All right, class, today we will deal with some famous old American myths. Myth No. 1: the United States borderlines are formed by Canada, Mexico, some islands and two oceans. Myth 2: water polo is a game played by men riding horses in the water. Myth 3: the United States has lousy water polo teams. It is time to expose these myths.
The facts, revealed during last week's National AAU water polo championships in Long Beach, Calif., are that the U.S. boundaries actually are the Pacific Ocean, Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and Oregon. Sometimes known by its Indian name, California, this territory has produced every single water polo team that has qualified for the national championship. As for myth 2, there was indeed a time when most water polo players looked about as graceful as horses in water, but this has changed. Today's topflight player may have to be as big as a horse, but he also can lunge like a porpoise, balance the ball like a seal, stick to his opponent like a lamprey and—if necessary—fight like a barracuda. Finally, those who belittle the quality of American water polo delight in stressing that our only Olympic gold medal in the sport is dated 1904—the year we happened to be the only nation entered. But, judging by the performances in Long Beach's cavernous, $3.7 million Belmont Plaza pool, the game has a bright new future.
Valiantly undistracted by the unending tide of healthy, bikini-clad young females who flowed past the pool each day (must every California girl have a smashing figure?), these waves of sleek, husky young men kept their eyes on the goal and those 14 berths on the U.S. All-Star team departing soon for Europe.
When the foam finally settled after three furious days, that bright future seemed closer than ever: America's top team made it the hard way through the fiercest competition in years, including a wild overtime finale, before officials let anybody out of the water. The place was up to here in soaking-wet All-Stars.
Water polo is a combination of basketball, soccer, hockey and karate. Each team uses six field players and a goalie, who guards a cage 10 feet wide and three feet high. To spot teammates quickly through the spray, players wear blue or white caps. And to enhance future good hearing, protective ear cups made of hard plastic were recently added to the caps. The modern player must be a powerful swimmer. This was not the case when the game was founded in England in 1860. Pools were so shallow then that many players didn't swim at all, and the goalie often protected his net by the direct expedient of picking up an attacking forward and flinging him away.
Although water polo came to America in 1888, there were two distinct styles until the late 1930s: the international game, played with a hard ball and stressing slick passing and ball handling, and the American game, where these skills helped but where brawn and a shallow conscience were the primary requirements. Americans used a half-inflated soft ball that players were able to hide underwater (this is no longer allowed), igniting marathon wrestling matches and leading to the publication of a 1927 water polo manual featuring illustrations of such aquatic musts as the front stranglehold.
In one Eastern college pool bounded by a rope it was common practice to try and ensnare an opponent's neck in said rope. "Mostly as a joke, of course," wrote one historian, "because it is impossible to hang a man in the water." But, ultimately, the brutality of the American game lost its charm. And anyway, the European teams, especially those from Iron Curtain countries, still dominated the sport. Hungary has won five of the last eight Olympics. The best American finish was third place in 1932.
U.S. fortunes sank completely in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics when the team failed to get past the first round. The humiliation set off a dramatic series of changes that are still going on. Out went the traditional method of player selection in which the top club team was sent en bloc to the Olympics, often leaving behind outstanding players from runner-up clubs. In the new system, an All-Star group is formed into the national team. The first such team won the 1967 Pan-American Games in Winnipeg, earning the only gold medal the U.S. has ever won outside the country.
Nowadays training camps are operating, and in California alone the number of schoolboy water polo players is double the total of 1960. Nationally, the game's 13,000 competitors will soon swell with thousands of youngsters from newly organized Junior Olympics and recreation department programs.
Last week produced the first big bang in the sport's new explosion—and it was sooner than expected. "De Anza will win even if half their players drown," said the experts. Well, it was almost that bad. The De Anza Aquatic Club, based near San Jose at Cupertino, came to Long Beach as defending national champion. Coached by Art Lambert, a boyish-looking 34-year-old who also coached the 1968 U.S. Olympic team that won five of eight games for fifth place in Mexico City, De Anza includes three Olympic players and has a reputation as the best U.S. club team ever.