The director of aquatics at the Des Moines YMCA was Ivor Thomason. He had come to Minneapolis-St. Paul when we were starting the Y’s new national scuba program to attend a certification institute, which I was supervising. I’d met him at that time. When my wife Lee and I moved to Ames and I began visiting Des Moines on Saturdays to work-out, Ivor immediately approached me and asked if I could develop a water polo program. “I’m strong on swimming and scuba diving,” Ivor said, “but I know nothing about water polo. Can you help?”
“I can only come on Saturdays,” I told him, “because my wife and I are serving as relief or substitute house parents at the Beloit Lutheran Children’s Home. I’m also the recreation director, and she’s the nurse.” This was a residential treatment facility in Ames for boys and girls with a history of severe emotional problems, so working there was a major challenge for Lee and me.
“That’s okay,” Ivor replied, “because the only available pool time we have is on Saturday nights.”
Whoa. There’s no worse time for programming at the YMCA than Saturday nights. Nevertheless we started our polo program with two or three balls, no caps, and no goals. Only five prospective players showed up the first night, but one, Dan Hafelfinger, was a college student who’d played high school water polo in California. He wasn’t as big and burly as Lou Edl, the Californian who’d migrated to our Minneapolis program, but he was a speedy swimmer and a good ball-handler. Gradually, from one Saturday night to the next during the autumn months of 1962, we increased the number of participants. Unlike Minneapolis-St. Paul, Des Moines was fairly strong in high school swimming in those days, with each of the six high schools having its own six-lane, 25-yard pool. The high school swim coaches were reluctant to let their boys come to the Y to play polo. I contacted them and said, “If you have any SLOW swimmers who can’t cut the mustard in your program, send them to us at the Y.” So that first year, we had a bunch of teenaged slowpokes, but these boys were all thrilled to be included in our Saturday night activities.
One night a lanky young man in his mid 20s walked into the four-lane, 25-yard pool in the basement of the YMCA and said to me, “Hi. I’m Bob Helmick. I saw the notices about the new water polo program, and I’d like to give it a try.”
Author’s Note: This was a defining moment in the history of American sports. Bob Helmick became an All-American in water polo, the Team Leader for the U.S. Men’s Olympic Team, the President of the AAU and FINA and the USOC, a member of the IOC, and eventually an inductee into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. You’ll be reading more about Bob in this book, but let me say it all started on a Saturday night in the autumn of 1962 in the small basement pool at the Des Moines YMCA.
The first actual games we played pitted the Iowa State University YMCA men from Ames against the Des Moines YMCA men and boys. We now had homemade goals at each end of the Y pool, plus official caps and half-a-dozen balls. It was five-per-side competition. I’d been teaching and coaching both groups, and I refereed the games. Iowa State copped the initial encounter by a couple of goals. Des Moines won the second contest by the same margin. The Des Moines Register ran a nice article about what we were doing, which included photos of Bob Helmick and Dan Hafelfinger. This piqued the interest of many teenagers around town, and more high school boys started coming to our practices, including a few of the fastest swimmers.
As we neared the summer of 1963, Ivor came to me one evening. “Aren’t you about done with your year of service at the Children’s Home?”
“What’re your plans?”
“Lee and I aren’t sure what we’ll do. Why?”
“There’s an opening here at the Des Moines YMCA. You should apply.”
I did, and I spent the next three years, from the summer of 1963 through the summer of 1966, serving as a youth program director for the Des Moines YMCA. My main duty was supervising the large youth department at the downtown facility, which kept me busy, and didn’t include aquatics. That was Ivor’s bailiwick. However, he deferred to me when it came to water polo.
On Sundays, Bob Helmick was teaching a teen class at Des Moines’ Central Presbyterian Church, and he told them about his water polo involvement. The girls asked, “Can we play, too?”
This was prior to the creation of Title IX, and there were still NO athletic activities for girls at the local high schools, so Bob came to me and Ivor and inquired whether we could, or should, include girls in our polo program. The YMCA at that time was almost all male, and we had no separate locker facilities for women and girls. We’d have to schedule the girls at a time when they could use the men’s or boys’ vacated locker rooms. By now, we had so many men and boys participating that we’d moved them from Saturday nights to Monday and Thursday nights, which I could handle now that Lee and I were living in Des Moines and I was working full-time for the YMCA. I asked Ivor, “Can’t we find room for the girls on Tuesday nights? Maybe an hour?”
Like many, Ivor was a bit hesitant to bring in members of the fairer sex, but Bob and I kept twisting his arm, and he finally relented, hoping that the board of directors would approve. As the 1963-64 school year started, we scheduled time for the girls once weekly. The first Tuesday night we tried it, we had five who attended, and the numbers gradually increased week to week. The ladies were lovin’ it.
Soon we had 35 teenaged boys and 15 teenaged girls playing polo, supervised by a few of us older guys – Tom Cady, Russ Chance, Dan Hafelfinger, Bob Helmick, Merlin Humpal, and I, all of us also playing ourselves – so the program was progressing beyond belief. But aside from our recreational efforts, who would we play against?
We scheduled a home-and-home series with the University of Minnesota men’s water polo club, which had been organized by students who’d learned the sport in our Minneapolis YMCA program. The first game was played seven-per-side in the large Cooke Hall pool on the University campus. The Minnesota players were fast. How fast? I found myself up against 6-4, 200-pound Steve (Spider) Jackman, who just happened to be the NCAA champion in the 50-yard freestyle. He was from my hometown of Rochester, Minnesota, and had been the national high school champion in the sprint. Now, as a Golden Gopher, he’d swum the 50 in :21.2. Not bad for the mid 1960s. I was somewhat slower and smaller at 6-0 and 180 pounds. But I was a much better water polo player. Des Moines won the game. I don’t remember the exact score, but I recall that I outscored Steve by one goal to none. Throughout the game, I coached him on the fundamentals, and when it was over, we smiled at each other and shook hands.
The return match was contested in our small Des Moines YMCA pool. We played five-per-side, which should have given us an advantage over the faster collegians. Didn’t happen. Minnesota had a new player, Bob Gawboy. A Native American from the town of Ely in the northern section of the state, he had been a national high school champion in the individual medley. He then went on to win the AAU senior men’s national title in the 200-yard breaststroke. Though small, he was a crafty water polo player, scoring two goals against us. The Gopher defense had held us to just one goal as the game wound down. With seconds remaining, I worked my way clear and had an open shot from the left side, about five yards out. Should I loft a lob (my favorite shot) over the goalie’s head into the far corner of the cage or try to power one past him into the near corner? I elected the latter. The goalie blocked it. The game ended with Minnesota in front, 2-to-1.
We also wrote to a number of YMCAs telling them of our water polo program and offering to conduct free clinics on the sport in their pools. Several replied positively over the next year – Burlington, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Fort Dodge and Tipton in Iowa, Austin and Worthington in southern Minnesota – so we found some good opposition. The Cedar Rapids men and boys and the Davenport women and girls became very good in a short period of time and challenged us for Y supremacy in Iowa. In the summer of 1964, we hosted the first Iowa Championships at a large, all-deep outdoor pool in West Des Moines. It was sanctioned by the AAU, and we played regulation seven-per-side. Five men’s teams participated, most containing a number of teenaged boys, and three women’s teams competed, each comprised mostly of teenaged girls.
In the men’s finals, it was Des Moines vs. the University of Iowa. The University had started a club team led by All-America swimmer Dave Strief, who’d been the state champ in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle races for Des Moines’ Roosevelt High School. He also was one of our YMCA water poloists. I remember Dave doing :23.3 for the 50 and :51.6 for the 100, which were exceptional prep times for the ‘60s.
Another Roosevelt swimmer, Terry Gates, was our best prep polo player in Des Moines. Terry was big, about 6-1 and 190 pounds, and combative, and ambidextrous, and he was fast, having swum :53.8 for the 100-yard freestyle. He could play any position in the pool, including goalie. In the cage, his reflexes were lightning quick. So despite his speed, we used him as goalie against the University. Three of us “older” men – Russ Chance at hole forward, I as our mid-pool quarterback, Bob Helmick back on defense – and collegian Dan Hafelfinger and two of our high school boys rounded out the starting lineup. It was a tight tussle, but the concluding score was Des Moines YMCA 6, University of Iowa 4.
In the women’s championship clash, the Davenport YMCA team, led by 30-year-old player-coach Ruth Johnson, defeated our Des Moines Y teenaged girls, 8-to-4. Our best player was Paula Lambert, who was fast and an excellent all-around player, and she fed the ball to Tina Bergeson, our leading scorer.
Author’s Note: I was the high scorer at the Iowa AAU Championships, which was a rarity, and earned an award for being Iowa’s AAU Player of the Year. I also made the AAU All-Midwest Team after performing reasonably well against the Chicago, Omaha, and St. Louis squads later in the summer. As a result, I received Honorable Mention on the AAU All-America Team. This was my best year ever for playing water polo, and I also won the Midwest men’s championship in scuba diving. And yet … and yet … what I remember most is missing that last-minute shot against the University of Minnesota in our small YMCA pool which cost our team the game. Geez, if only I’d tossed up a lob!
November of 1964 saw Bob Helmick and me and our wives flying to Houston, Texas, for the annual convention of the Amateur Athletic Union. Our flight was delayed by a freak snowstorm, but finally we reached our destination. Thanks to my bimonthly newsletter which had been distributed nationally for several years, almost everyone at the water polo meetings knew of us, including the sport’s leaders from California, and we were able to meld together the AAU and YMCA water polo programs.
Returning home, I wrote another article on the sport for the Y’s national magazine, the Journal of Physical Education. The article stated that “in seeking to find a pool sport that would appeal to teenaged boys, we hit upon an activity that became popular almost overnight, water polo. At the time we started the program in Minneapolis, I had never seen a real game played. But we built goals and purchased caps and balls and then watched as our polo program expanded from seven beginners to 39 enthusiastic high school boys. We watched as some of our boys, upon graduating from high school and enrolling at the University of Minnesota, introduced the sport there.
“When I came to Des Moines, once again I initiated a water polo program for high school boys. We started slowly and with only a few players, but in just two years, we have increased to the point where our Y water polo club contains 40 men and boys and 15 girls. Yes, even the girls wanted to get into the act and pressured us into accepting them.
“The teams meet once or twice weekly at the YMCA and a third time at a community outdoor pool in the summer months. We have our own four-team intramural league, and the most deserving players represent us in games against neighboring AAU and Y teams.
“We make an honest effort to incorporate Values Education into the program. This takes the form of strong adult leadership – men who set a good example – and an emphasis on playing hard but playing fair. The club newsletter regularly carries Christian comments and quotations. An annual award goes to the club’s best sport as decided by a vote. A recent club survey brought out the following facts:
- 100% of the club members felt water polo had improved their physical fitness.
- 95% felt it had helped them learn to think and react more quickly under pressure.
- 88% felt is had helped them know what to expect from others in situations of physical and emotional stress.
- 72% felt it had helped them improve their self-confidence.
- 60% felt it had helped them significantly in learning to control themselves in situations of duress.
- 30% felt it had helped them develop a better philosophy of life based on Christian values and virtues.
- And in the voting to determine the player who should receive the sportsmanship trophy, 80% of the club members were mentioned. Apparently four-fifths of the players are good sports in the eyes of their fellow club members.
“In summary, more YMCAs need to come up with a unique aquatic program aimed at fulfilling the needs of their high school youth. For us in Minneapolis and Des Moines, water polo has been the answer.”
Since 1958, the YMCA had been conducting a yearly national tournament for men. These had been held in Detroit, Minneapolis, and St. Louis, and in 1965 it was our turn to host the event in Des Moines. We brought in AAU All-American Bill Kooistra from Chicago to do a short pre-tourney clinic and to serve as the head referee. Bill had been an Olympic player for the Illinois Athletic Club, and everybody respected his expertise both in the water and on the pool deck.
St. Louis had become the kingpin of YMCA water polo, and they fielded two superb teams, one repre-senting the Downtown Y and the other competing for the Carondelet Y. Dick (Hoot) Newman, the 6-7, 240-pounder, was St. Louis Downtown’s hole forward and star player. He was supported by Art Kelley, a terrific defender, and the swift-swimming Casey brothers, Dan and Don, and all-around ace Ed Hellman. This was an exceptional team, one of the best in the entire U.S. For St. Louis Carondelet, defensive whiz John Carson, a chiropractor, was the player-coach, aided by Steve Steska and others.
Chicago had a decades-old history of water polo excellence, and they entered a team from the Lawson YMCA. Their leader on defense was Jim (Moose) Mulcrone, and they had plenty of firepower up front.
The fourth strong entry was our own Des Moines YMCA squad. We were reasonably good. We had prep All-American Terry Gates at goalie and 6-3, 190-pound Bob Helmick anchoring our defense. Russ Chance, a quick-handed and prolific scorer, was our hole forward. Dan Hafelfinger and I were our two mid-pool players in the five-per-side competition. We had our swift-swimming high school boys as substitutes.
There were several other YMCAs competing, including a competent crew from Cedar Rapids, but we knew it was the four aforementioned teams that would be contesting for the championship.
St. Louis Downtown edged Chicago Lawson by one goal for the team title, and St. Louis Carondelet defeated Des Moines by two goals in the third-place matchup. When the smoke has cleared and the pool vacated at the end of a long weekend, we realized that while our team hadn’t done so well, we’d hosted an exceptionally good YMCA men’s water polo tournament.
We were also conducting a variety of other invitational tourneys that were sanctioned by the AAU, playing five-per-side in the spring months in our small YMCA indoor pool and seven-per-side in the summertime in the larger West Des Moines outdoor pool. Teams came from other Iowa communities and from Manitoba and Minnesota and Montana, from Omaha and Quincy, and elsewhere. In addition, each autumn we were continuing to run our own intramural league, which by now had morphed into the beginning of a Hi-Y program, with three of the high schools entering their own boys water polo teams. Tech High, coached by Tom Cady, was the best. His swimmers weren’t as fast as those from Roosevelt and Lincoln, but they could really play polo. Our own Y teams rounded out the league.
From 1962, when we started in Des Moines, through the rest of the decade, we had six boys who earned prep All-America honors: Terry Gates and Wayne Mitchell of Roosevelt, John Eichelis and Bobby Jeglum of Tech, Bob Miller of East, and Marlin Willis of North. Some of our other teenaged standouts during the ‘60s were little Jerry Bower and the battlin’ Bs, Mike Bean and Ben Bishop, determined Dwight Johns, goalie Dave Mack and his buddy Al Meek, Tall (Bob) Paul, speedster Dave Strief, and defense-minded Brian Wistey.
Bob Helmick and I were selected as YMCA All-Americans three times and our high-scoring hole forward Russ Chance once. Many of the Chicago and St. Louis players were AAU and/or YMCA All-Americans, as was Omaha’s outstanding player-coach Bill Murdock, and from time to time the Detroit YMCAs would pop up again with their star goalie, Tom Sullivan, becoming an All-American.
The leading YMCA polo program in the East during the 1960s, Brooklyn Central, coached by Harry Benvenuto, produced its share of All-Americans. Harry’s teams of teenaged boys were beating most of the Eastern collegiate men’s teams. I’ve always held Harry in high regard. He was named to two different swimming and water polo Halls of Fame in New York City before retiring and living out the rest of his life in Cottondale, Alabama.
In November of 1965, Bob Helmick and I attended the AAU Convention which was held at Yellowstone National Park. We flew into Bozeman, Montana, and were bused from there to a lodge at Yellowstone. Very interesting experience. Bob and I were relative newcomers to water polo on the national scene, yet the growth of the sport in the Midwest and amongst the Ys seemed to impress the Californians. Much to my surprise, I was appointed by Andy Burke to serve as chairman of the new AAU Women’s Water Polo Committee.
Organized women’s water polo was first played in England and the U.S. (New York City) in 1901-02. The Dutch started in 1906 and played an exhibition game at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. The Montreal YMCA in Canada fielded a women’s team in the mid ‘20s, of which I have picture. But following the 1931 AAU Women’s Championships, which was strictly a California affair, the women’s game was dropped. It was thought to be “too rough.” After 30 years in which the ladies weren’t playing anywhere, there had been a small resurgence of interest in the gals’ game, initiated by Rosemary Dawson of Ann Arbor, Michigan, with a helping hand from Harry Hauck in Detroit. They conducted several AAU tournaments in 1961, 1962, and 1963, with teams entered from several Michigan swim clubs. There were maybe a dozen other women’s teams in California, Illinois, Montana, and yes, Iowa – at Des Moines and Davenport. Our teenaged girls were still playing amongst themselves at the YMCA, with an occasional contest against Ruth Johnson and her Davenporters. Somehow this was sufficient to get me appointed as the AAU Women’s Committee Chairman, a position I held while working with a few others for 11 consecutive years, through 1976. In an era in which women were just starting to receive proper recognition in sports, despite opposition from most of the men, we faced an uphill battle until Title IX was enforced. More about that later.
Also in 1965, I was appointed by the YMCA of the USA to serve as the Y’s representative on the U.S. Olympic Water Polo Committee, a position I also held for 11 years, through 1976.
I’d been a charter member of the new American Swimming Coaches Association and had been elected as its water polo chairman. The ASCA took over sponsorship of the prep and collegiate All-Americans, under my direction, and I continued to send out my bimonthly newsletter and write a water polo column for Swimming World magazine and occasional articles for Swimming Technique magazine. Thus I was chairing water polo committees for the AAU and ASCA and YMCA of the USA, representing the Y on our Olympic Committee, writing about the sport, and serving as player-coach of the Des Moines teams. I was doing most of this in my spare time because my duties as a Y youth program director kept me busy with a wide variety of non-aquatic activities.
One day an unexpected letter arrived at our home in Des Moines. It was from the Swimming Association of India, asking if I’d be interested in moving to that country to serve a two-year term as director of water polo at the National Sports Institute in New Delhi. For a while, I was interested, as it looked like an exciting opportunity. I asked some of my friends for references, and Mike Milliman of California, an officer on the board of directors of the American Swimming Coaches Association, wrote, “I would like to recommend Mr. Chuck Hines for an overseas assignment as a swimming and water polo coach for India.
“It is very difficult to find words adequate enough to give Mr. Hines the recommendation he deserves. In my opinion, Mr. Hines is one of the main reasons for the growth of competitive water polo throughout the U.S. during the past five years. I am sure others will describe his excellent coaching ability. On the administrative level, his work in the water polo field is unequaled. Presently he is the American Swimming Coaches Association Water Polo Chairman, the AAU Women’s Water Polo Committee Chairman, and the AAU Men’s Water Polo Committee Vice-Chairman. He writes two newsletters on the sport as well as articles for Swimming World magazine and Swimming Technique quarterly.
“Mr. Hines initiated the Interscholastic and Intercollegiate All-America selection process several years ago, and he still chairs the selection of our young athletes for this honor.
“Personally, he is so valuable to the American Swimming Coaches Association and to the American water polo scene that I would really hate to see him go overseas. However, I am confident that he will make an outstanding contribution to the sport in India and to international good will. I recommend him without reservation.”
Wow. Wasn’t that nice! But I didn’t go to India for two reasons. First, I felt fairly committed to pursuing a professional career with the YMCA. I’d already taken off one year to work with my wife Lee at the Beloit Lutheran Children’s Home, and I feared taking off for another two years would set me back too far in my Y vocation. Second, and more importantly, Lee and I had been married for 10 years and had no children, which we wanted. So with the help of Bob Helmick, an attorney, we adopted a little girl in November of 1965, just after we returned home from the AAU convention. We named her Heather, and you’ll read more about her in this book.
The best trip our Des Moines YMCA water polo club took was to Miles City, Montana, in the summer of 1966. It was for an AAU Junior National tournament. In those days, players of any age were eligible for Junior competition, unless they had previously won a Junior or Senior National tourney. This meant that I, at 33, and Bob Helmick, at 29, were okay to play. The event at Miles City was headed by Dave Rivenes, who at that time was one of the leading sports figures in the entire country. He subsequently became president of the Amateur Athletic Union. Dave had an outdoor water polo “pool” built into the town’s lake, and that’s where we played. Our Des Moines ‘A’ team, with Bob starring on defense and I being the high scorer on offense and with our high school boys providing ample support, had no trouble winning its category, beating the few other entries from Colorado and Montana and, I believe, one other state, plus our own ‘B’ team. In the women’s competition, a club from San Leandro, California, coached by Dave Beaver, dunked the hometown Miles City girls for the tourney title.
For me, the highlight of the trip was meeting and dining one night with the guest of honor, Billy Mills, a Native American who had shocked the world by winning the men’s 10,000-meter running race at the 1964 Olympic Games. Also, we stopped and visited Mount Rushmore in South Dakota while en route home, which was a good educational experience.
As the summer of 1966 came to a conclusion, the Des Moines Register ran a lengthy article about our YMCA program that was written by Bob Asbille. There was a large photo of Bob Helmick submerging Terry Gates, followed by these comments: “Water polo is an aggressive game that seems to have as its objective the drowning of the seven players on the opposing team.
|Des Moines YMCA's All-American Bob Helmick
was a defensive star in the 1960's
“That may be a slight exaggeration, but Chuck Hines, player-coach of the Des Moines YMCA Water Polo Club, says fouling is a normal part of the sport. He explains that players must learn to foul in a skillful manner and with finesse, adding that outright viciousness has no part in the game.
“In water polo, the referee walks up and down the side of the pool. If he calls a foul, it can be minor, resulting in an uncontested pass given to the opposing team, or major, resulting in the expulsion of a player from the pool until one team scores a goal. The referee has one handicap, though – it’s difficult to see all the contact below the surface.
“Someone has likened water polo to a group of sharks attacking a fresh piece of meat. Nonetheless this sport is becoming increasingly popular in the United States and dramatically so in Iowa. Much of its success can be attributed to the 33-year-old Hines and his assistant, 29-year-old Des Moines attorney Bob Helmick. Hines, a youth program director at the YMCA, organized water polo here in 1962 and with Helmick’s help has spread the ‘gospel’ into five other Iowa towns and three other states. Hines and the local club have helped organize teams in Burlington, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Fort Dodge, and Tipton. On August 13, they will present a clinic in Storm Lake to create a club there.
“They’ve also helped form teams in Austin and Worthington, Minnesota, and Omaha, Nebraska, and at Northwest Missouri State College in Maryville. The college team is made up entirely of alumni from the Des Moines Y program.
“Des Moines has over 40 men and boys on its roster, ranging in ages from 14 to 40 and from the follow-ing schools: East, Lincoln, North, Roosevelt, Tech and Valley high schools; Drake and Iowa Universities; Grandview Community College; and Still Osteopathic College. A number of girls also are playing at the Y and have been competing against a team from Davenport.
“So far this year, the men’s varsity has an 11-1 record, while the junior varsity is 4-1. They’ve won the Iowa and North Central States tournaments and placed second to St. Louis at the YMCA’s National Championships. They also won a Junior National title earlier this month at the Montana Sports Spree in Miles City, Montana.
“Despite its newness, the Des Moines program has produced several All-America players, including Hines, Helmick, and Terry Gates. But in the future, the club will have to get along without Hines and the 19-year-old Gates, who’s been inducted into military service. Hines, who has written one book on water polo and has another due for publication next year, is moving to a new YMCA post in Canton, Illinois. He attended the recent meeting of the U.S. Olympic Water Polo Committee in Washington, DC, where it was announced that water polo ranked third among 21 Olympic sports in its current national development.
“Hines said that any strong swimmer who liked to mix in a little mayhem is an excellent water polo prospect. Endurance and toughness are essential. But it’s a lot of good clean fun, he concluded, as he reached for the antiseptic to treat a long scratch on his arm acquired in a friend scrimmage.”
Water polo had become very important to me. While family always came first and church second, it was water polo that often occupied my thoughts and my spare time. I was busy, Busy, BUSY with the sport, perhaps too much so, and I felt I needed to devote more time and energy to my profession, to the YMCA. I had worked at Ys in the larger cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul and Des Moines. I figured I needed the small-town experience. So Lee and I, with baby Heather in tow, headed down the road.
Next Month: Chapter Three – YMCA Water Polo at Canton, Illinois, 1966-1969.