It’s just a game, after all. Just a group of guys and gals tossing around a ball in the pool. Just a bunch of beautiful belles and bellicose boys pushing and shoving and shouting in the water. Certainly not a matter of life or death. Just fun, with a sharp edge to it because the score’s being kept. Just a game. But it’s been “my game” ever since I was introduce to it at the Minneapolis YMCA in 1958.
I never made it to any Olympic water polo matches. Not as a player. Not as a coach. Not even as a spectator. I had a chance to go to Munich in 1972, to Los Angeles in 1984, to Atlanta in 1996, but it seemed that something else, something more important to me, always intervened.
I had the good fortune to work with a few Olympians over the years. But it was the coaching I did with youngsters and young adults at the LOCAL level that gave me the greatest satisfaction. This was my forte, my destiny, my “gift” if I dare to call it that. Taking young teens from Des Moines, Canton, and Asheville who’d never seen a water polo game, never even heard of the sport, and motivating them on a daily basis, from practicing in the small YMCA pools of the past to playing in Olympic-sized venues against some of the best teams in the U.S. and even in the whole World — what could be more meaningful than that?
And as you can see from reading the preceding chapter, what we did took us beyond the pool, beyond the game. It enabled us to see beyond ourselves. As I wrote in an article 40 years ago, we were able to “gird up the loins of our minds.” Of all the Memories and Remembrances that were submitted for inclusion in this book, not one mentioned a specific score or gloated over a single victory or touted a tournament triumph. Yes, we worked hard. Yes, we wanted to win. Yes, we did win. But when it comes to ‘water polo the Y’s way,’ the bottom line isn’t what shows up on the scoreboard. It’s what lies in the hearts and souls of every YMCA water polo participant, past and present and future.
I didn’t do it. You didn’t do it. WE did it together, as a Team. And because we cared about each other, because we exhibited respect and responsibility, because we demonstrated honesty and fair play and good sportsmanship, and because we never quit, WE can look back on all that happened and say, It Was Great.
One of my heroes, former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, once wrote that "great coaches never stop coaching.” I’m not so great, but regardless, I’m still coaching. Maybe not so much in the pool as in the past, but through my writing and my words, the result of which has been this book. It’s brought back good memories for me and for you. Putting up the goals. Tossing out the balls. Donning the caps. Organizing practices in different pools all over town. Learning the fundamentals. Doing the drills, over and over. Scrimmaging, again and again. Planning strategy. Scheduling and playing games. Hosting tournaments. Taking trips. Listening to the continual whistling by the referees and, yes, tuning out the constant complaining by the opposing coaches. Communicating. Encouraging. Swimming, struggling, supporting one another. Sharing the ups and downs from day to day, month to month, year to year. Surviving in what is unquestionably the roughest, toughest aquatic sport of them all.
For 50 years, water polo has played a major role in my life. No regrets. Except that I wish I’d thrown up that lob shot against the University of Minnesota at the Des Moines YMCA pool back in 1964!