said. "We were one of the two teams to beat Holland, but we only converted four of 11 kick-outs [the occasions when one team is short a man because of a penalty] against Cuba and we should have done better than that. I think it was because we knew we were going to play Hungary that night. But it was good for the fellows who played internationally for the first time. We all realized afterward that those other guys don't walk on water."
Then, almost walking on water himself, Asch led Concord to three relatively easy victories before the most stunning play of the tournament resulted in a tied game on Saturday.
That feat was performed by Jim Kruse of NIMA—the Newport-Irvine-Mesa Association—which also had several national team players in its ranks. With five seconds remaining in the game, Kruse fired a desperation rocket shot 50 feet straight up the middle of the pool. Unbelievably, the ball skipped over the surface like a flat stone and past Concord Goalie Joe Shanahan to end the game in a 5-5 deadlock. Since the tournament was played under international rules, no overtime was played and since teammate Bruce Black touched the ball on its way, instead of earning the goal Kruse was credited with the world's longest assist. It also meant that Fullerton, which had knocked off home-crowd favorite De Anza, advanced into Sunday's competition as the only unbeaten team.
The expected clash provided the final drama: Fullerton faced off against Concord, battled the Aquatics to a 2-2 tie, the whistle blew—and so long, favorites. That earlier tie game had done them in. But out of it all a tough national team will take shape.
Next year will be a critical one. Cutino will take the team to the Pan-American Games in Brazil in April, and to the World Games at Cali, Colombia in July. To qualify for the Montreal Olympics, the U.S. must either win the Pan-Am Games or finish in the top six at Cali.
They might just do it: water polo is gaining new adherents and everyone in the family has high hopes for its future.
"The sport has really caught on in the colleges," says Bob Gaughran, chairman of the U.S. Olympic water polo committee. "They don't get too much publicity, but now that water polo is an NCAA sport, they're getting scholarships."
In addition to the two international competitions next spring and summer, the U.S. will compete against several college squads in the fall, and plans are under way to stage an international competition before S√£o Paulo, against Hungary and possibly other world powers.
"Our players are faster swimmers by far," Gaughran says. "It's just that the European teams play longer, all year long. In Belgrade one of the Russians was appearing in his 300th international match. Our most experienced player had played in 30."
Still, after this tournament, U.S. water polo seemed to be starting a similar dynasty. Perhaps it's true that the family that plays together stays together.