The road to an Olympic gold medal is one of trial and sacrifice. Just ask the temporarily unemployed, corporately un-sponsored, surprisingly abstemious members of the U.S. water polo team, which eased up slightly on its six-hour-a-day training schedule to do battle with a 6'9" greased Yugoslav named Tomislav Paskavalin in a six-game, six-city series that ended Saturday in Malibu, Calif. It was one of the group's more memorable challenges.
The U.S. team, which includes five returnees from the one that lost the 1984 Olympic gold medal to Yugoslavia, pulled off a startling four-games-to-two upset of the Yugoslavs, who are also the reigning world champions. Paskavalin, who plays the two-meter position (water polo's equivalent of a basketball center), had gotten too much sun since arriving in the U.S., and he wore a sunscreen lotion that was almost as troublesome for the American players as his tricky backhanded sweep shots.
"He's got himself all oiled up," complained veteran Jody Campbell after Game 5. "I don't think he's doing it to cheat, but the stuff is all over him." Added teammate James Bergeson, the team's hardest-throwing (48 mph) outside shooter, "I got it on my hands and couldn't wipe it off. I had a hard time gripping the ball."
Technically, water polo players are banned from using any substance that might slicken the ball or help them evade the usual groping, tugging, kneeing and elbowing of their opponents. But the referees refused even to check Paskavalin for excessive oil, probably because this was meant to be a friendly series but maybe also because the impressively versatile U.S. squad, with its quick, collapsing defense, was getting the better of the Yugoslavs anyway. "The Americans surprised me," Yugoslav coach Ratko Rudic admitted. "I didn't think they were that good."
July 17, 1988
In addition to its excellent two-meter game—spearheaded by team captain Terry Schroeder, 28—and arguably the world's best goalie in Craig Wilson, 31, the U.S. squad has improved its outside shooting since '84 and through weight training has beefed up a bit. It came into the series ranked No. 4 in the world behind the Yugoslavs, Soviets and Italians. "Our greatest strength is that we can play almost any type of game," says Bergeson, an alternate in '84.
The U.S. team, whose scant media coverage discourages potential corporate sponsors, draws freely from the professions: there's an M.D. (driver Alan Mouchawar, who begins his internship in internal medicine in October), a chiropractor (Schroeder, who gives his teammates spinal adjustments), a computer analyst (Wilson), a mortgage banker (driver Kevin Robertson), a commercial real estate officer (Bergeson) and a real estate broker (Campbell, the team's best all-around player).
In order to practice full-time, virtually every player put his career on hold as of May 2, in some cases by quitting or taking a leave of absence. This followed a pledge by most of the team to abstain from alcohol until after the Olympics. "The only way we stand a chance of winning the gold medal is if we commit to this thing 100 percent," says Wilson. "People are sacrificing a lot of income [the players are living on $9,100-a-year grants from the U.S. Olympic Committed, but this is a rare opportunity."
The taut, terse steward of the U.S. squad is coach Bill Barnett, a math teacher from Newport Harbor (Calif.) High whose idea of entertainment is to have his players agonizingly tread water while holding gallon jugs of the stuff overhead. Barnett actually began to mold the '88 team between 1977 and '84, when he served as national junior coach and worked with most of the 19 players now on the U.S. roster (only 13 will survive the final cut later this summer).
Barnett's best coaching move, however, may have been persuading Wilson to come out of retirement for the '86 world championships in Madrid. Wilson helped the U.S. place fourth, thus qualifying for Seoul, and had so much fun he decided to stick around through '88.
Barnett also used his powers of persuasion on Mike Evans, 28, a sublimely gifted offensive player, whom he has called, with rare effusiveness, "Magic Johnson in the water." Evans, who in 1976 set a national high school record with 149 goals in one season at Chaffey High in Ontario, Calif., was a busy partier at Cal-Irvine until his Mormon mission in rural Venezuela after his junior year. Other than performing baptisms in piranha-infested rivers during his 18 months there, Evans never went into the water. He returned to the U.S emotionally mature but out of shape and with no plans to pursue water polo beyond his senior season. Enter Barnett.
"He'd come up and say things like, 'Doesn't it say in that Mormon book that if you have a talent and don't use it it's a sin?' " Evans recalls. Barnett's pitch worked. Evans—who dazzled the Yugoslavs last week by scoring six goals on look-away tosses, long-range darts and even on lefthanded backward sweep shots with two men hanging off him—is a gunner unafraid to try any shot at any time. "We call him the Black Hole," jokes Mouchawar. "We give him the ball and never see it again."
The Yugoslavs weren't quite prepared for the well-conditioned team that awaited them in California, where all the games were played. They arrived on the West Coast on July 1—19 hours before the first game—from Australia by way of Singapore, Belgrade and New York. The U.S. swept the first three games, winning 11-10 in Stockton, 6-5 in Palo Alto and 9-6 in Newport Beach. The Yugoslavs won 10-9 in San Diego, but the U.S. won again, 11-9 in Long Beach on Friday night, setting the stage for Saturday's finale at Pepperdine University in Malibu, site of the '84 Olympic gold medal game, in which the Yugoslavs came from behind to tie the U.S. 5-5 and win the gold on the basis of goal differential. American complaints about that method of medal determination helped bring about a rule change: Starting in Seoul, Olympic title games will go into overtime if necessary; the gold will have to be won outright. "I have bittersweet emotions when I look back on '84," says Robertson. "To this day I believe we were the better team."
But the Yugoslavs proved to be the better team on Saturday. They won 11-10 with superb shooting and strong hole play by Paskavalin, who scored twice and assisted on the winning goal. Afterward both teams looked toward the future. As fate would have it, they will face each other in the first game in Seoul.
"It doesn't matter how well they did here," Paskavalin said. "We're still going to win the gold medal."
Schroeder, the series' leading scorer with 12 goals, wasn't so sure. "I think this [U.S.] team has more potential and more talent than the '84 one," he said. "We just have to play with consistency. When we're on, we're unstoppable."
And, as Paskavalin can attest, a well-oiled machine in their own right.