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The Consummate Olympian

July 27, 1992
July 27, 1992

Table of Contents
July 27, 1992

Television
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XXV Olympic Summer Games
City Of Stars
Point After

The Consummate Olympian

U.S. captain Terry Schroeder embodies the old ideal of the amateur athlete

Dr. Terry Schroeder's chiropractic office is on the second floor of a business and professional building in Westlake Village, Calif., down the hall from a Taco Bell training center. He has a pink kissing gourami in his waiting-room aquarium, and his handshake and demeanor are gentle to the point of tenderness. His tone is consistently one of wry good humor. So if you chat with him about the sport in which he captains the U.S. Olympic team, there will come a discordant moment, a jolt that makes you realize what his words, his soft words, are in fact describing.

This is an article from the July 27, 1992 issue Original Layout

"The Russian's tooth came off in my arm," Schroeder is saying, examining a scar on his right wrist. "I shot over him and hit him in the face. In water polo there is unlimited fouling. The position I play, two-meter man, is the quarterback of the offense. The ball comes to me, and I'm fouled. That can happen 75 times a game. I've had a total of 100 stitches in my face, but it's funny, I've never broken my nose. A former teammate, Doug Burke, had his nose broken at least 12 times. The Hungarians are all over 6'4". I'm 6'3", 210.1 have to be able to wrestle the heavyweights, take blows and keep focused on the game. That's my strength, to take a beating and hold my own, to not start thinking how I'm going to get this guy back but to keep alert for the next pass. You sometimes see kids with Olympic-caliber talent who can't control their emotions when two guys are pushing them underwater. It's tough. It's great. I love it."

As he speaks, Schroeder's large, strong hands, trained to soothe and align and heal, are revealed to be able also to gouge, to dislocate, to strangle. "The sport combines so much," he says. "You wrestle constantly for position, and then on the fast break you need pure swimming speed. All six guys have to go. If one man pulls out, his defender is freed and the attack collapses. You can't touch the wall until the quarter's over, so you learn to hang on other guys."

And you get very, very fit. "Wrestlers, cross-country skiers and water polo players are the top strength-endurance athletes on the tests," says Schroeder. "We lift weights, we do eggbeater kick drills carrying bricks, we do up to 6,000 meters a day of lap swimming. We eat a ton. Training twice a day, you eat 12,000 to 15,000 calories a day—and go to bed hungry. Burke, of the broken noses, was always so hungry that he learned to bake. He married Candy Costie, the synchronized swimming champion, and started The Oatmeal Original Baking Company in Portland, Oregon."

Piled in Schroeder's waiting room are scrapbooks containing Olympic photos, notes from U.S. presidents and certificates of merit from an extraordinary number of civic groups. But the picture that stays in the mind is one of Schroeder in the pool,-blood gushing out of his right eye. He looks rather bemused.

"The world of water polo is run by the referees, like the judges run figure skating and gymnastics," says Craig Wilson, the U.S.'s all-star goalie since 1981. "You kiss their bazoongas all the way down the aisle, because if one doesn't like you, you'll be plagued for the rest of your career. Generally, refs notice the retaliation more often than the offense that caused it. So the more you hit back or the more you're seen to dishonor a refs calls, even with a dirty look, the worse it is for you and your team. I've never, ever, seen Terry lose his temper. A look of wonderment is as far as he'll go."

In this Christian manner, always turning the other check (or bazoonga), Schroeder carried the U.S. to Olympic silver medals in 1984 and '88. Here is how important he is: Without him in '90 the Americans finished eighth in the men's water polo world cup. With him in '91 they won, beating Yugoslavia 7-6 in two overtimes. They made that final by scraping past Spain 6-5 on a miraculous Schroeder goal with two seconds to play.

Schroeder grew up in Santa Barbara, in a remarkable microclimate of family and profession. "My dad was a chiropractor," he says. "His dad was a chiropractor. One of my dad's brothers had seven kids. They are all chiropractors. I have a brother, Lance, and a sister, Tammy, who are chiropractors. Tammy married a chiropractor. I married one." Terry's wife of 5½ years, Dr. Lori Schroeder, is one of three doctors in their clinic. "We have a grand total," Terry continues, "of 59 chiropractors in the family."

Chiropractic is only now being accepted by the mainstream medical community. Schroeder's early life, which exposed him both to his family calling and its stigma, induced in him a certain clarity, the kind that lets you go with what you know is good, even if it strikes the larger world as eccentric. "I grew up seeing people arrive at my dad's office in pain," says Schroeder, "and then watching them come out with a smile. I've never taken an aspirin or had a shot. I've always had chiropractic care as primary care, and I believe I'm in balance, that my immune system is the better for it. I'm not saying there's no place for surgery, but the body can take care of itself if you let it."

As a boy Schroeder was always in the water or tending tropical fish in the family's garage. "My dad was athletic," he says. "When he got us in the YMCA swimming program, it was apparent I had some talent." By the time Schroeder was nine, he was ranked second nationally in his age group in the backstroke. "But I felt myself being pushed by my parents to succeed at swimming," he says. "I got out of the pool and started playing Little League baseball and basketball. I didn't enjoy swimming, because it didn't have the dynamics of a team. I love it when it takes a group of guys together to reach a goal."

At San Marcos High, Schroeder's friends persuaded him to try out for water polo during his sophomore year, and at last his gifts and his needs came together. He went on to be a three-time All-America at Pepperdine and a mainstay of the U.S. team. "It was through my sport that I learned to deal with winning and losing, with a tough situation or opponent," he says. "So many people you compete against internationally have had a completely different upbringing, but you always have the common ground of a sport that makes you push to the limits. When I travel to Eastern Europe, I almost kiss the ground every time I come home. I appreciate Malibu Canyon and Pepperdine in a real way, a deeper way."

The words might be those of his teammates appreciating him. "Most hole men [two-meter men] don't last very long," says Wilson. "An average water polo career is four or five years, tops, and less for hole men. He's been a Rock of Gibraltar for, what, 14 years? I don't think many people can take what he takes for the sake of the game."

Schroeder, now 33, didn't plan on anything like the lengthy career he has achieved. "I wanted to have my Olympics when I was 21 and go right on to chiropractic school," he says. "But you can't control politics. I spent many nights crying in 1980, wondering why Carter was so determined to boycott the Games."

Schroeder's grief, characteristically, was not taken out on other men but moved him to reassess his own motives. "I realized that in a sport like water polo, which has no professional expression in this country, all we have is the chance to do our best in trying to win. To get there, to be in the Olympics is more important than how you place. We do it for the taking part." So Schroeder affirms the Olympic creed's relationship between conquering and fighting well, between winning and trying. "Because of that boycott I'm still here, enjoying the work, enjoying the guys," he says.

In 1984 Schroeder was asked to literally embody Olympic ideals. Sculptor Robert Graham was casting two bronze statues, one female figure and one male, to stand outside the LA. Coliseum for the Games that year. They were to be nude, to capture the perfect human form. "I was at Palmer College of Chiropractic West, in the Bay Area, where I'd met Lori," recalls Schroeder. "Graham had reviewed pictures of athletes from different sports and finally asked me to pose. Now I didn't feel real comfortable about a nude statue, but once I found out it was to be a classic piece of work that you could take your kids and grandkids to see...well, I still had to talk Dad and Lori into it."

It seems vintage Schroeder, to do a thing he saw the value of, even if others didn't. "It was work, too, all 60 hours of naked posing. And it was embarrassing—from the unveiling of the statues before the Games, right through the Olympics, when I had to walk by them daily."

The statues Graham sculpted had no heads, so that no particular man or woman was depicted, and he asked his models to refrain from making public that they had posed. But of course word spread. "A friend of the sculptor's was Robert Helmick, who became USOC president," says Schroeder. "I heard that he told someone, and it got out and a lot of people called me who didn't care anything about water polo. Things were out of control for a while, but the work itself is something I'm proud of."

The statue still ignites Schroeder's incandescent memories of the L.A. Games. "The only way those Olympics could have been better is if everybody had come. But having the competition in the Pepperdine pool—where I'd gone to school! We had fantastic support, like U.S. water polo had never had. It sure wasn't like that in 1988 in Seoul, where the Koreans always cheered for our opponents. In L.A., where we ended up with the silver, I felt worse for my parents than for myself. But I've been very, very fortunate in the Games. Two silvers is fine. And I will feel fortunate to medal this year."

After radiating such enthusiasm, Schroeder looks a little sheepish as he admits he actually retired after Seoul. "Let me explain," he says. "I got my chiropractic license in 1986, and Lori and I were married in 1987. I still had the drive to compete, but I wanted to spend more time with my family and profession. So I quit the national team after Seoul. I've coached at Pepperdine since 1986. I got in the water a lot with the team, and I played some club level."

For two years, national coach Bill Barnett kept reminding Schroeder that his leadership was needed, and Schroeder kept saying he didn't have the time. Then a wonderful thing happened. "The U.S. team and Coach devised a plan to let me train and play, and still devote the time I needed to my marriage and practice," he says. "No one griped," says Wilson. "We knew if we were going to win a gold, we had to have him. If practicing on weekends is what it took, hey, fine." Nine months after he rejoined the team in 1991, the U.S. won the world cup.

"A part-time Terry," says Barbara Kalbus, a former president of U.S. Water Polo, "is that much better than no Terry at all."

Most gratifying to Schroeder, naturally, was finding the depth of his teammates' regard. "Knowing how a team works," he says, "and knowing I couldn't do all the workouts or make all the trips, I had to talk with the players, to try to eliminate the possibility of negative feelings. It's tough sometimes, when they're in Newport Beach, training, and I'm up here, working, because on offense I have to recognize which players want the ball where and how and when. That takes time in the water with them. I've never been a vocal leader. I've believed in leading from the water, in trusting the team to see that I'm always ready to compete at a high level."

He muses a moment. "I'm glad Coach brought me back. I missed the guys." The gratification he felt upon rejoining the team affirmed Schroeder's conviction that he plays, really, to take part. "And it's good to know that's why you're in it, that it's not a profession but an avocation. It makes you feel that much better inside, especially when you beat a team of pros."

Schroeder says he has no desire for greater fame or fortune. "It's always interesting in a small sport," he says. "You're known in your own circle, but you can still go out and have a private dinner. I feel sorry sometimes for friends in other sports who can't because they're too famous. I have a nice balance."

That word recurs often with Schroeder. His physical dimensions are in classic Grecian proportion. He balances love, healing and ferocious play. His vocation is to restore his patients' natural balances. Indeed, he can bring one's whole perspective into alignment, and he does it as he leads in the pool, just by being there. As the closest thing the U.S. has to a perfect Olympian, he doesn't have to lay a hand on you.

ILLUSTRATIONPHOTOPETER READ MILLERSchroeder and his many chiropractor relatives are hardly spineless.PHOTODAVID MADISON/DUOMOA bronze of Schroeder's torso earned him unexpected fans.PHOTOPETER READ MILLERAs America's "hole man" for 14 years, Schroeder has been a Rock of Gibraltar.PHOTOROBERT BECKSchroeder (with ball) has led the U.S. to the silver medal in each of the last two Olympics.