Ruby Rodriguez is preparing to goon her fianc�, Jim Mendoza. They're at Makapuu Beach in Hawaii, and Ruby brings him a shaved ice. "Strawberry," she says. Ruby neglects to mention she has laced it with Tabasco sauce. Jim, a big football player kind of guy, bites in. His face reddens. His mouth puckers. His tongue wags. His eyes cross.
"Oooooooooeeeeee!" he yelps.
Jim Mendoza has just been gooned.
Gooning is what water polo women do just about all the time that they're not submerged. And Ruby is the nom de goon of Maureen O'Toole, the hole setter on the U.S. national team, which was in Hawaii this July training for the World Aquatics Championships in Madrid. For the first time, women's water polo had official standing at the worlds, though no one expects it to be sanctioned as an Olympic event until at least 1992.
Men's water polo has always been such a wham-bam bang-up affair that the milder women's game just hasn't been taken very seriously. The most exposure that the women have ever had came last year at an international tournament in La Rochelle, France, where Marybeth (Rambo) Kolding of the U.S. had her suit ripped off by a Canadian defender. "I got mauled so badly that my boobs hung out," recalls Kolding. "It totally grossed me out." So Rambo surfaced to claim a foul. Unfortunately, when she popped into view, the referee almost swallowed his whistle. He recovered and slapped the defender with a 45-second ejection. But stripped of their dignity, the Goonies lost 7-5 in the first round.
Joining the Goon Squad is like signing up with the Green Berets, except that you have to pay your own way. Coach Sandy Nitta demands total commitment and a four-year enlistment. Until this year, the players were such amateurs that they even paid their own expenses on trips. They each typically shell out $5,000 a year to play. Nitta, who receives no salary, occasionally has subsidized her players' lodging and airfare.
The team went on its three-week training trip to Hawaii only after U.S. Water Polo, Inc., the governing body of the sport, coughed up a $13,600 grant and the United States Olympic Committee forked over another $15,000 for the trip to Madrid. Of course, the Goons probably would have received no funding at all if Dr. Ralph Hale, the USWP president, weren't the team physician. Still, it has been a labor of love for the players. "I've always been broke because of water polo," says driver Simone (Reebok) La Pay. "So what if I have to eat macaroni and cheese every night for dinner?"
Goonies tend to answer to names like Reebok, Trinket, Kit Kat, Fifi Fontana and Gidget Gaylord. It confounds opponents and guys in bars. The 17 squad members who worked out in Hawaii ranged in age from 20 to 34. Three of them—Robin (Priss) Dressel, Dion (Jared) Gray and Lyn (Ralph) Taylor—are mothers, with kids in tow.
The roster included a computer programmer, an aerobics instructor, an Olympic gold medalist, a nurse, a geneticist, a nutritionist and an interior decorator. The top player, O'Toole, picks up pocket change sculling a gondola in Naples, Calif., while the coach made her fortune on the poker tables of Las Vegas.
With her squinty eyes and plump cheeks, Nitta always seems amusedly alert. She's a regular camp counselor. She draws mustaches on the players while they're asleep, short-sheets their beds, and once had her assistant, Scott Hinman, convince one painfully gullible Goon that salami grows on trees.