Interview with Olympian Dave Ashleigh '64 and '68 Olympics

Rich Foster
Water Polo Planet

Davse AshleighI was sitting at the Sand Trap Restaurant on Catalina Island and heard Dave Ashleigh’s name.  I looked behind me and Dave and his friends were deciding who owed who what from their just-finished golf game.  I went over to talk with Dave. 

Dave was an amazing water polo player who played on the 1964 (Tokyo) and 1968 (Mexico City) Olympic teams.  Dave played at Cerritos College, where he was a two time Junior College Player of the Year.  He played for UCLA in 1963 and 1965—he redshirted in 1964 to play on the Olympic Team.   His first year at UCLA, he was the team’s MVP and was named to the 1st team All-America squad.  In 1965 he led the Bruins to the first undefeated season in the history of UCLA sports.  He again was the MVP and named First Team All-American. 

His coach at UCLA was Bob Horn.  Bob recalls that when he was offered the UCLA job, he went to Dave to recruit him and was able to convince Dave to give up a full ride to Stanford and play for UCLA. 

Bob then convinced Russ Webb, who also had a full ride to Stanford, and the two of them pressured Stan Cole to give up his full ride to USC to play for Horn. This gave Horn a very strong team for his first year.   Bob states that Dave was a “ferocious player who was ahead of his time. His legs were so strong that he could get higher out of the water than anybody which gave him a big advantage.” Bob recalls one game when Dave was in a pool 12 feet deep and the referee called a foul on Dave for pushing off the bottom.  At the quarter, Bob brought this to the referee’s attention and the referee was quite embarrassed.

Dave coached the sport he loved at Modesto Junior College where he coached 81 All-America players and won 13 conference championships.  His body of work was recognized in 2010, when the college named its swim center after Dave. 
Dave retired on Catalina Island, where he lives with Marty, his wife of 46 years.

Foster:  So you had a full ride to Stanford, and shortly before the 1963 season began, Bob Horn talked you out of it?

Ashleigh: Yeah, he did.   I was working on the beach as a lifeguard and Bob approached to tell me that he was just offered the head coach position at UCLA.   He said he wanted me to play for him.   At the time, it was my goal to be on the 1964 Olympic team, and I thought Bob was the best coach in the country, so I knew I needed to be with him. So I gave up my scholarship to Stanford.  Back then, you could do that because there was no national letter of intent.  I called Jim Gaughran, the Stanford coach, and he was really upset.   When we went up to play Stanford, my name and Russ Webb’s name were in Stanford’s program.  We switched too late for them to change the program.  I’m sure Gaughran was further upset when we beat them.  By the way, Gaughran was a great coach, so I had great choices.

Foster:  Horn tells me that you revolutionized distance swimming. What happened?          

Ashleigh:  I don’t know if it was revolutionary, but I was the first guy to do flip-turns in long distance races, like the 1650.  Swimmers did flip turns in short races, but not the long ones.  I remember swimming against USC and had to race against Roy Saari, who was an Olympic and national champion.  He did open turns the whole race.  He was faster, so he would be ahead of me at the turns.  I would come out in front after the turns and he would catch me on the next lap, only to lose his lead after the next turn.  After that, everybody did flip-turns in the longer races.

Foster:  When you played, there was only one referee.  What was that like?

Ashlegh: tWe used to go to watch games just to figure out how the referee called games.  We’d use that knowledge to adapt to the referee’s style when he was assigned to our game.  With two referees, it is different, because you are now dealing with a mixed bag—two different styles of calling the game.  Also, with one referee, players would wait until the referee wasn’t looking and give his opponent a jab, kick or elbow.  With two referees, you have to be more subtle.

1964 US Olympic Water Polo Team

Foster:  Your first Olympics was in 1964 in Tokyo.  I think everybody will agree that the 9th place finish was disappointing.  What happened?

Ashleigh:  This was supposed to be the first true national team.  Previously, the coach of the winner of the Olympic Trials got to pick seven starters from his club and four alternates from other teams.  When it came time for selecting the Olympic team, Urho Saari was the only coach.  He was used to the old system, so he took seven players from El Segundo and I was one of the alternates chosen.  The problem was that we didn’t have any left handed players; this was important for player advantage situations.  Most of the scores back then came from 6 on 5.  George Stransky brought this up at a meeting, saying we would lose without a left hander.  He volunteered to give up his spot on the team so that Coach Saari could add a lefty.  I thought that was remarkable.  Coach Saari didn’t accept the offer, because George was a goalie and he was concerned that once the Europeans found out that we only had one goalie, they would try to take him out.  Stransky was right.  We lost to Yugoslavia by a 2-1 margin because we couldn’t convert on 6 on 5.

Foster:  How was the Tokyo experience otherwise?

Ashleigh:  It was outstanding.  All the athletes had to stay in the Olympic Village. You’d go into the Rec Center and you could hear a couple dozen languages at one time.  Even though we spoke different languages, we were somehow able to learn the basics, like what sport we were in, what country we were from, and we were able to engage in pin trading, which was very big at the time.  We could go to other venues on buses, so I tried to watch as many other sports as possible.  It was funny, when we went out to the buses, several thousand fans would hound us for photos and autographs.  The first couple of days we liked that rock star feeling, but it grew old really quick, so we did what we could to avoid those large crowds.

Foster: You guys rebounded at the 1967 Pan American Games in Winnipeg,

Ashleigh:  We beat a very tough Cuban team in the gold medal game.  The Cubans had trained with Russia for six months, so they were ready.  They were also huge and intimidating from a physicality standpoint.  One guy had a neck like a tree trunk.  Still we prevailed and this was the first major international gold medal for the United States on foreign soil.

Foster:  You were one of the Co-Captains for the 1968 Olympic Team.  You fared a little better than the 1964 squad.

Ashleigh:   Yeah, we had a good team.  We finished 5th and missed the medal round by a game.  Gary Scheerer was injured and he was our best penalty throw shooter.  We missed three penalty shots against Russia, so his absence made a difference.  We did defeat a very good East German team.  Many thought they would win the gold medal.  It’s funny, I played Masters water polo at the international level, and forty years later, a Hungarian player came up to me and thanked me for beating the East Germans.  That win put Hungary in the medal round.

!968 Olympic Team 

1968 US Olympic Water Polo Team

Foster:  During the 1968 Olympics there were a lot of demonstrations and a lot of students were massacred.  Were you guys aware of that?

Ashleigh:  No, they kept that information from us, so we didn’t know about it until we got back to the States.

Foster:  The rules for participating in the Olympics have changed.  When you played, you had to be an amateur.

Ashleigh:  The rule was that you couldn’t make any money based on your aquatic abilities.  This meant that we couldn’t lifeguard for the six months before the Olympics.  This was hard, because most of us were lifeguards.  All athletes were supposed to be amateurs, but some countries put their athletes on military pay to get around the rule.  I doubt these players ever wore a uniform; they were just paid to play water polo.

Foster:  Tell us about Ralph.

Ashleigh:  At UCLA, Bob Horn came up with this idea that if anybody on the team was being guarded by a weak player he would say, “I’ve got Ralph.”  It was code for “get me the ball.”  In one game, I had a weak player so I announced that I had Ralph and swam into set.  I got the ball and scored.  After the play, the player tapped on my shoulder and said, “I’m sorry, but my name isn’t Ralph.”  I responded, “Oh yes it is.”

Foster:  A while back, Bruce Bradley told me that you were very ill and it didn’t look good.  You look great now.  What happened?Dave

Ashleigh:  I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma.  I was at the UCLA Medical Center and the doctor told me that the guys in the lab asked if I was brought in on a stretcher.  I lost a lot of weight; I went down to 150 pounds.   I couldn’t even drive a car.  I was medivacked three times from Catalina Island to UCLA.   I had to undergo vigorous chemotherapy treatments, which are very, very difficult.  The sixth treatment almost killed me.  It was down to the point where the chemo was going to kill me or the lymphoma.  Fortunately, I won the battle.

Foster:  Do you think your long history of being a competitive athlete helped you get through this?

Ashleigh: Absolutely, chemotherapy is one of the hardest things to endure.  I know of people who couldn’t finish the therapy and ended up dying.  I likened the therapies to really, really hard swim sets.  They are tough and horrible.  You don’t want to do them, but you do them because they are good for you and you know that there is an end.  People who aren’t used to hard training don’t always know how to push themselves.  Participation in a competitive sport like water polo definitely helped me to fight this illness.  My experience in water polo also helped me in a lot of things in life.  I’m fortunate.  I’m a lousy golfer, but happy to be walking on this side of the grass.