By Randy Bugos, President and CEO
YMCA of Coastal Georgia
The Beijing Olympics were on the air – on TV. It was water polo that was being played. As I sat on my couch watching the U.S. men’s team take a surprise win over Croatia, the phone rang. It was my best friend of 35 years, Chip O’Hern from Orlando, Florida, and he was screaming, “Did you see that shot, did you see our guy shoot the ball into the net without turning around?”
I calmly replied that I was indeed watching the game – Chip instinctively knew that I’d be watching, which is what best friends are all about – and I said yes, I saw our guy score with a backhand shot and that when I was playing water polo many years ago, the backhand had been one of my favorite moves.
We stayed on the phone for quite awhile talking back and forth as the game progressed. I answered many of his questions about the nuances of the game. Chip never got to see me play polo during my high school or college days, but he was certainly aware of the fact that I’d been a poloist, which according to him put me in pretty rare company. I guess he was right. Not too many people can say they’ve played competitive water polo at the national level.
Chip’s call, as well as the TV coverage of our men’s and women’s silver medal teams at the Summer Olympic Games of 2008, hosted by Beijing, China, brought back many memories for me. Just for a minute or two, I wanted to get back in the pool and set up in my favorite spot and see if I still had what it takes. But it wasn’t long before I came to my senses and realized that it would be better for me to re-live and write about some of my experiences instead of trying to find a Speedo that would fit.
It was in the hole – nowadays called the set position – at the opposing team’s two-yard line – with my back against their goal and the defender draped over me – that I always felt I had the upper hand. Except for one time, and more on that in a moment. The hole spot was right where I wanted to be, because I knew one of my YMCA teammates would be throwing a pass from mid-pool that would be landing a foot or two in front of me. This would provide me with an ever-widening array of options to score a goal for our Y team.
I could whip a wicked backhand shot past the goalie and into the cage. Or I could place my right hand on top of the ball, hook my opponent with my left arm and leg (underwater) and shoot a powerful sweep shot. If the goalie was in the proper position, I could put the ball on the water, take a swift stroke or two, and do a quick lift and pop shot. Or once to the side, I could bounce a shot off the surface of the water. Or I could fake that shot and loft my trusty old ‘lob’ to the other side of the cage.
Of course, there was nothing better than being in that spot and seeing a teammate streaking down the pool, pulling up and receiving a pass from me, and in one fluid movement catching the ball and firing it into the cage. Oh, yeah, I do remember! It was a great feeling 40 years ago, except for that one time in that one game.
The one game occurred at the 1969 YMCA Boys National Championships, and I’m reminded that while the author of this book insists his memory is pretty good – most of us who know him would say it’s excellent – he can’t remember everything. As you’ll see when you read this book, Chuck Hines hasn’t forgotten the losses or the missed shots in which he was involved as a player and coach. The same is true for me in this instance. Although everything eventually ended up in our favor, I mostly recall the three sweep shots at the Y Championships – two from the right side, one from the left – that sailed wide of the opposing goal and echoed off the cement block wall that surrounded the pool. Ka-boom. Ka-boom. Ka-boom!
We lost that game by a couple of goals, and it was the big, burly defender from the other team who was mostly responsible for my shots going wide. He was the only opponent all year long who really gave me a problem when I was in my favorite spot. Later, as mentioned in this book, we discovered that the team that had beaten us had used a couple of over-age players, one of whom was the big hole defender who’d been hanging all over me. Thus our Canton, Illinois, boys team was subsequently awarded the legitimate YMCA title.
Isn’t it funny how 40 years later I can recall those three missed shots and very little about the game or the rest of the tournament? I guess I’ve come to expect that as we age, there will be many things we don’t remember. And sometimes the things we hold onto are not always the best memories. But they are memories nonetheless, and maybe, maybe, those missed shots and missed opportunities will take us back to other moments in our lives that were more positive and rewarding. Maybe they will ring a bell for us as clearly as if they’d happened just yesterday.
One such memory of mine was on our return from an Olympic Development Clinic and Tournament at Des Moines, Iowa. The date was July 20, 1969. While we were driving back to Canton in our cars, we were all tuned in and mesmerized by the radio as the announcer explained that our astronauts had just landed the lunar module “Eagle” at the Sea of Tranquility on the surface of the moon. It was a clear night, and we could look up out of the car windows as we were whizzing along the highway and see the full, bright moon in the sky as the story continued to unfold on our car radios. I don’t remember the results of the tourney at Des Moines, but I distinctly recall staring at the moon for a long time that night and thinking it would be an occasion I’d never forget.
Still to this day, there are times when I look up into the evening sky and see a full moon and it takes me back to that night of about 40 years ago, rekindling great thoughts about past days and all of the wonderful blessings and memories that were – that are – a part of my YMCA water polo experiences.
The trip to Des Moines in July of 1969 was Chuck Hines’ last one with our Canton YMCA teams. A few weeks later, he departed for Asheville, North Carolina, where he’s continued to reside with his family. But he’s remained involved with water polo ever since. Now he’s working with some of us to compile this history of an important era in YMCA aquatics, when water polo was a sanctioned Y sport.
I hope that you enjoy remembering and re-living those bygone days as we celebrate together the successes we achieved. We were, after all, that rare breed known as YMCA water polo champions.
By Chuck Hines, April, 2009
Standing on the deck of the immense 50-meter indoor pool at Ste-Foy, a suburb of Quebec City, Canada, I knew the sport of water polo was in the process of changing forever. One era was ending. A new era was beginning.
Several hundred spectators stood at varying degrees of attention as the national anthem was played. It wasn’t our American national anthem but “O Canada.” Then the Dutch national anthem was played and, finally, our U.S. national anthem.
We were there, the teams from three countries, for the first-ever real women’s international water polo tournament. It was April 1, 1977.
The two or three other countries where the women’s game was being played at that time in history also had been invited, but they hadn’t shown up. So we were down to five teams representing Canada and two from the U.S. and one, the favorite, from The Netherlands. The first game was about to get underway, pitting the strong, experienced Dutch women against a much younger group of teenaged girls from the U.S. It was Hilversum versus Asheville. And I was the Asheville coach.
Our team of teen girls had been invited to represent the East Coast of the U.S. Our girls were good but no better than the standout women’s team from the Miami area of Florida or the top women’s teams from California. At one time or another, we’d beaten the Floridians and the California clubs – Anaheim, Fresno, Commerce, Cerritos – but they’d defeated us, too. You’ll read more about these games in the pages to come.
I assumed that Asheville had been invited to attend this tournament for three reasons. First, our girls were definitely among the very best the U.S. had to offer. Second, we had invited the Canadian clubs to come and compete in our tourneys in Asheville and elsewhere in the U.S. in the past. Third, I had recently completed 11 years of service as chairman of the AAU Women’s Water Polo Committee and therefore was playing a reasonably significant role in the growth of the sport nationally. I had just been named chairman of the new International Women’s Water Polo Committee as we sought to grow globally.
As our reward, the Asheville girls and I were kicking-off what was being called the World Women’s Water Polo Club Championships by facing the Dutch ladies from Hilversum. Asheville averaged 18½ years of age. Hilversum averaged about 28. Our girls had been playing together for five or six years. The Dutch grande dames had been playing together for 15 or 16. The result of this initial matchup of a young U.S. women’s team against the best European women’s team was pretty predictable. The final score was Hilversum 10, Asheville 5.
Which wasn’t that bad, considering the circumstances. Many years later, I wrote a report on our participation in this major competition for the history section of the Asheville Citizen-Times. The paper headlined the article as follows: “Women’s Water Polo Team Blazed Trail.”
Here’s what I wrote: “It was in 1977 that our Asheville YMCA girls represented the Eastern U.S. in the first World Women’s Water Polo Club Championships, conducted at Montreal and Quebec City, Canada. The Y team, of which I was the coach, had won nine national AAU and YMCA tourneys from 1971 through 1976 while competing from Philly to Fresno and from Miami to Honolulu. But we were still surprised to receive an invitation to compete in the aforementioned event being hosted by the Canadians.
“While men’s water polo dates back to the 1860s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that American women started playing this rough, tough game on a regular basis. The objective of the tourney was to show FINA, the world governing body for aquatic sports, that women could indeed play water polo and that the sport should be included in the Olympic Games.
“At first we rejected the invitation. Some of our best players had just graduated from high school and were now attending colleges in four different states. Furthermore, our eight-month YMCA water polo season occurred over the spring, summer, and autumn months, and the competition at Montreal and Quebec City was scheduled for March 30 through April 4. The winter was our off-season, when the Y girls normally took part in other sports such as competitive swimming, skiing, and basketball. We knew we could not possibly be at our best in early April, which was the very beginning of our season.
“Then the hosting Canadians sweetened the pot. They offered to pay most of our expenses including round-trip air fare, lodging, breakfast each morning, and even car rental. We had only to pay a $50-per-player entry fee to cover the officiating, plus the cost of our lunches and dinners. Well, we had to eat somewhere, didn’t we? Why not in Montreal and Quebec City?
“In preparation for the tournament, we patched together a series of brief weekend practices during February and March, all of them in our small four-lane, 25-yard Asheville YMCA pool. Three of our best players were not available, but I flew with 11 others through New York City into Montreal. Making the trip were Margaret Boyd, Melisa Crawford, DeeDee Dave, Tricia Derrough, Molly Griffin, Connie Hartman, Karen Hartman, Tina Hartman, Elizabeth Jeter, Susan Sessler, and Nina VanderRee.
“We played two exhibition games in the gigantic 50-meter indoor pool at Montreal that had been used for the 1976 Olympic Games, and then we drove to Quebec City and played four official games at another huge 50-meter pool in suburban Ste-Foy. After having had just a few practices back home in our small YMCA pool, the games in Canada were like moving from a bathtub to the wide expanse of the ocean.
“We didn’t do as well as we’d hoped, winning two games, tying one, and losing three. The team from Hilversum went undefeated and won the tourney, edging Ste-Foy by one goal in the championship contest. Afterwards, the Dutch ladies told us, ‘Your team could become good if you keep playing for another five or six years.’
“Be that as it may, it was a wonderful experience for our Asheville girls. They wore red, white, and blue suits donated by Speedo and had the privilege of being one of the two teams representing our country in this first women’s international water polo competition.
“In 1979, FINA recognized women’s water polo as an official, sanctioned international sport, although it wasn’t until 2000 that women were finally admitted to the Olympic water polo program.”
Yes, that’s what I wrote for the newspaper. It was indeed an honor for our Asheville YMCA girls from the rather remote mountains of Western North Carolina to be part of this event in 1977.
But let me return to a time 20 years earlier, to 1957, when I picked up a water polo ball for the first time. Read on.
YMCA WATER POLO AT MINNEAPOLIS-
ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA, 1958-1962
We knew water polo was a rough and tough sport. Not for sissies. Nonetheless we’d set up “goals” on opposite sides of the Midway YMCA pool in St. Paul, Minnesota. Then, dividing ourselves into two teams, we tried to shoot a water polo ball into the circular opening of the opposing “goal.” Standing on the bottom was permitted. So were grabbing and ducking. It was a free-for-all. We called it Battle Ball and pretended it was water polo, even though we knew it wasn’t the real thing. But it was a start.
I had come to work part-time at the Midway YMCA after completing a two-year tour of duty with the U.S. Army. This included a stint in Korea, where the war had just ended. I’d been stationed at K-55, a base about 60 miles south of Seoul. We were part of the occupation forces. If you’ve ever seen the TV show M*A*S*H, that was us. But we weren’t a medical base. We were an engineering unit there to support a jet fighter squadron. I was the company clerk. Yeah, just like Radar from M*A*S*H.
One day a notice came through that the Pacific Area Armed Forces Swimming Championships were going to be conducted in Japan. Those of us in Korea could qualify at a meet to be held in Seoul. I had been a competitive swimmer since the age of 10 and eventually raced for my hometown high school in Rochester, Minnesota. As a senior in 1951, I’d participated in the YMCA’s National Swimming Championships. Then I attended Gustavus-Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, on a swimming scholarship. One day while sitting in the cafeteria, I noticed a young lady waiting in line. It was love at first sight. Literally. I turned to my swimming teammates and said, “Do you see that girl? She’s the one I’m going to marry.” I didn’t even know her name, but as I write this, Lee and I have been happily married for 53½ years.
The Korean War was going on, and when I was 20, in 1953, I received my draft notice. I was bused to Fort Riley in Kansas for 16 weeks of serious basic training after which, while awaiting reassignment, I was given permission to train for swimming in the small four-lane, 20-yard pool at nearby Kansas State University. The Army sent me to the Midwest AAU Championships being conducted in a nice six-lane, 25-yard pool at Omaha, Nebraska, and I won the 100-yard backstroke. My parents and Lee, to whom I’d become engaged, came from Minnesota to watch. Then the Army sent me off again, this time to Korea. We spent 11 days traveling on a troop ship. It was up and down. Up and down. Up and down. I was seasick the entire time. Imagine, the Midwest champ vomiting all over the place because he couldn’t take the wavy water. How humiliating.
Compared to the ocean, the Seoul Olympic pool was relatively smooth, and I qualified there for the Pacific Area Championships. Our Army team of six swimmers, including two who were black, a rarity in those days, flew to Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan and its beautiful eight-lane, 50-meter outdoor pool, joining about 150 other Army, Air Force, and Navy swimmers from Hawaii, the Philippines, Okinawa, Guam, Korea, and Japan. We were given time to do some enjoyable sight-seeing in the nearby city before competing at night, under the lights. I placed third in the 100-meter backstroke and joined with breaststroker Frank Wright from West Chester State College and freestyler Frank Dooley from Ohio State University to win the 300-meter medley relay for the Army troops in Korea. We each received a beautiful silver cup, which I’ve retained to this day.
After a year in Korea, our entire company of about 200 men was shipped back home, and we were stationed at Camp Wolters, Texas. One day the base commander called me into his office, and as I stood at attention, he asked, “You’re the swimmer?”
“Well, you’ve done your duty overseas, and now I want you to represent our base and the Army in swimming competition.”
Wow. How lucky can one guy get?
My Army swimming teammate was Ollie Davis from Honolulu, and together we drove to meets in Amarillo, El Paso, Wichita, and then to New Orleans, where I copped the Southern AAU championship in the 100-meter butterfly.
Author’s Note: the dolphin kick had just been legalized for the butterfly, and I picked it up and quickly became proficient.
At the end of the summer, we flew in a military plane to Sampson Air Force Base in upstate New York for the World Armed Forces Swimming Championships. We’d been practicing in a 50-meter outdoor pool at Camp Wolters and competing in various long-course meets. The World competition was contested in a 25-yard short-course pool. I hadn’t practiced turns for quite a while, and after botching a couple of them, I took a slow third in the 200-yard backstroke. I did better in the 100-yard butterfly, losing by a matter of inches to an Air Force swimmer named Jack Nelson, who the next year would represent the U.S. at the 1956 Olympic Games.
While Jack Nelson went on to Olympic fame, I returned to civilian life in Minnesota. Lee and I were married. She’d attended Gustavus-Adolphus College on a nursing scholarship and had completed her nursing degree at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul while I was serving in the Army. So when I returned, she went to work as a Registered Nurse, and I went to college at the University of Minnesota on the GI Bill. Once I got my feet on the ground, I started working part-time at the Midway YMCA.
Which brings us to our Battle Ball games. I was now 24 and was coaching many of the boys from the local high schools who practiced in the Midway YMCA pool during the winter months. Minneapolis and St. Paul were at the bottom of the state’s interscholastic swimming scene. None of the high schools had pools. All the practicing was done, usually several teams at a time, in YMCA pools. It was crowded and often disorganized. So I can say with a certain amount of certainty that when the boys I was coaching from St. Paul’s Murray High School won the 200-yard medley relay race at the state championships, it was quite a surprise, quite an achievement, and it probably helped convince me to pursue a career in YMCA aquatics. The victorious quartet was comprised of Dick Swanson, backstroke; Doug Malmstrom, breaststroke; George Ubel, butterfly; and Duane Malmstrom, freestyle. I still remember their names.
|Battle Ball as played at St. Paul Midway YMCA in 1957|
However, churning up and down the pool was easy compared to our Battle Ball games. It was a rare day that someone didn’t end up with a bloody nose and the rest of us with bumps and bruises. But we enjoyed it.
I also was hired as the part-time swim coach at the Minneapolis YWCA. I had a team of about 30 girls. This was l-o-n-g before the advent of Title IX – more on that later – and the high schools had no athletic teams for girls. None. Hard to believe nowadays, but true. It was the AAU – the Amateur Athletic Union – and the YWCA that provided girls with opportunities to compete in swimming and other sports. Our YW team started out slowly but ended up, a couple of years later, upsetting the state AAU champs from Minneapolis’ Ascension Club. In the process, I discovered that I thoroughly enjoyed working with the ladies.
Author’s Note: For those who may not know, Minneapolis and St. Paul, nicknamed “the Twin Cities,” are adjoining communities separated only by the Mississippi River. Minneapolis is young and brash and Protestant. St. Paul is older and staid and Catholic. But they work well together. The University of Minnesota has campuses in both communities.
In 1958, I graduated from the University with a degree in Recreation Administration and was offered a job by the Minneapolis YMCA as director of aquatics at the large downtown facility. As a teenager growing up in Rochester, I’d swum with and against the Y boys, and I was fully familiar with the situation there. I served at the Minneapolis YMCA as director of aquatics from October of 1958 through the spring of 1962.
One day shortly after I began working in Minneapolis, I was approached by a young man on the deck of the pool who asked, “Are you familiar with water polo?” He was Ricardo Gonzalez Izquierdo, a newcomer to town from Mexico, who had represented that country in water polo at the 1955 Pan-American Games. And thus began my involvement with water polo. REAL water polo.
Our YMCA pool in downtown Minneapolis was typical for that day and age: four lanes, 20 yards long, located in the basement. Not much to work with. Yet when we learned, much to our surprise, that the YMCA of the USA had just revived its long-dormant national water polo program, we were off and running. Ricky Izquierdo spent several months teaching me the correct techniques of water polo during the autumn of 1958 and winter of 1958-59. The sport was more a combination of basketball and soccer in the pool than the slug ‘em and duck ‘em Battle Ball we’d been playing at the Midway Y. Because basketball and swimming had been my two favorite and best athletic activities as a youngster, I had no trouble learning water polo. At one time I turned to Ricky and blurted, “This is MY game!”
Nor did we have any trouble recruiting players. All the Minneapolis high schools used the YMCA pool for their swimming practices and meets, and some of the boys competed for the Y in the summertime. When we issued a call for polo players in March of 1959, over 30 high school boys signed up. By this time, we had cheap homemade goals for each end of the Y pool, official caps, and half-a-dozen balls. Ricky knew what he was doing when it came to water polo, and so did I to some extent, and we found another experienced and excellent player, Lou Edl, who had been a high school star in California before moving to Minneapolis.
We started with our own four-team recreational league, playing five-per-side in the small YMCA pool. Each team contained eight or nine players, counting all the substitutes, with Ricky captaining one team, Lou another, I the third, and one of Ricky’s friends from Mexico, Pedro Nieto, also an experienced player, the fourth. The remaining players on each team were high school swimmers of whom the best were Big Bob Thiel, a 6-3, 200-pound defender; John Dwyer, a good young goalie; and Nick Jambeck, a swift-swimming and high-scoring forward. We adults took turns refereeing when we weren’t playing ourselves. That was 50 years ago, and I can still remember how much fun we had.
We had so much fun, in fact, that we decided to host a YMCA tournament as part of the Y’s attempt to resuscitate the sport nationally. We invited two teams from Detroit, one from St. Louis, and two from Winnipeg, Canada. Of course, we entered a team of our own. We called our six-team event the Minneapolis YMCA Men’s International Invitational. If I remember correctly, the Detroit Downtown YMCA finished first, St. Louis Downtown second, Winnipeg Central third, Minneapolis fourth, the Winnipeg Ol’ Timers fifth, and a team of teenaged boys from Detroit Denby sixth.
Looking back, the competition must have been fairly good, as I know our Minneapolis men’s team was doggone decent. Ricky Izquierdo, the Pan-Am Games veteran, was our hole forward; his buddy Pedro Nieto and I played the mid-pool positions; Lou Edl from California, at 6-2 and 200 pounds and possessing a mean streak, was our defensive stopper; and Hawaiian Ollie Davis was our goalie. High schoolers Thiel, Dwyer, and Jambeck served as substitutes.
After Ollie, my former Army swimming teammate, and I had been separated from active duty, I’d returned to Minnesota and he’d gone home to Honolulu. One day the phone rang. It was Ollie. “I’m becoming a bit bored,” he said, “so I think I’m going to enroll in the art school in Minneapolis.”
“C’mon,” I replied. “We’d love to have you.”
A strong breaststroker, Ollie immediately became a standout water polo goalie. He spent a couple of years living in Minneapolis and was responsible for Lee and me going out to Hawaii in the summer of 1959. I’d learned that I lacked one course in order to receive my diploma from the University of Minnesota, and Ollie suggested that I take a class at the University of Hawaii. Lee and I drove to Los Angeles where we visited her uncle and left our car with him. We flew out to Honolulu where there was plenty of ongoing excitement, as this was the year Hawaii became our 50th state. We both attended classes and took a four-day trip to neighboring Kauai. We also were introduced to oceanic skin- and scuba-diving and to “the mystic world beneath the sea,” about which you’ll be reading more later.
Getting back to our YMCA tournament, I recall that Jim Ham was a star for the winning Detroit team, while Brian Horton led the Winnipeg Central squad. Guy Simones of the Winnipeg Ol’ Timers served as head referee. St. Louis had several standouts whom we would be facing again in the future.
|The author Chuck Hines, as a
Minneapolis YMCA player 1960
We kept on playing polo for fun in the small Minneapolis pool, and in 1962 I wrote an article which was published in the YMCA’s Journal of Physical Education. Accompanied by three photos – one of Ricky lunging high out of the water to throw a pass, the second showing me propelling a shot into the goal, the third of a group of our younger boys passing the ball amongst themselves in a circle – the article reported that “water polo, an Olympic sport since 1900 and regarded as the world’s roughest, toughest aquatic activity, is being played at the downtown YMCA in Minneapolis.
“A 1959 invitational tournament took on international proportions with the participation of YMCAs from Detroit, Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Winnipeg, including star players from the U.S., Hawaii, Canada, and Mexico.
“In recent years, Minneapolis has devoted its efforts to promoting recreational water polo. Over three dozen men and high school boys have enjoyed playing in the Senior League. Twice that number of younger boys in the YMCA’s Fish, Flying Fish, and Shark classes have learned to play as part of their instructional program. A match for boys ages 14-and-under between the Minneapolis YMCA and the St. Paul Midway YMCA ended in a 3-to-3 tie.
“Water polo requires swimming speed and stamina, ball-handling ability, and teamwork. Teams officially consist of seven players but can easily be reduced to five or six if pool space is limited. The hardest job belongs to the referee who must interpret an abundance of confusing rules while watching closely to detect fouls committed beneath the surface and obscured by the churning water.
“Because of its nature, water polo is an excellent physical conditioner and provides many opportunities for teaching teamwork, team tactics, fair play, and good sportsmanship. It is an exciting sport that could, and should, be considered by more YMCAs nationally.”
Since we’d started playing water polo in the winter of 1958-59, I’d been writing and publishing a small bimonthly newsletter, mostly for the participants in our Y program. In 1961, I began sending out the newsletter nationally. The sport was still quite small, and I might have had 100 subscribers, at most, from coast to coast. In those days, it was the Amateur Athletic Union that governed most sports, including water polo, and the AAU announced its All-America men’s team annually. There were no intercollegiate or interscholastic All-America teams, so I and a few others took it upon ourselves to list and publicize the first collegiate and high school All-America players in my little newsletter, starting in 1962.
We listed 21 collegians and 35 prep, or high school, stars. Most were from California, the only state in which water polo could be considered a semi-major sport, but there were a few players from the East and the Midwest. So few high schools were playing polo that boys who were involved with AAU and Y teams were considered. Several California coaches – Rick Rowland, Urho Saari, Jimmy Smith, and Jim Schultz come to mind – helped make the All-America selections, with additional input from a few others such as Fred Bassett from Yale, Harry Benvenuto from New York City (and the Brooklyn Central YMCA), Ralph Erickson from Chicago, and Wally Lundt from St. Louis.
I don’t remember many of the collegiate and prep All-Americans we chose in 1962 or in the years that followed, but I do recall that high school swim stars Don Schollander and Mark Spitz from California were among those who made our list. As most readers will recall, both eventually became famous Olympic gold medalists in competitive swimming.
Author’s Note: At the Minneapolis YMCA, I lifeguarded, taught youth swimming classes, started a scuba diving program, and coached the Y boys swim squad, along with continuing to coach the YWCA girls. This was in addition to our water polo efforts. In 1959 and 1960, I took our top boy swimmers to the YMCA National Championships where they won half-a-dozen races. The 1959 Championships were held at Colorado Springs, the 1960 Championships at Dayton, Ohio. Four of our Minneapolis YMCA boys – John Bergman, Dan Crocker, Bud Erickson, Virgil Luken – went on to become Collegiate All-America swimmers at the University of Minnesota. Virgil subsequently competed for the U.S. in the 400-meter medley relay at the 1964 Olympic Games, held in Tokyo, and brought home a gold medal. Perhaps of equal significance historically is the fact that our YMCA team had both black and inner-city youngsters, a precursor of things to come as the U.S. went through major societal changes in the 1960s.
In the summer of 1962, my wife Lee and I moved to Ames, Iowa, where we spent a year engaged in a church-related service project with the Beloit Lutheran Children’s Home. We had been active members of the University Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, and the young minister there was continually urging his “flock” to move out and help those less fortunate. Lee and I considered joining the Peace Corps but ended up in Ames. While there, I started a men’s water polo program at the Iowa State University YMCA, and I drove 30 miles every Saturday afternoon to the Des Moines YMCA to exercise.
I was writing and sending out my national newsletter, which reported tournament results from around the country and listed the prep and collegiate All-America selections, and I wrote and self-published a 55-page book entitled “Learning To Play Water Polo.” It was pretty primitive, but it contained over a dozen polo photos that were taken at Minneapolis while I was still there. I ran off 300 copies and sold them at $1.00 apiece. Within a year, they were all gone.
The book opened by giving a review of the history of water polo, which I repeat here: “In the 1860s, the sport of swimming was steadily declining in popularity. To rejuvenate interest in aquatic activities, the Bournemouth Premier Rowing Club of England promoted a series of aquatic handball games, in which teams of 11 swimmers battled each other in an attempt to throw a ball (which often burst) into goals spaced 60 yards apart.
“At first, the goals consisted of flags anchored in the water or small boats moored the proper distance apart. Later on, goalposts were used, similar to football goalposts today. Eventually, when the game moved indoors, smaller goals with nets were used.
“Aquatic handball gradually caught the fancy of British swimmers, and in 1879 the first rules were drawn up. The National Swimming Association of England adopted the game in 1884 and began sponsoring national championship matches in 1889. An Englishman, John Robinson by name, brought the game to the United States and organized the first team at Boston in 1888. The very first game in this country was between the Boston Athletic Association and the Sydenham Swimming Club of Providence, Rhode Island.
“Soon teams were being sponsored by the New York Athletic Club, the Manhattan Athletic Club, the Knickerbocker Athletic Association of New York, and others to the west in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Chicago, Illinois, and St. Louis, Missouri. The initial intersectional encounter occurred on April 11-12 of 1895, at which time the New York Athletic Club entertained the Chicago Athletic Association and won both games, 4-to-1 and 2-to-1, from the visitors.
“Germany, France, Hungary, and Belgium followed the English and the Scots and the United States in promoting aquatic handball, which by now was called by the more popular name of water polo. Walter Camp, the dean of American sportswriters and an astute observer of the sporting scene, included a 10-page chapter on water polo in his 1903 textbook. Camp said, ‘The game of water polo has perhaps done more in recent years to popularize and to cause an interest to be taken in swimming than any other branch of aquatic sport. It is essentially a game for swimmers and one that affords ample opportunity for the exhibition of skill and the development of staying power.’”
The history lesson in my book concluded by stating that when the Olympic Games were conducted at St. Louis in 1904, men’s water polo was included. It has remained an important international sport ever since, with women finally being added to the Olympic agenda in 2000.
Insofar as the YMCA is concerned, we know there were Y men’s water polo games being played in New York City and Chicago in 1908 and thereafter, mostly of the five-per-side variety in small pools. I have a copy of an article from the New York Times dated February 1, 1908, about Y water polo. It reported that “the dual swim meet between the Bath Swimming Club and the Twenty-third Street Branch of the YMCA in the tank of the latter organization tonight should prove an interesting contest. A feature that will bring out the followers of the sport is the water polo match. Both sides have been in training for some time and are capable of putting up a fast and snappy game.” I also have a copy of a photo from the Chicago Daily News dated August 10, 1908, which shows “the Central YMCA Men’s Water Polo Team.”
Author’s Note: When I discovered we were now celebrating the 100th anniversary of YMCA water polo, I became even more enthused about writing this book.
The YMCA of the USA had a nationally-publicized polo program from 1916 through 1926. One Y team in Chicago featured swimming star Johnny Weissmuller. In addition to winning five gold medals in Olympic swimming competition, Weissmuller played on the U.S. men’s water polo team that earned a bronze medal in 1924.
The YMCA at Fort Wayne, Indiana, led by director of aquatics John Slater, had a men’s league, and in an article written by Mr. Slater in 1922, he stated, “The Fort Wayne YMCA has an industrial water polo league. We have four industries represented. We have 44 men from these industries taking part in the league games. All of the games are drawing large audiences. Some of the rules in the swimming guide are used and others are changed or added. The changes make the play fast and not so difficult for the players, most of whom are only average swimmers. Roughness and dirty playing are not allowed by the referee. In the 12 games so far, a total of 87 goals have been scored. Some of the teams have worked up signals and trick plays.” A report written two years later by Mr. Slater indicated that the number of league teams had increased to six and the number of participants to 78. One of his poloists, who also was a strong swimmer, went on to compete in swimming with Weissmuller at the 1928 Olympic Games.
There was good water polo competition between the Minneapolis and Duluth YMCAs in Minnesota throughout the ‘teens and ‘20s. The games were part of their annual home-and-home dual swim meets. Almost all of the matches in the Midwest were being played five-per-side in the small YMCA pools of that era, and there was a definite emphasis on clean play and good sportsmanship, a long-time tradition and one of the major reasons I chose the YMCA as my profession.
For various reasons – mainly the economic depression of the 1930s and World War Two during the 1940s – YMCA water polo faded from the scene, although the Central Queens YMCA of New York City won the AAU Junior Men’s National Championships in the mid ‘30s and played the Senior Men’s National Champions from the New York Athletic Club evenly for three quarters, with the latter forging ahead to win by 15-to-9 at the end. For all practical purposes, that was the end of it until the YMCA of the USA announced a push for water polo’s revival in 1958. We had become part of that push.
Now, in 1962, the secretary of the YMCA’s National Aquatic Committee, Ed Griffin of Minneapolis, with whom I’d worked to help start the Y’s new scuba diving program, becoming a certified scuba instructor myself, suggested that we initiate an All-America selection process for our YMCA water poloists. Ed said, “This will show we’re serious about promoting water polo,” and he chaired the selection committee himself for the first few years. We were now involved with three different All-America water polo selection programs – prep, collegiate, and YMCA. Not bad for a bunch of Y’s guys who were still learning to play the game themselves.
Next Month: Chapter Two – YMCA Water Polo at Des Moines, Iowa, 1962-1966.