Interview with Olympian Jody Campbell, '84 and '88

Rich Foster
Water Polo Planet

Jody Campbell in High SchoolThe 1980’s brought the best USA Water Polo had to offer.  The 1980 team was a Gold Medal favorite until President Carter implemented his boycott of the Olympics.  The 1984 team didn’t lose a game in the Olympics, but lost out on the Gold Medal on goal differential.  The 1988 team took the Gold Medal Game into overtime, but lost a heartbreaker to the Yugoslavians.  While Terry Schroeder was acknowledged by the international water polo community as the premier player in the world, Jody was considered by many to be the most valuable player on the U.S. team.   The combination of Schroeder and Campbell was a main reason the United States was so dominant in that decade.

When news of President Jimmy Carter’s boycott came down, Jody was the youngest player on the team and was on the bubble.  The final cut never happened after Carter’s announcement. There were fifteen players on the team and the U.S. considered all fifteen players of those players to be part of the team.

Jody played for Long Beach Wilson, a high school with a great Olympic tradition.  Chuck Bittick, Jim Kelsey, Tim Shaw, Chi Kredell, Robert Lynn, Maureen O’Toole, Tony Azevedo, Adam Wright, Jackie Frank, Lauren Wenger and Chay Lapin were fellow Bruins who made the Olympics.

After high school, Jody matriculated to Stanford where he led the Cardinal to three NCAA Championships and was a four time All-American.   Jody’s coach, Dante Dettamante remembers Jody when he enrolled at Stanford as a freshman, “He was a skinny kid, about 160 pounds, but he was tough.  People remember him as a great shooter, but he was also a great passer.  Even in difficult situations, he put the ball right in the shooter’s hand.”  Dante, who is one of the sports most decorated coaches, and who coached some of the best players ever, states that Jody, Tony Azevedo and Wolf Wigo were the three best players he ever coached.

Jody’s coach on the 1980 and 1984 teams was Monte Nitzkowski.  Monte remembers Jody as a little undersized, but with a tough-as-nails, gunslinger mentality.  According to Monte, “whenever Jody entered the game, the tempo went up.  Jody was well regarded for his toughness in the water.  He was one of the reasons we never lost at the 1984 Olympics.”  The U.S. Olympic Committee named Jody the top U.S. water polo player in the 1984 Olympics.

1984 Olympics US Mens Water Polo Team

FOSTER: In your frosh year at Stanford, you guys won the National Championship.  Greg Boyer and Craig Wilson would be remiss if I didn’t ask about the NCAA tournament the next year.

CAMPBELL: We had a really good team, but kind of let down a bit.  Maybe we didn’t work out as hard.  Anyway, Santa Barbara, led by Greg and Craig were relentless and we were never in the game.  I think Boyer scored more goals than our whole team and Wilson made blocking shots look easy.

FOSTER: You seemed to learn your lesson, winning the next two NCAA Championships.

CAMPBELL: That loss to Santa Barbara was a good lesson and wake-up call for us.  We weren’t going to let that happen to us again.

FOSTER: You got to play for some legendary coaches—Dante Dettamanti, Monte Nitzkowski and Bill Barnett.  What was that like?

CAMPBELL: They were all different, but really good coaches.  Dante was a very enjoyable coach to play for. He was really good at blending teams together.  We had a really diverse group of players and he was able to get us to play as a team.  Monte had an incredibly intense style.  He would make or break you.  To play for Monte, you had to be mentally tough.   A lot of guys couldn’t handle the intensity and quit.  If you survived, you believed you could handle anything.  He made me a tough player.  There are a lot of “Monte-isms”. My favorite was when he was really ripping into John Siman and said, “Siman, when you were circumcised, the doctor threw away the wrong part.”   Bill was a very skillful tactician and superior fundamentals coach.  We all knew that he would analyze our opponents and would put a great game plan in each game.

FOSTER: You were on a training trip in Canada when news of President Carter’s Olympic Boycott came down.  That had to be hard toJody Campbell at Stanford University take.

CAMPBELL: It was heart-breaking, but I was the youngest player on the team.  There were guys who had missed out on the 1976 Olympics when we didn’t qualify.  They toughed it out for another four years, only to have Carter sweep away their dreams.  It really hurt to see guys like Peter Schnugg, Jon Svenson and Eric Lindroth miss that Olympic opportunity.

FOSTER: So, you made the team in 1984 and got to play before a home crowd at Pepperdine University.   Was playing at home a plus or minus for you?

CAMPBELL: A lot of people asked me if I was disappointed not to get to travel to the Olympic Games, but for me, playing in Southern California was fantastic.  I grew up in Long Beach, which isn’t far away.  The crowd support was incredible.  It was nice to have food that we were used to eating.

FOSTER: What was it like to be in your first Olympics?

CAMPBELL: It was a most incredible experience to walk into the Los Angeles Coliseum.  Walking into the Water Polo venue for the first time was equally incredible.  We had all played and practiced in that pool hundreds of time, but to see how the venue was presented, with 5,000 bleacher seats and decorated to the hilt really hit us.  All you could think is that finally, we had what we had been working for since we were kids.

FOSTER: That 84 team was perhaps the best team in our history.  Tell us about the team.

CAMPBELL: That team was incredibly talented.  We featured a lot of movement—counters and drives.  Terry Schroeder was considered the best player in the world.  He was a rock; nobody could move him.  He and I would trade off at two meters.  I was only 180 pounds so I had to rely on movement and finesse.  Kevin Robertson was only 5’6”, but was one of the top drivers in the world.   Gary Figueroa was a magician with the ball.  Drew McDonald, Jon Svensen and John Siman were all big and tough two meter defenders.  Joe Vargas was a very intense and talented driver.  Craig Wilson was not only a great shot blocker, he was the best at outlet passes.  Doug Burke was also a great driver.  We just had a great mixture of players and great coaching.

FOSTER: You pretty much breezed through the preliminary round in 84 and ended up in the infamous Gold Medal game with Yugoslavia.  What happened?

1988 Olympics US Mens Water Polo Team

CAMPBELL: We were up 5-2 at half-time.  In international water polo, that is a comfortable lead and it should have been enough.  We had to carefully balance not being too aggressive and give them more offensive opportunities with enough aggressiveness to keep us in the game.  Perhaps we didn’t attack enough, but we had our opportunities.  Anyway, the Yugos made some spectacular shots and tied us.  We knew going in that a tie was a loss, because back then, you didn’t play off ties; the winner was determined by goal difference against the other teams.  They had a plus 14 and we had a plus 9.  It was devastating to be so close to a gold medal.

FOSTER: You were only 24 years old in 1984, was it an easy decision to try for another medal in 1988?

CAMPBELL: Not really.  Back then we didn’t really have any financial support.  I took a year off and became a commercial real estate broker.  I had an operation on my elbow. I had to know that I was physically and financially able to keep playing on the National Team.  In 1985, I felt comfortable enough and made the decision to play for 1988.

FOSTER: Working and training full time couldn’t have been easy.

CAMPBELL: It wasn’t.  I worked out an hour and a half before work.  During my lunch hour, I would go to a local YMCA to get some yards in. After work, I drove an hour and a half down to Long Beach to train.  After workout, I had another hour and a half drive home.  On weekends, we had full time training.

FOSTER: It paid off because you were an Olympian again in 1988.  You had a very good team.

CAMPBELL: Terry Schroeder was on the team again.  He was immovable at two meters.  Doug Kimbell had transitioned from a “soft” big guy to a tenacious, world class two meter defender.  Jamie Bergeson was a tremendous driver.  The Campbell brothers, Jeff and Peter were mainstays on defense and were smart players.  Mike Evans was a prolific scorer.  Somehow he pulled off difficult shots in difficult situations.  Defense wasn’t part of his game.  He used to say, “Defense is not in my contract.”  Craig Wilson was unbelievable in goal. The rest of the players like Alan Mouchawar, Greg Boyer, Kevin Robertson and Craig Klass were all top notch.  We simply didn’t have any weaknesses.

Jody Campbell US Olympic Water Polo PlayerFOSTER: Everybody remembers the critical game against Hungary. Winner goes to the medal round and loser plays for 5th through 8th.  Schroeder jams in a goal with seconds left to win the game.  Tell us about that game.

CAMPBELL: I really don’t remember much because I had a concussion during an earlier game.  I had an interview with NBC television and I told him not to ask about any specific plays because of the concussion.  I was upset because he did any way.  All my answers were the same—I didn’t remember.  When it was over the interviewer was upset and asked, “How could you do this to me?”  I reminded him that I told him about the concussion and he understood.

FOSTER: Thinking back, what was the biggest gift water polo gave to you?

CAMPBELL: Work ethic.  After establishing a solid base from my parents, the decades of guidance from various coaches, teammates, and supporters, coupled with strong academic requirements taught me a strong dedicated work ethic.  The years of international travel, training and competition, during a time when water polo was a true amateur sport, further defined our devotion.  It was never for fame or fortune.  It was for the win and self-respect.