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POOLING THEIR RESOURCES

Aug. 16, 2004
Aug. 16, 2004

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Aug. 16, 2004

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POOLING THEIR RESOURCES

The U.S. water polo team has trained maniacally for Athens, driven by a new coach who expects them to walk on water

The bed is waiting. All that stands between Tony Azevedo, a top scorer on the U.S. men’s water polo team, and the blissful rest he longs for is a mandatory team lunch at a nearby salad bar. Nearly every day that the squad practices at the Los Alamitos, Calif., military base it calls home, it convenes for a $9 sprint through the greens and pastas, subsidized by USA Water Polo, the sport’s national governing body. Azevedo pulls up to the restaurant in his dented Toyota knowing that he and his weary teammates will make lunch as short as humanly possible. Most will finish in 15 minutes. A few have done it in five.

This is an article from the Aug. 16, 2004 issue Original Layout

It isn’t that they don’t want to eat; they’re starving. They’ve expended thousands of calories at a four-hour practice session that included lifting weights, swimming laps while keeping their torsos out of the pool and treading water while holding an 18-pound medicine ball aloft. It’s now 1:45 p.m., and other than wolfing down a granola bar between lap sets, they haven’t eaten since breakfast.

But more pressing than their hunger is their exhaustion--three years’ worth of it--from practice sessions just like the one this morning. As he parks, Azevedo murmurs that he could fall asleep in the driver’s seat and sleep until ... 5:30, when he must be back in the pool for another four-hour practice. Even now, on this June afternoon scarcely two months from the Olympics, coach Ratko Rudic’s two-a-days often consist of little more than conditioning drills. “Sometimes we’ll go all day,” Azevedo says, “and the balls never get in the water.”

Azevedo has a surf dude look--lank forelocks hanging over heavy-lidded eyes--but now he moves like a panther. In an eyeblink he shovels salad on his plate, slaps a mound of spaghetti beside it and snatches a muffin. Eight minutes after arriving, the first of the players gets up to leave. “I can’t get the food in my mouth fast enough,” says defender Omar Amr as he shoves in a final forkful and bolts for the door. By 2:15, they’re all gone, leaving a dozen plates in their wake. Not a scrap is left on any of them.

Were it possible to divide effort expended into tangible gain and arrive at a justification quotient for each sport in the Olympics, water polo would surely rank near the bottom. Azevedo and his 12 teammates have abandoned any semblance of a normal existence in exchange for endless hours in the pool, a $6,000 annual stipend and the chance to march into Athens’s Olympic stadium for the opening ceremonies this Friday night. They know they’re unlikely to end up on a Wheaties box, or even to make more than a cameo on NBC’s prime-time telecasts of the Games. If their motivation is a gold medal, they’re ignoring history; no U.S. men’s water polo team has won Olympic gold since 1904 or any medal since ’88.

So why do they do it?

Until 2001 playing on the U.S. team at least had the advantage of being only a part-time pursuit. Under a succession of coaches culled from California’s insular water polo community, practices were held twice a week until deep into the Olympic cycle, and players worked regular jobs. “If people were sick or hurting, they just didn’t show up for practice,” says Adam Wright, a UCLA graduate with four years of national-team experience. “It was definitely relaxed.”

Then came Rudic. A stocky Croatian with a barrel chest, part Bela Karolyi and part Bob Knight, he’d won Olympic gold twice with his home nation of Yugoslavia, then again with Italy. In 2000 a poolside tirade in Sydney earned him a year’s suspension by the international water polo federation. The Americans seized their opportunity.

Now 56, Rudic arrived in California with a quaint, Eastern-Bloc notion that playing on a national team should be a full-time job. In his first weeks, he persuaded Azevedo to postpone Stanford for a year and devote himself fully to the sport through the Games. In the end Rudic ran off almost the entire team--men who couldn’t fathom playing six days a week for a coach who held arduous conditioning drills a few hours before international matches. “They wanted to have lives,” Azevedo says. “You can’t blame them.”

More surprises awaited Rudic. In Europe even club teams have their own pools. At the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, Rudic often has to close off a quarter of the pool so it can be used for open swimming. Imagine Larry Brown running his Detroit Pistons through practice on one basket while potbellied men played raggedy three-on-three at the other, and you can understand Rudic’s humiliation. “Before, I was very famous,” he says. “In Italy I knew [prime minister Silvio] Berlusconi. At home I was a celebrity.” He shoots a look down to the far end of the pool, where elderly women are doing the backstroke. “Other coaches could not believe that I accepted this job.”

He shrugs. He never had much respect for American water polo. He was there at Pepperdine when the 1984 U.S. team squandered a three-goal lead to his Yugoslavians and blew the Olympic gold. In the years that followed, he came to believe that whenever his team played the Americans, he could count on a collapse. “So many times they came close to the big result but didn’t get it,” he says. “They were not tough enough.”

Rudic learned the game as a five-year-old in his hometown of Split, spending seven hours a day leaping from the municipal pool to run down errant balls, then playing makeshift games when the older kids were gone. It’s safe to say no American five-year-old will spend this summer shagging water polo balls seven hours a day. As a result, Rudic says, “Our players will never understand the game the way the Europeans do.”

He also knew that he would never have the athletes the best teams in the world have--six-and-a-half-footers strong enough to push past an NFL lineman and agile enough to shadow an NBA small forward. (In the U.S. athletes like that actually play in the NFL and the NBA.) As Rudic plotted out his practice sessions for the months to come, an idea took shape: This U.S. team--undermanned, underfunded, facing European powers in a European Olympics--would be the fittest in the history of the sport. It was his only hope.

In late may the Americans played in Greece, Russia and Australia. With security an issue, the U.S. government strongly discouraged members from leaving the hotel alone or in small groups. The warning brought laughter from the players, for Rudic strongly discourages them from leaving their hotels, no matter where they are. His control rankles his players. “We hate him,” Azevedo says. “He treats us like 12-year-olds who’ve been grounded. He can’t stand it on plane flights because he can’t make us practice. It’s totally ridiculous.”

Yet in his own fashion, Rudic is a master motivator. While in Greece the U.S. won three of four matches against the home team, ranked fourth in the world. “After a big win or even a good practice, I say, I can’t believe what we’ve accomplished,” Azevedo says. “That keeps us going.”

And going. Now it is 6:30 p.m., and the players have been in the Los Alamitos pool for an hour. Above them, Blackhawk helicopters slice through the air. While young Americans in mufti--soldiers preparing for war in Iraq--drive off to enjoy happy hour at a local hangout, Rudic’s forces remain in the pool late into the evening preparing for ... Olympic water polo.

A whistle blows, and Rudic explains the next drill: a simple throw-and-catch exercise. It is mindless work, but to the players, who haven’t had a minute of water polo since arriving at 9 a.m., it is blessed relief. Rudic is giving them orange rind and calling it dessert, but they are so starved for sweets that they pounce on it. They play the best, most precise game of keep-away anyone has ever seen.

Even after practice finally ends at 9:30 p.m., players find it difficult to downshift. “Ratko is in my dreams every night,” says team captain Wolf Wigo. “I don’t want him there, but he’s there.”

The day before the team is to leave for three weeks in Hungary and Serbia, defender Layne Beaubien guides his father‚Äôs silver Mercedes into a parking place off Second Street in Long Beach. He‚Äôs sacrificing a crucial hour of nap time to clear his head with a luxurious dip into ordinary life: a walk past the chic boutiques and an iced cappuccino alfresco at his favorite café. Beaubien‚Äôs friend from Stanford is the son of former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. Beaubien‚Äôs brother dated Chelsea Clinton. Beaubien‚Äôs reading ranges from religious history to Allen Ginsberg. At 20 he left school and water polo to hitchhike the world. He‚Äôs hardly the raw material with which Rudic is used to working.

Beaubien was in Guatemala when he heard that Rudic had signed to coach the U.S., but he was intrigued. Born on July 4, 1976, he’d always wanted to represent his country. He wasn’t sure that he could thrive in such a regimented program, but he couldn’t know until he tried. Now Beaubien is one of the best defenders in the world, with explosive acceleration and a greatly diminished ego. “I’ve had to give up my sense of self to play for Ratko,” he says.

He gave up something else, too--the stereotypes that had colored his opinions of some teammates. The U.S. team had for years been divided into cliques by college rivalries. Beaubien would run into Ryan Bailey, who grew up in Long Beach and played at UC Irvine, have a perfunctory conversation and then walk away thinking they had nothing in common. There they were, two 6'6" California kids who each played world-class water polo, and they had a wall between them because of where they went to school.

Three years under Rudic and there’s plenty to talk about. “You have this feeling of having gone through hell together,” says Wigo. “It brings the team closer.”

Rudic knows that and helps it along. Unlike previous U.S. coaches, who let players choose roommates, he shifts assignments for each trip and encourages civility. “In the past, it was very common for guys to walk into breakfast and not say a word,” says Ricardo Azevedo, an assistant (and Tony’s father) who’s been with the national program since 1983. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

His cappuccino finished, Beaubien heads home to prepare for practice. With piles of paperbacks strewn across the floor, his apartment looks like a dorm room--which in a sense it is. At 28 Beaubien has put adulthood on hold while he completes a quest he wasn’t initially certain he wanted to undertake. “A guy like Ryan, he’s a good soldier,” he says of Bailey. “He believed from the beginning. I’m a tougher sell, but once you start playing for Ratko, you start to think he can create a team that can win.”

It’s a compelling thought, but Beaubien suddenly rocks back in his chair and lets out a series of dinosaur yawns. Afternoon practice starts in an hour, and then he has to pack for the Hungary trip. “It’s so damn hard, I talk to God in the pool sometimes,” he says. “But I have to say, it’s an incredible journey.”

n that trip the U.S. beat Australia twice in Budapest, then lost twice each to Hungary and Serbia, ranked first and third in the world. That was disappointing, but hardly a fair test, Azevedo says, because Rudic pushed the team through demanding practice sessions just hours before each game. The philosophy is similar to that of a hitter swinging a weighted bat in the on-deck circle--but then, nobody tries to drag the hitter under the water for four seven-minute quarters when he steps to the plate. “I understand the concept,” Azevedo says, “but just once I’d love to go into a game with fresh legs. Nobody else does what we do.”

Three years into his American adventure, with the Olympics now just a few days away, Ratko Rudic’s secret weapon is no secret anymore. “I’m jealous,” says Denes Kemeny, Hungary’s coach. “They’re the best-prepared team I’ve seen.”

Rudic is looking toward the two weeks of Olympic competition, but also to 2008, even ’12. “We are not building one Olympic team, we are building an organization,” he says. “It must not stop after Athens.” Already he has printed outlines for the practices that will resume after a short post-Games break. Just who Rudic believes will be ready on Nov. 1 to begin all-out training for the next Olympics is an open question, but he will be there, whistle in hand.

Azevedo is fortunate. He has a semester remaining at Stanford, and then he’ll play for an Italian team. Salaries in Europe can go as high as $100,000, money that goes a long way in Bari or Zagreb or Thessalonica --or in a California bank, earning interest toward another stretch run next quadrennium. Yet if he stepped back, he would see that he is already enjoying the real payoff. For the moment he has no responsibilities beyond representing his country in a sport he loves. Later on he’ll need to get a job, start a family, balance his checkbook and his ambitions like everyone else. Now, though, the pool and his teammates are waiting. “There’s nothing in the world I’d rather do than play water polo,” Azevedo says. He pauses before pulling on his team shirt. Sure, his legs are tired, but the sun is warm on his back, and it feels good.

Practices often consist of little more than conditioning. “Sometimes we’ll go all day,” says Azevedo, “and the balls never get in the water.”

“It’s so damn hard, I talk to God in the pool sometimes,” says Beaubien. “But I have to say, it’s an incredible journey.”

COLOR PHOTOPHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLERCOMMON ENEMYAzevedo sometimes hates Rudic’s dictatorial coaching but admits that he’s pulled an often-polarized team together.THREE COLOR PHOTOSPHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLERTASKMASTERRudic, who has coached two other countries to gold medals, has no interest in players who don’t think water polo 24/7.COLOR PHOTOPHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLERBOOT CAMP The team has trained on a California military base since last January.