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What bothers me most about contact sports is concussive pain, the sickening thud that spreads after the blow like concentric ripples from a stone plopped into a pond. Then, as you vibrate like a tuning fork while you feel nausea spreading, you find the culprit sweating all over you, adding nauseating insult to nauseating injury.
The blows that you endure in water polo, however, take place in the water—beneath the surface at least as often as above it—and are usually the thwack of sharp pain. Even at their most concussive, they take place in water. Under the surface or underhanded the blow may be, but water tends to soften the concussive aspects and literally clean up the contact. In other words, no matter how dirty the blow, it's also clean. For some perverse reason, I can endure pain more easily if I don't have to put up with perspiration as well, particularly somebody else's. Generally speaking, I don't like to be touched out of water unless it's by somebody who loves me.
Perhaps this preference for hygienic pain reveals more about me than it should, but I think it also tells something about the nature of water sports, water and those who spend their athletic careers in this medium.
The Los Angeles Coliseum pool is about 50 yards from the Coliseum itself, near an asphalt ramp that slices through ivy-covered walls and into the tunnel which, on the last day of the Olympic Games, will take the competitors in the men's marathon into the Coliseum to conclude their punishing ordeal.
It's a great white public parks structure, with WPA lettering on its bleached facade, a few scrawny eucalyptus trees in the foreground for perspective and an expanse of lawn at the front of the building.
One summer night in 1949, when I was 13 and had dreams of swimming competitively, I was there to witness a Los Angeles Examiner-sponsored swimming meet. I'd never been to a swim meet, and so it was particularly impressive going in the huge white building to an outdoor pool and seeing lights playing off the blue surface, mysterious lanes in the pool, the blocks of cement the swimmers stood on at the start.
One race was memorable, owing at least in part to the results. It was the 300-meter IM, the individual medley of butterfly, backstroke and freestyle (this event is no longer swum). The swimmers were announced over a loudspeaker, and the name of one in particular stood out: "In Lane 4, Wally Wolf, swimming unattached." All the other swimmers were from Santa Monica High or El Camino J.C., their names linked with one institution or other. Then there was this Wolf, unattached. I remember wondering what it meant to be unattached in this context, but clearly the association for me was of a lone wolf, and my identification was instant. As the swimmers were setting on the blocks, I knew I wanted Wally Wolf, swimming unattached, to win.
The gun went off, the swimmers came down their lanes toward me, switching from stroke to stroke. When Wolf made his final turn and changed to the free, I couldn't tell where he was in relation to the others, but it was possible to distinguish him. He was the swimmer whose limbs had a soothing effect on the water, gliding and smoothing rather than chopping and roughing it up. He was so fluid that he made it seem like the water was swimming. The competitors touched, and after a few short moments the announcer gave the results: "Ladies and gentlemen, Wallace Wolf swimming in Lane 4, has just set a new world record for the 300 IM." Naturally, he won the race. There was a ripple of applause and I remember a fleeting glimpse of a 17-year-old (which was old to me), 135 pounds, dripping wet, and flashing a smile of pleasure. The image stayed with me.
Twenty years passed. Then, in 1969, in another white building—9255 Sunset Boulevard, just at the head of The Strip—I got another glimpse of Wolf.
My literary agent, Evarts Ziegler, with whom I'd been meeting over a screenplay assignment, stopped to take a moment to introduce me to the new attorney for the Ziegler-Ross Agency.