Held up against our history of mediocrity in international play, the U.S. water polo team's performance in the Tungsram Cup in Budapest last week was as salutary as an extended dip in one of that city's medicinal baths. Although defeated by the Soviets 10-7 in the meet's big match, the Americans beat six other highly ranked national teams and put the final competitive edge on a training regimen that's geared to produce a gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics.
A gold medal for the U.S. in water polo? This is a nation that has never taken better than Olympic bronze—in 1924, 1932 and 1972, to be exact. Unless, of course, you count the gold medal at the 1904 Games in St. Louis. That year, no water polo teams from foreign countries showed up.
U.S. head coach Monte Nitzkowski has been pointing toward L.A. ever since nine of the players selected for the 1980 Olympic squad decided to try again in '84. That alone broke with the American water polo tradition of hanging up the ol' Speedos the day after the Olympics. An even bigger break with tradition occurred late last year when the USOC and other sponsors agreed to come up with the $160,000 that would allow the U.S. players to take leaves from their jobs and train five days a week, as other top international teams do. On March 5 the squad started two-a-days at its training facility in Long Beach, Calif. In two tours of Europe since then, the U.S. has gone 14-1-1 against the best national teams in the world.
Both the tie and the loss, however, came against the U.S.S.R. Based on their all-winning record at Budapest, the Soviets hold a slight edge over the Americans—who were 6-1—in consistency and versatility, if not pure ability. The gap seemed to be closing, but a boycott once again has denied the teams a chance to meet in the Olympics.
"It's a downer," said driver Doug Burke, 27, a holdover from 1980. "But nothing is going to tarnish a medal now."
Just to make sure the 1984 Tungsram Cup, which was sponsored by and named after a Hungarian lamp company, would not be regarded as the real water polo Olympics, the U.S. contingent in Budapest took pains to explain that the team was tired from four months of hard training (true), that its lineup was still unsettled (partly true) and that winning the tournament was not that important (doubtful). "No one is going to remember who won the Tungsram Cup if we win the [Olympic] gold medal," said driver Tim Shaw, a silver medalist in the 400 freestyle at the '76 Olympics. In their first four Tungsram games, the Americans beat Yugoslavia 6-5 and Hungary—the second-place finisher in the 1982 Worlds—8-7, and dominated Cuba 8-5 and the Netherlands 11-5.
The Soviets made it clear from the start that winning the Tungsram was serious business. "This is like the gold medal for us," said Georgi Mshvenieradze, the U.S.S.R.'s nearly unstoppable 220-pound two-meter man.
Before the U.S.-U.S.S.R. match, driver Kevin Robertson, 25, of Concord, Calif. said, "It would be nice to win, but it won't ruin anything if we don't. We have to remember we're in training." But veteran driver Joe Vargas, 28, betrayed some honest emotion when he said, "Beating the Russians is the most fun you can have in water polo."
Apparently the crowd at the Bela Komjadi Sportuszoda agreed, because it cheered, though not too loudly, for the Americans. The U.S. jumped out to a 4-0 lead with its combination of fine goal-keeping by Craig Wilson, 27, and high-speed transitions led by Robertson.
But after Wilson let a ball that he had both hands on slip into the goal, the Soviets took over. They slowed the tempo, put the clamps on the Americans' set offense and converted a couple of turnovers into fast-break goals. After tying the score 4-4 at the half, they pinpointed a series of long shots past a bewildered Wilson. Toward the end of the third quarter, the Soviets were up 10-6, and the tired Americans could have used a time-out. Trouble is, there are no timeouts in water polo.
When it was over, the Soviets exchanged the victory kisses they reserve for big wins. "I think it shows we are stronger," said Mshvenieradze, who graciously added, "I think U.S. will win in Los Angeles." Boris Popov, the dour Soviet coach, almost cracked a smile when he called his team's performance after the first quarter near-perfect. "We changed the style of the game," he said, "and the Americans failed psychologically." He would not gloat, however, when asked which was the better team. "It is for the journalists to decide," he said.
"Let's face it," said Nitzkowski, "they are going to say the Soviets are the best." Nitzkowski, 54, took the loss hard, primarily because he has decided to make Los Angeles his last Olympics after 12 years of heading the national team. Before Budapest, he was 3-3-1 against the Soviets. "They've all been great games," he said, "and I guess what bothers me is that this one wasn't, even though the way the Russians came back took a lot of guts. I really think that if we could play them in Los Angeles, it might be the greatest water polo game ever."
But then Nitzkowski caught himself. "The challenge now is to get rid of that and go on." His players responded, scoring impressive wins over Italy (7-2) and West Germany (9-6), two teams that should figure prominently in Los Angeles, and secured second place behind the Soviets. West Germany finished third.
The U.S. team is a crowd-pleaser. To complement their traditional fast swimming, the Americans now have the specialists and teamwork to match the rest of the world. In Budapest, the U.S.'s up-tempo game wore down the Europeans, who prefer to set up in front of the goal and swing the ball until an open shot appears. The American style is to remain in the swimming position, cutting for the goal or jamming would-be shooters with stunts on defense. The primary U.S. defensive strategy is to clog any inside penetration and rely on Wilson's ability to stop the outside shot.
Wilson possesses an eggbeater kick that can suspend more than half of his 6'5", 185-pound frame out of the water for what must seem like an eternity to enemy shooters, but his forte is making long, lefthanded passes to start the break. "He is revolutionizing the sport with his offense," says goalie coach Rich Corso.
When the American transition game stalls, the team relies on scoring and assists from two-meter man and team captain Terry Schroeder, 25, of Santa Barbara, Calif. He plays a position demanding strength and the ability to ignore punishment, and his 200 pounds on a 6'3" frame look as if they were chiseled out of stone. In fact, Schroeder was the model for one of the headless statues, symbolic of Olympic athletes, recently unveiled outside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Nitzkowski was glad to bring his team back home for a final tapering before Olympic competition begins on Aug. 1 at Pepperdine University. "It will be good for our kids to forget about the Russians," he said. "Those teams we beat are going to be a lot better when they get to L.A. This was a good trip. At least we didn't leave our Olympics in Budapest."
Unfortunately, the Soviets did.