I’d now been involved with water polo for 40 years – 1958 to 1978 nationally, 1978 to 1998 locally – and I found myself wondering if I could make it to 50 years. The answer proved to be a resounding YES. Looking around at the water polo scene from 2000 to 2008, when the manuscript for this book was initially written – remember you’re now reading the slightly revised 2012 version – I observed the following:
The players in the new millennium, both the men and the women, were bigger and stronger. Generally speaking, they practiced longer and harder, with an added emphasis on strength training. But I’m not sure they were, or are, any faster in the water than our teams and players from the 1960s and 1970s, when we had so many Olympic and national champion swimmers playing polo. Nowadays there seems to be a schism between the swimmers and the poloists, with each group going its own way. I find this to be unfortunate. The games I’ve watched recently on the internet are slower-paced than those we used to play, even with the new 20- or 30-second shot clock. The quarters are longer, and the number of allowable substitutes has been increased from four to six. The referees no longer use a flag to designate fouls but point with their fingers, for better or worse. The rules have been changed on several occasions to try and make the game more fluid and exciting, with the opposite results, sadly. Unlike other athletic activities, much of water polo is played underwater, where it can’t be seen, and let’s face it, this is going to result in an abundance of grabbing and holding and kicking. Thus the game right now is even rougher than in the past and does not always enjoy a positive reputation.
Nonetheless there are more water polo teams and players nowadays than there were 20, 25, 30, 40 years ago. The primary reason is a general increase in our U.S. population. A secondary reason is an increase in the number of pools, especially larger and deeper pools. Yet the demographics of the sport haven’t changed that much. Most of the participants – the vast majority – live in California and in a dozen large metro cities scattered around the country. Some states now have sanctioned high school water polo programs, which is probably is a step forward. The number of colleges fielding water polo teams has doubled or even tripled in recent years, although the increase is almost entirely in club or non-varsity competition, which to this writer is also a healthy sign.
The best men’s players in Europe are pros, earning tens of thousands of dollars, and in this country, our most talented men and women are semi-pros, training full-time while being funded by the USOC. This involves a few dozen players, almost all Californians, who’ll be representing us internationally. There’s occasional talk about establishing a pro league in the U.S., but I don’t see this happening, or, if it does, being successful.
Women’s water polo has come into its own internationally with World, World Cup, and Olympic competition for the ladies. For those of us who helped get this endeavor started, it’s quite rewarding.
Participation in age group and/or Junior Olympic water polo has probably declined nationally. While the total numbers have seemingly sky-rocketed over the years, the entire gain has come from one state, California. Elsewhere you’d be hard-pressed to find the sport being played by kids in any of the small or mid-sized towns of the East/South/Midwest where I once coached. I’d venture to say there’s no water polo being played by youngsters in 90% of the public or non-profit pools – including the Ys – across America. Few of the thousands, or millions, of boys and girls who swim at these pools have ever seen a water polo game, much less played in one.
As an addendum to the preceding paragraph, I remain an advocate of the five-per-side game, or as it’s sometimes called, short course water polo, which I believe is an excellent way to introduce the sport to beginners. You can utilize any small pool or small space in a larger pool such as the diving well or a deep end, and you can play with only a dozen participants altogether. A single referee is sufficient. There’s less tedious up and down the pool swimming and more ball-handling, which should appeal to basketball players and other youngsters who enjoy the “team sports.” The game moves faster, which should appeal to spectators and the media. Almost all other athletic activities offer reduced-sized, scaled-down opportunities for playing – arena football, three-on-three basketball, seven-per-side indoor lacrosse and soccer, pond hockey, beach volleyball, and even miniature golf. You name it and you can find it somewhere. Why not water polo? Wouldn’t five-per-side-for-fun be a good way to reach and teach the thousands, or millions, of kids cavorting in pools around the country?
There’s a booming Masters water polo program in California but nowhere else, at least as this is being written. Something definitely needs to be done in this facet of the sport to expand it nationally.
Meanwhile, coverage of water polo by the print media has remained about the same. There’s still a small national magazine devoted to the sport that’s published on a bimonthly or quarterly basis, but this is what we had 20, 25, 30, 40 years ago. TV continues to ignore us most of the time. There are a couple of new instructional books on water polo that are helpful, similar to those written in the past by Bill Anttila, Pete Cutino, Ralph Hale, Art Lambert, Monte Nitzkowski, Jimmy Smith, and others, myself included. For the younger generation, DVDs have replaced books as a method of learning, and there are a number of good instructional discs on the market. Another exciting new area of educational opportunity lies in the internet, where useful info on any and every topic is available on a 24/7 basis. This is a major plus.
Those of us who’ve played water polo know it to be a very challenging, demanding, difficult, exciting sport. Whatever the rules are, whatever its level of popularity, we love the game. Of the five sports I taught and coached over the years, I enjoyed working with water polo the most. This is because I believed whole-heartedly in the doctrine of teamwork, team tactics, fair play, and good sportsmanship. It’s why I played, why I coached, and why I’ve been a water polo advocate for so many years. Yes, water polo can be rough and tough. It takes a high degree of athletic ability to succeed. It requires dedication and determination. But our main focus should be on the important Values that can be taught and learned. For me, this is what ‘water polo the Y’s way’ is all about.
As for the YMCA in general today, there’s less emphasis on athletic activities than in the past. The needs of society have changed, and the Y, being the oldest, largest social service agency in the country – in the world – dating back to 1844 and currently operating in over 120 countries and in 2,600 branches here in the U.S. – has changed with the times. It’s beyond the scope of this book to pontificate about these changes except to say that the future of the organization appears to be bright.
But while water polo is no longer a sanctioned national activity for YMCA members, there are still a handful of Ys that take the sport seriously. The YMCA’s 16-and-under girls team representing the Connecticut communities of Greenwich and Wilton won a Gold medal at the 2008 Junior Olympic Championships, held in California. Great! While the Connecticut girls had access to their own eight-lane, 50-meter, all-deep pool for practicing, quite in contrast to the small pools in which we did most of our practicing in the past, I’m sure they trained hard to achieve their goals … literally and figuratively. I remember from my own experiences how rewarding and satisfying this can be. There’s a definite value to be placed on striving for excellence, for pursuing success with a passion, for giving it everything you’ve got.
When I was coaching the Asheville YMCA swimming and water polo teams during the decade of the ‘70s, I conducted approximately 4,000 practices. Of all these practices, I, as the coach, missed just two. One absence occurred when the plane on which I was flying back to Asheville from an AAU convention was delayed because of bad weather. The second occurred when I had a foot infection and needed immediate treatment one day. Otherwise I was there for every practice we scheduled – mornings, afternoons, evenings, Saturdays, whenever. I was committed. Our best Y polo players also were committed. Together we succeeded. Frankly, that’s why this book is being written. As famed football coach Vince Lombardi once declared, “I firmly believe Man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all he holds dear to his heart, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle.”
While a few YMCAs continue to conduct top-level athletic activities, most nowadays offer programs of the “fun and games” variety. The Y has a program called “wet ball” in which young swimmers can learn the basic skills of water polo in a low-key, recreational-type atmosphere. There are over 100 Ys from coast to coast advertising this activity. I believe it should be included in the learn-to-swim curriculum at every YMCA. For those who want to go farther, who have the courage to climb higher, the resolve to reach for the stars – or for the Gold medal at the Junior Olympics or the Special Olympics or even the Olympic Games – go for it!
Although I did not make it to Sydney in 2000 or Athens in 2004 or Beijing in 2008, I was involved with two more Torch Relays. In 1999, the Torch Relay for the Special Olympics World Games came through Asheville while en route to Raleigh, where the competition was to be held. My neighbor and friend Ronnie Davis and I were co-directors. This Relay is sponsored by policemen and policewomen worldwide, and Ronnie was on our local force. He did a lot of the lead-up work, and I was in charge of the day the Torch arrived in town. I’d arranged for several local Olympians to take part. This included swimmers Mary Montgomery and Steve Rerych and whitewater canoeist Wayne Dickert. It was a dreary, rainy day when the Relay runners appeared with the Flame, but the event was highly successful with an immense amount of press coverage.
In 2002, the Torch Relay for the Winter Olympic Games arrived in Asheville while en route to Salt Lake City. I was in charge of greeting the runners as they came down the road into south Asheville and exchanged the Torch from person to person. This was not far from where I’d carried the Torch myself in 1996. My family members helped me – wife Lee, daughter Heather, grandchildren Charlie and Crystal – and so did two outstanding aquatic athletes, Mary Montgomery and Debbie Robinson.
The Olympic Torch and what it represents has always meant much to me, emphasizing the fact that the Games are about more than winning and receiving medals. Sure, we want to win. We work hard to win. But the Olympics – and all sports – are about giving a good effort and doing one’s best. They’re about bringing people and nations together in peace and harmony. It’s worth reviewing what the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France, had to say: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
For my part in water polo in recent years, I’ve written numerous “histories” of the sport, particularly about the women’s game, which have been used by at least three national organizations. When my friend and polo pal Bob Helmick of Des Moines, Iowa, died unexpectedly in 2003 from a sudden stroke, I wrote a eulogy that was picked up and published nationally. Bob started out in our small basement pool at the Des Moines YMCA in the autumn of 1962. He became an All-America player in the mid 1960s and coached the Des Moines Y men and boys to national titles. He hosted the first-ever Junior Olympics at Des Moines in 1969. He served as chair of the AAU Men’s Water Polo Committee, 1969-1972, and as Team Leader of the U.S. Olympic men’s team that in 1972 earned the bronze medal at Munich; was elected President of the AAU and FINA and the U.S. Olympic Committee and served in these three vital positions from the mid-1970s through the 1980s; led the U.S. delegation into the stadium for the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Summer Olympic Games at Seoul, Korea; and served as a member of the International Olympic Committee for many years, culminating in 1992. Following his passage into the next life in 2003, Bob was inducted posthumously into the International Swimming Hall of Fame at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2007. This doesn’t include all he did for his hometown of Des Moines, which, in his honor, has developed the “Helmick Commons” on the campus of Drake University, from which he graduated with undergraduate and graduate degrees. He was indeed a very, very special gentleman.
In 2005, I received a nice note from Californian Monte Nitzkowski, my long-time friend and five-time U.S. Olympic men’s coach, saying, “Thanks for staying in touch these many years. I really appreciate your friendship and support. Give my best to Lee.” The writer of two excellent instructional books on the sport, Monte sent me a rough draft of an analytical paper he’d just written. We shared a few ideas and thoughts, and his paper was officially published a year or so later. It was entitled “Where Are We Going With This Sport?”
Also in 2005, thanks to another long-time friend, John Spannuth, I was honored by being selected as “one of the top 100 aquatic leaders in the U.S.” I’m not sure that’s true, but I appreciated receiving the beautifully framed red, white, and blue certificate. John recently received a gold medal from the United States Sports Academy for his amazing contributions to aquatics in general and swimming in particular over a period of more than 50 years. Now serving as President of the U.S. Water Fitness Association, headquartered in Boynton Beach, Florida, John gives me a call almost every month, and we have an enjoyable chat.
I’ve also kept in touch with Andy Burke, another long-time friend. Andy served as chair of the AAU Men’s Water Polo Committee in the 1960s and was the one who appointed me to serve as chair of the AAU Women’s Water Polo Committee in 1965, a position I finally relinquished to Californian Flip Hassett 11 years later in November of 1976. Also from California, Andy has done it all in water polo – locally, nationally, internationally – and has probably received more awards – deservedly so – than anyone else in the sport. He and I continue to exchange emails frequently. Just today, as I write this, I’ve received an email from Andy calling me his “favorite prolific writer.”
In 2006, an issue of the YMCA’s Perspective magazine listed 10 “unforgettable leaders.” Unbelievably, there I was, one of the few. This was primarily because of my involvement with water polo. Who else would submit my name for consideration and then write an article about me but Randy Bugos, the 1969 prep All-America water poloist from Canton, Illinois? Randy went on to graduate from George Williams College, the YMCA-related institution in suburban Chicago, where he was an NAIA (small college) All-American. He’s since pursued a highly-successful professional career with the Y, ending up as President and CEO of the 10-branch, $18-million-per-year YMCA of Coastal Georgia, which is headquartered in Savannah.
Randy wrote a very flattering article about me in Perspective that said, “Chuck was building strong kids, strong families, and strong communities 40 years before it became fashionable … and underlying all he has accomplished over the years is his Christian faith, living by the Golden Rule, and influencing thousands on their religious journeys … he is a great teacher, a better coach, and a wonderful role model and friend.” Randy also wrote the foreward for this book, which I appreciate.
In 2007, I authored my own article for the Y’s Perspective magazine. Entitled “YMCA Water Polo – A Rough and Tumble Sport,” it included photos of the Canton YMCA boys teams from the late 1960s and the Asheville YMCA girls team from the mid 1970s and some of our Asheville YMCA inner-city youngsters from the early 1990s. In the concluding paragraph of the article, I wrote, “When properly promoted, water polo is a sport that teaches teamwork, team tactics, fair play, and good sportsmanship.” Hmmm. Haven’t we heard that somewhere before?
Asheville YMCA Alumni Club members, now ages 50-60,
still support the sport and gather for quarterly lunches.
In 2008, in my desire to fully complete 50 years of involvement with water polo, I set out to accomplish three things:
I wanted to develop an Asheville YMCA Water Polo Alumni Club, thus keeping in touch with the Y players I coached in the past. This has happened, and we have a list of about 40 former Y poloists, half of whom still reside in Asheville and/or Western North Carolina and half of whom live elsewhere, from Florida to Maine to Connecticut to Colorado to California to Washington State. We exchange emails, and we enjoy “alumni luncheons” here in town from time to time. My ex-players suggested to me, “Why don’t you write a book about what we did in the past?” That’s what you’re now reading. The club members even came up with $1,000 to help pay the publishing costs.
I hoped to revive water polo as a recreational sport at the Asheville YMCA. This we did in the autumn months of 2008 with a repeat in 2009. Guess who was in charge? Yeah, it was yours truly. The time slot given to us in the Y pool wasn’t great. It was on Saturday evenings, just like we had in Des Moines when we started there sooo many years ago. On a positive note, we had new homemade goals, new caps, and new balls at the Y here, thanks in part to monetary donations from members of our Water Polo Alumni Club. We enrolled 40 participants, young and older, who played “for fun, fitness, and fellowship” during the 11 Saturdays we conducted the program in September, October, and November of 2009. We concluded this activity on Thanksgiving Weekend, which coincided with my 77th birthday, and I officiated a good, hard-fought, slam-bang five-per-side game. I should add that eight players from amongst the 40 participants were chosen to the Y’s all-star squad at the end of the season, and one was my granddaughter Crystal, 18 at the time. How about that!
I felt it would be appropriate to recognize the best, most deserving American women players from the 1960s and 1970s, whose contributions to water polo had never been properly acknowledged by the sport’s governing bodies. I suggested to Doc Hunkler at Water Polo Planet that we consider doing this. Doc replied that WPP would gladly be the sponsor if I could somehow pull it together. I ended up chairing a national committee comprised of Don Atwood, Paul Barren, Andy Burke, Flip Hassett, Doc Hunkler, Janice Krauser, and Sandy Nitta, with additional input from half-a-dozen others. As mentioned in the preceding chapter, we selected the best 60 women players from the 1960s and the best 70 women players from the 1970s, and to this initial listing, we’ve since added a few more. We’ve called what we did the U.S. Women’s Water Polo Players Pioneer Hall of Honor. You can find further information by going to
To Doc and the others who joined with me in creating this ‘virtual’ Hall of Honor, many thanks, and to the pioneering players who’ve now been recognized, representing 33 teams from 17 states, congratulations. This will probably be my ‘last gasp’ at serving the sport nationally, and I believe it was (is) a worthy endeavor.
Author’s Note: On several occasions in recent years, I’ve been called one of water polo’s “legends.” I’m not sure that’s true. While it’s nice to be called “unforgettable” in my YMCA profession and a ”legend” in my favorite sport, it’s better to have been a teacher, a coach, and to have had the opportunity to spend so many hours in Y pools working with so many fine young men and women. When all is said and done, this is where I’ll hang my hat in rememberances on who I was and what I did.
Next Month – Chapter 9 – Memories and Remembrances.