Interview of the Olympian Ron Crawford, '60, '64, and '68

Rich Foster
Water Polo Planet

Ron CrawfordI had the pleasure of interviewing Ron Crawford, who played in the 1960, 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games.  He was the first U.S. player in the modern era to play in more than two Olympics.   Legendary Olympic coach Monte Nitzkowski coached Ron at Long Beach City College and in the Olympics.   He states, “Ron was not the biggest player, but had a deep sensitivity to the tactics of the game. He was one of the finest players in the world.”  Ron is a member of the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame and was the first American player to be inducted into the International Water Polo Hall of Fame.

Ron began his career at Downey High School in Downey, California.  He played two years at Long Beach City College and then played for Jim Schultz at Long Beach State.  In 1963, Ron led the 49ers to a 23-1 record and a California State Championship. (There was no NCAA or National Championship back then).  Over the course of his career, he was named to just about every All-American, All-State and All-Conference teams possible.

Ron was a long time water polo coach at Beverly Hills High School.  He has resided in Manhattan Beach, California since 1969.

Foster: In 1960, you were 20 years old when you arrived in Rome for your first Olympic Games.  That had to be an incredible experience.

Crawford:  I’ll never forget our first game.  It was a night game against Italy, who was the number one seed.  We walked onto the pool deck, under the lights, and there were 10,000 fans and it seemed like all of them were shouting “I-tal-ia, I-tal-ia”.  It was very intimidating and gave us the jitters.  We calmed down though and gave Italy a tough fight.  With about four minutes left in the game, I scored a goal to tie the game at 2-2.   But, the bottom fell out and they scored the final four goals.  I don’t remember exactly how it happened.  I’m sure the refereeing had something to do with it.  Italy ended up winning the Gold Medal, but we gave them a scare. 

1960 Olympics

1960 Olympics

Foster:  You lost a tough, one goal game to a very good German team.  I think you were a marked man in that game.

Crawford:  The Germans put a huge player on me and his only job was to keep the ball away from me.  He mauled me the whole game.  I don’t think I got a shot off or even an assist.

Foster:  In the U.S., everybody grew up playing with the Voit rubber ball, but in Rome, you had to play with a leather ball. What was that was like?

Crawford:  It made a big difference.  The leather ball was heavy, and got heavier as the game progressed because it absorbed water.  It definitely slowed the game down.  The Europeans used the leather ball in all of their competitions, so it was a big advantage to them.  Europe was very reluctant to change, I think because it gave them an advantage.

Foster:   In 1964, the United States was supposed to convert to a true National Team system.  Previously, the club winning the Olympic Trials got seven players on the Olympic team, with four alternates from the other clubs.  It looks like the old club system was used.  What happened?

Crawford:  In 1964, the Olympic Trials were in New York and it ended up in a three way tie.  The officials made the three teams play each other again, but it ended up in another three way tie.  The guys in charge had a closed door meeting and emerged to announce that Urho Saari, from El Segundo, would be the Olympic Coach.   Instead of picking the top eleven players, Saari reverted back to the traditional model and picked seven El Segundo players and four spares from other teams.  He picked me, but left off some really good players who could have made a difference, like Chuck Bittick, Marty Hall and Murdock Frasier.

1964 Olympics

1964 Olympics

Foster: So you headed out to Tokyo for your second Olympics.  What are your memories from Tokyo?

Crawford: Tokyo was wonderful, and the overall Olympic experience was great.  But the water polo part was a disappointment.  We started out good, beating the Yugoslavs in the first game and then beat Brazil.  But, as I mentioned, we didn’t have some of our best players on the team.  Some of the El Segundo players were young and inexperienced and it showed.  We ended up getting 9th place.

Foster: Things finally changed in 1968?

Crawford: Yes.  We had a camp at the Los Alamitos Naval Base.  Fifteen players were selected to go to a high altitude training camp at the Air Force Academy.  The thinking was that altitude training was a good idea, because the 1968 Olympics were in Mexico City, which was a high altitude venue.  The final team was picked at the Academy.

Foster:  I recall that we had medal hopes in 1968.

Crawford: We had a good team and we thought we had a chance to medal.  But, we had some bad breaks.  Gary Scheerer, perhaps our best player, got injured and was out of the tournament.  In a practice game with East Germany, a player kicked me in the ribs.  I was in pain, so they took me to the hospital and x-rays showed that one of my ribs was cracked.  This really limited my mobility, and  I missed some games.  We ended up finishing 5th.

1968 Olympics

1968 Olympics

Foster:  What do you think of today’s style of play?

Crawford:  I can say that the game today is very different from the game when I played.  There are too may whistles and the game is not spectator friendly.   I played in three Olympics and coached high school water polo for about three decades and I can’t understand what is going on.  It seems like today, the strategy is to get the ball to the frontcourt, draw an exclusion, and score with an extra man.  The game was much more mobile, fun and understandable when I played.  It was more fun to watch.  I don’t know how we came up with the present rules and strategies, but I don’t think the game has progressed.

Foster: Any final thoughts?

Crawford:  Playing and coaching water polo has been a big and important part of my life.  I was fortunate to have great coaches like Jim Schultz and Monte Nitzkowski.  I learned a lot about the game and life through their leadership.