Interview with Olympian Jim Norris - 52' Olympics

Rich Foster
Water Polo Planet

Jim  NorrisHow many of you are aware of what the 1952 Olympic Water Polo team accomplished? I must admit that until I had the opportunity to interview Jim Norris, the captain of the 52 squad, I knew very little myself.

Jim is now 84 years old and resides with Lynne, his wife of over sixty years, in Jackson, California.  Besides Jim, there are three other players from the 52 team still alive: Jack Spargo, Bill Dornblaser and Pete Stange.  Legendary coach Bob Horn remembers Norris well.  According to Bob, Jim was a leader and well disciplined, physical payer.

The 1952 Olympics were held in Helsinki, Finland.  A record twenty-one teams competed in the Olympic Water Polo tournament, including first time participant, the Soviet Union.  The favorites were the usual suspects.  Italy was the defending champion, but Hungary and Yugoslavia entered very big and talented teams.  The young American squad, who had finished third in the preceding Pan American Games, was given little chance of finishing in the top ten.

I must say that Jim is a fountain of information, and it was a pleasure to interview him.

Foster: In 1951, you were a 20 year old from El Segundo.  That year you got to go to Buenos Aires to compete in the Pan American Games.  In Buenos Aires, you had to play with a white leather ball.  How did your team adapt to this ball, since I believe you were1952 Olympic Ball using a rubber ball in the States?

 Norris:  No one from the U. S. team adapted well to the leather ball.  In use, it gradually absorbed water and got very heavy, slippery and out of round.  The big problem was getting hit in the head.  By the fourth quarter, it was really heavy and could knock you out.  It was also tough on the goalie’s elbows when he blocked the ball.  Handling the ball was a nightmare.

Foster:  The U.S. Team ended up taking third place at the Pan Ams, behind Argentina and Brazil. Can you share any memories of that competition?
 Norris:  It was a difficult situation for us.  The competition was mainly under very bright lights at night.  The refereeing wasn’t bad, but it was inconsistent and confusing, partly because almost all of the referees spoke Spanish.  We didn’t have an American referee.  Brazil and Argentina had very big teams and they had an advantage in that they had played together as clubs.  Several nights, Juan and Eva Peron, the President and first lady of Argentina were poolside, which really ramped up the interest.   Eva Peron was like a movie star.  She was beautiful and extremely popular.  Decades later, she was the subject of the hit musical “Evita”.  I think the presence of the Perons had a positive impact for the Argentine players and probably influenced the referees.

We were housed in the Collegio de Militar and bussed to games.  Breakfast included guava juice, which is a drink that wasn’t available then in the states.  We worked out in a very large, river water, private club pool – the water was so cold Bill Dornblaser actually froze up.  Dinner in another private club was an experience – ten at night, black-tie and steaks so big they covered the plate.  Jack Spargo, who was one of the smaller players on our team, was the only one who finished his steak.

After the Games, we scrimmaged Uruguay in Montevideo. The pool was so poorly lit and dark, that you could not see the goals.  Their guard had Jack Spargo under water actually choking him – Jack almost tore the player’s nuts off to get loose, but came up smiling.  Because of the violence, Coach Urho Saari pulled us out of the pool – the only time I ever saw him angry.

Foster:  In 1952, your El Segundo team won the Olympic Trials in Queens, New York. You beat the New York Athletic Club by a 5-2 score in the final game.  Tell us about that?
Norris:  The game with the NYAC was anticlimactic.  The real game was with the Los Angeles Team.  They had dominated the sport for decades.  We had already defeated them by one point in the last 15 seconds – I intercepted a pass and threw the ball to Bill Dornblaser, in front of their goal, and he put it in.  We were stunned at first, but we soon realized that we would win the Trials and would be heading to Helsinki.  We dog piled on coach Saari – lucky no one drowned.  Our stands had several male parents with heart conditions who were so excited, that they had to leave the pool.  We were basically young kids from El Segundo, a small California city – it was a dream come true. 

Foster:  Tell us a bit about the style of play in 1952.  I understand that the defensive players didn’t venture often into the offensive area and the offensive players didn’t come down on the defensive end. Is that correct?
 Norris:  We played an offense featuring a hole man.  Almost all of the scores came from the hole. Our holeman was Bob Hughes.  Guards could move down the pool but only occasionally did.  The goalie would throw the ball to one of us defensive players, and we would pass it on to the offensive end, where our three offensive players would run plays to get open.  Forwards likewise stayed up front most of the time.  There was not as much movement as today, but it was an interesting game.  There wasn’t the holding as in today’s game.  Holding slows down the game and makes it boring.  We could defend against a shot, pass the ball down to the offensive player and have a shot attempt, all in five or ten seconds. 

Foster:  You were a defensive specialist, Correct?  I’ve read accounts that you were particularly good in handcuffing the other team’s offensive players. Tell us about your defensive strategies. After all, you were only 5’10 ½’ and 175 pounds, dripping wet.

Norris:  You noticed if a forward was right or left handed and played that side.  At times you could play in front if the goalie was OK with it.  Hitting the forearm with the ball rather than trying to go after the ball was effective.  Quickness and anticipation (after watching a forward’s moves) was necessary.  Most of the time you were on his shoulder and a layout shot was trouble.  Backhands meant he had to stretch his arm out and you again needed to go for the forearm. I was never a sprint swimmer like the rest of the U.S team, but I had a special gift of anticipating where the ball was going. 

1952 Olympic Team

Foster:  Even as a defensive specialist, you scored occasionally. What was your best shot?

Norris:  Up high in a corner – the goalie was usually paying more attention to the front men; I shot when the goalie was low in the water.

Foster:  Air travel has changed quite a bit since 1952.  Nowadays, you can fly from Los Angeles to Helsinki in a little over 14 hours.  What was the trip like for your 1952 team?

Norris:  The 1952 Olympic team was the first team to fly to the Olympics.  At the time, air carriers were using four prop planes, and most planes couldn’t make the straight flight from New York to London.  We first had to fly from New York to Gander Airport in Newfoundland, Canada. We flew from Gander to Shannon, Ireland, then to London, then to Helsinki, refueling at each stop.  It was a long, long trip, but I do not think the time mattered to us back then-we were headed to the Olympics.

Foster:  What was it like to land in Helsinki; it had to be a bit surreal for you?

Norris:   The sun was only down for three or four hours a day.  The rest of the day was a sort of twilight.  I do not recall the light or time change as a problem – we were too hyped up.  The Finns were very friendly and helpful – we worked out in a pool in the woods.  It was new and smelled and tasted like turpentine.

Foster:  What was your team’s strategy on offense?

Norris:  Most of our scores came from Bob Hughes from the hole position, but we moved a lot.  We were a very fast team.  We used three or four plays to get the offensive players open. All seven of the Olympic starters were from El Segundo and we had played together since 1948, so we knew each other’s moves.

Foster:  Today, a player fouls out if he or she commits three major fouls.  The minor fouls are not counted against the offending player.  At the 1952 Olympics, what were the rules on fouls?

 Norris:  At the ref’s discretion, he could pull a player out for whatever he determined was a major, which left a 6 on 5 situation.  We normally went into a zone defense   Typically, there would be five or six exclusion fouls called against each team. Nobody fouled out.
Foster:  I’ve heard a lot about “big Bob Hughes”.  I understand he passed away a couple of years ago.  What was he like as a player?
Norris:  Bob was one of America’s greatest watermen.  In my opinion, he was one of the best hole men in the world. He held a World Record in breast and several CIF, El Camino, SPAAU, sprint records.  He had one of the strongest arms in US polo history.  Very quick and a tremendous kick, he was free before most knew it.  At times moody and unpredictable, a smart team could rattle him.  He switched clubs in 1956 which was a tremendous blow to our team and to Saari.

Foster:  Who were the other stars of the 1952 team?
Norris:  Bob was the only “Star”.  Our entire team was made up of All-American stars, playing together.

USA Olympic Players

Foster:  After a loss to Sweden, your team beat Romania and Great Britain, but then lost a key game to Italy, who was the defending Olympic champion, by one goal.  What are your memories of that game with Italy?
Norris:   We lost to Italy 5-4.  The Spanish referee definitely helped the Italians.  He called two exclusions out of thin air which developed into two scores.  If he didn’t make those calls we would have won.  This was doubly important, because this result carried  over into the final round.  It would have been nice to play them again.      

Foster:   Your team ended up in fourth place out of twenty-one teams. Many didn’t think you guys had a chance at the start of the tournament and you became the Cinderella team of the Olympics.  How close did the U.S. team come to winning a medal?
Norris:  As I mentioned, I think that if we had a fair referee in the game against Italy, we would have medaled.  In the final round, we lost to Hungary and Yugoslavia, both much bigger teams than us.  We were a small quick team and the European game was much more physical than our game.

Foster:  The Hungarians won the Gold Medal.  What made them stand out?
Norris:  The Hungarians passed the ball, and passed the ball.  They would have passing schemes that would get the goalie out of position, and then shoot for an easy score.  They were big, but also the best ball handlers.  They were very quick and fast and changed water polo in 1952.  Unfortunately, today’s game is slowed down by all of the holding.

Foster:  By all accounts, your team gave the powerful Yugoslavians, who were the biggest and fastest team in the tournament, a very tough game in the final round.  Nobody thought you would come close, but the game was tied up with just a couple of minutes left in the game.  What happened in those last minutes?
Norris:  They were a lot bigger than us and played a “muscle game.”   To be honest, we were not used to or prepared for such a physical game.  We certainly weren’t afraid of the Yugos.  They were just better at the physical game.

Foster:  Tell us about your life after the Olympics?  

Norris:   I continued life guard and national competition till 1956.   Our team stayed together for 12 years and our families got along.  It was an unusual situation I served 3 years as a Fire-Control and Athletic Officer on the USS Los Angeles off Korea, Japan and Hong Kong.

I Taught and coached in high school for 8 years then became a Counselor at El Camino College in Torrance until I retired in 1981. I was the President of the Faculty Association at El Segundo High and El Camino College, and President of California Community College Counselors Association in California.

We moved to Los Olivos in Santa Ynez Valley, California, where I was historian and newsletter editor.  Lynne and I published 60 books with our company Olive Press Publications.

We moved to Jackson California, to be near my daughter’s family - two grandsons now 8 and 10.  Our kids all played water polo. .

US Olympic Team 1952