Interview of the Olympian Bob Horn - 56' and 60' Olympics

Rich Foster
Water Polo Planet

Bob HornI had the pleasure of interviewing two time Olympian Bob Horn.  Bob was the United States’ goalie in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games.  In between those games, Bob was a star for the Long Beach State 49ers, where he was selected Athlete of the Year for all sports at the school, and led the team to a State Championship (there were no NCAA championships back then).   

Chick McIlroy teamed up with Bob at Long Beach State and on the 1960 Olympic team.  According to Chick, Bob was an extremely hard worker, always thinking about strategy and how to handle the next opponent.  Because of Bob’s prowess in the goal, Chick felt like he could take extra risks on offense, knowing Bob would be there if the risk turned into a mistake.

After a short coaching stint at Cerritos College, Bob took the helm at UCLA, where he coached for 28 years.  Before water polo became an NCAA sport, Bob’s UCLA squad had four consecutive undefeated seasons and his teams later won three NCAA National Championships.

Bob teamed up with Monte Nitzkowski and Art Lambert to coach the 1968 and 1972 Olympic teams.  The 72 squad earned a bronze medal. 

Bob has been inducted into the Whittier High School, Fullerton Junior College, Junior College, Long Beach State, UCLA and USA Water Polo Halls of Fame.  He resides in Manhattan Beach with his wife Dottie and they often spend time at their cabin in Lake Isabella.

Foster:  I heard that the conditions at the 1956 Olympic Trials in Los Angeles were less than desirable.  Can you describe them to us?

Horn:  First, it was extremely hot-over one hundred degrees.  The smog was much worse than it is today.  The smog was so thick, I could see haze between me and the other goalie.  The worst though was the breath ability of the air.  Guys were coughing and hacking because of the bad air.  It was miserable.   But, we won and I made the Olympic Team, so it was worth it.

Foster:  The 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia featured the most memorable water polo game in history between Hungary and the Soviet Union.  What happened?

Horn:  Tensions were high.  The Hungarians were in the midst of a revolution over the Soviet Union’s control of Hungary, so there was heightened significance to their game in Melbourne.  I was right there and saw a lot of punching and kicking in the game.  The Hungarians were taunting the Russian players.  The sell-out crowd was very pro Hungary.  It was clear that the two teams hated each other.   After the Hungarians got a four goal lead, the Russians were frustrated.  With a minute or so left in the game, a Russian player punched Hungarian, Ervin Zador, in the head.  As Zador left the pool, the right side of his face was dripping a lot of blood and the blood streamed down his chest.  The Hungarians in the crowd went crazy, jumping on the pool deck, yelling and spitting on the Russians.  The scene was so dangerous, that the officials called off the rest of the game, giving Hungary the win.  A photograph of Zador’s bloody face was on the front page of most all newspapers world-wide.  It made the front cover of Life Magazine.  Some say that there was a bloody tint to in the water and that game is still referred to as the “Blood in the Water” game.  It put water polo on the map.  There is a great documentary called “Freedom’s Fury”.  Every water polo player, coach and referee should watch it.

1956 US Team

1956 US Olympic Water Polo Team

Foster:  I heard that many of the Hungarian players defected to the United States.

Horn: Several did, including Zador, who was Mark Spitz’ age group swim coach.  Arpad Domyan and Nick Martin also defected.  Initially they had no money so we all helped them out with food and housing.  It was toughest on Zador.  He was only 21 years old at the time. 

Foster: The U.S team took fifth place in 1956.  Was that a disappointment? 

Horn:  It was.  I think our center, Bob Hughes, was the best player in the world.  He was also a world record holder in the 100 meter breaststroke.  He swam the entire event under water, which was allowed at the time.  Bob was the sensitive, artist type and his wife came down to Melbourne, stayed three days, then told him that she was leaving him and departed.  He was an emotional wreck.  We didn’t see him for three days and didn’t win another game.  With Hughes at his best, we would have been in medal contention. 

I must add that Bob Hughes was a wonderful person.  When I went through open heart surgery, he called to check in on me.  He told me that he had intended on doing a sculpture of a goalie, using my face, but couldn’t do it now.  He didn’t say a word about how sick he was; he only cared how I was doing.  He died a week later.

Foster:  In 1956 and 1960, the leather ball was used.  What was it like as a goalie to have to block those leather water polo balls?

Horn:  The leather balls were heavy to begin with.  We would wax them up every day, but the wax would wear off and they would get heavier and heavier as they absorbed water.  At the 1952 Olympic Trials in New York, I got hit in the head with one of them and it knocked me out.  At the end of a tournament, it was common for goalies to have hyper-extended elbows.   We were using a rubber ball in the states since the late 40’s, so those leather balls were a disadvantage to us.  It was very hard to get the Europeans to give up the leather ball.  They finally did after the 1964 Olympics.

Foster:  I heard that you were almost left off the 1960 Olympic Team.  What happened?

Back then, the club that won the Olympic Trials got to name seven players to the Olympic Team and four others were selected by the winning team’s coach.  A week before the Trials,  Chuck Bittick and Ron Volmer and I were told by Neil Kohlase that we were being cut from the Lynwood Swim Club.  We formed our own club, the Los Angeles Swim Club, and lost to Lynwood by one goal in the finals.  In essence, we were the Lynwood “B” team.    We really surprised some folks.

1960 US Team

1960 US Olympic Water Polo Team

Foster: Turned out that you were picked to be on the Olympic team.  At the Trials, your opponents got seven penalty shots and you blocked all seven.  Do you think that was a reason you were ultimately selected?               

Horn:  I think Bittick, Volmer and I all performed so well enough at the Trials it forced them to put us on the Olympic team.

Foster:  Our prospects for getting on the medal stand at the 1960 Olympics in Rome were good, but the United States’ team struggled, finishing seventh.  What happened?

Horn:  Back then, a team was not allowed to substitute, except for an injury, and the injured player was not allowed to come back in the game.  So, barring an injury, only seven players played in a game.  Our coach tended to play the players from his club team, so I don’t think we had the best players in the water.  I only got to play every other game and I think Volmer and Bittick should have started every game, but they also played every other game.   Every game I played in we won.   Also, the team just didn’t seem to have the right chemistry.

We won some games in the preliminary round, but lost to Hungary by a score of 7-2.  That loss carried over to the next round where we lost to the Yugoslavs 6-2 and beat the Netherlands.   This put us in the 5th through 8th bracket, where we had close losses to Germany and Romania.   It was clear to me that we had to get rid of the system where the winning coach at the Trials got to put all of his club’s starters on the team.  

Foster:  In 1968, you helped coach the Olympic Team.   How was that team selected? 

Horn:  We invited the top twenty-two players in the country to a four week high altitude training camp in Colorado Springs  We narrowed it down to seventeen and then down to eleven.  This process allowed us to pick the best players in the country.

Foster:  Why the high altitude training?

 Horn:  The 1968 Olympics were in Mexico City, which has an elevation of about 7,500 feet above sea level.  I had previous experienceBob Horn with Mexico City, because I participated in the 1955 Pan American Games there.   We should have won the Pan Ams, but took second to Argentina.  The difference for us was that we were not used to playing at that high of altitude and we ran out of gas.  I didn’t want the same thing to happen to the 68 team, so that’s why we had the training camp in Colorado Springs.

Foster:   How did the 1968 team do in Mexico City?

Horn:  At the outset, we were dominating play.  We were beating Hungary by a goal, when our best player, Gary Sheerer, was injured andunable to play the rest of the tournament.  We ended up losing to Hungary and then lost to Russia.  We finished with wins against Holland and Germany, both very good teams, for fifth place.   I think that if Sheerer wasn’t injured, we would have been in the medal round.  But, I think the high altitude training paid off; our team was in great condition and performed well in Mexico City.

Foster:  At the Munich Olympics in 1972, the United States broke a 30 year drought by winning the Bronze Medal. Tell us about that team.

Horn:  I was extremely proud of that team.   I coached six of them at UCLA—Bruce Bradley, Stan Cole, Jim Ferguson, Eric Lindroth, Jim Slatton and Russ Webb were Bruins.   I think they should have been in the Gold Medal game, but winning that medal was a big boost for water polo in the United States.

Foster:  How has the game progressed since you were a player in the 1960’s?

 Horn:  The game is pretty different now than it was when I played.  In the 60’s, we had two halves, sprints after every goal, no substitutions, except in case of injury, and only one referee.   If there was a substitution for injury, the injured player could not return to the game.  The one rule I didn’t like was the rule that if an exclusion was called, the player was out until a goal was scored.  This allowed the other team to pass the ball around and kill time, especially if they were ahead.

Today, the game has become less interesting.  Way too many whistles.  You barely touch a player in the back court and there is a foul.  This prevents a team from playing a full court press, like in basketball.   At two meters, you can almost kill a player and no foul is called.  Play at two meters is based too much on shear strength and less on skill.  They have taken the finesse out of the game.

Foster: You were at UCLA when UCLA’s legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, was there.  Did he like water polo?

Horn:  Yes he did.  He saw many similarities between water polo and basketball.  He would come to our practices to get ideas for his team.  I watched his practices and got ideas from him, like the counter attack, picks and the full court press.  It was really fun to exchange ideas with him. I think our sport was more interesting in the 70’s and 80’s because it was more like basketball.   I doubt Coach Wooden would like the way water polo is played today. 

Bob Horn