USA Water Polo has had a long line of outstanding Olympic goalies, including Bob Horn, Tony Van Dorp, Steve Hamman, Jim Slatton, Brandon Brooks, Chris Duplanty and Merrill Moses. The consensus though is that Craig Wilson was the best the United States has ever had, but he may have been the best goalie in Olympic history as well. Two times, Craig was named the World’s top goalkeeper. FINA TWPC Chair Gianni Lonzi (himself a gold medalist) ranks Craig in the top echelon internationally. Lonzi thinks that Wilson “was one of the best in the world”, along with Aleksander Sostar (YUG), Yevgeni Sharanov (RUS), Milan Muskatirovic (YUG), Enzo Cavazzoni (ITA), Jesus Rollan (ESP) and Stefano Tempesti (ITA). According to Lonzi, this is quite an elite group who really cannot be ranked because they played during different eras.
Craig was the starting USA goalkeeper at the 1984 (Los Angeles), 1988 (Seoul) and 1992 (Barcelona) Olympic Games. Incredibly, Craig had the highest number of saves in each of those Olympic Games. But, while the number of saves is important, the most telling statistic is the percentage of saves made. This statistic shows how good Craig really was. For example, at the Barcelona Olympics, Craig’s efficiency rating was 70%. The next best was Jesus Rollan from Spain at 56%-- and Rollan is considered one of the best Olympic goalies in history.
Shot blocking was only one of Craig’s talents. He was an aggressive and pin-point accurate passer. Rich Corso was the 1984 Goal Keeper Coach and believes that Craig revolutionized the position. “Craig was incredible at getting the ball out fast during the counter-attack. He was aggressive. He was never afraid to throw the long touchdown pass.” Legendary coach Monte Nitzkowski concurs, recalling that “Craig got the ball out quickly and on the money”.
Corso and Nitzkowski also agreed that Craig’s shot blocking and passing allowed the field players to take chances on defense and the counter attack. “Craig was such a fantastic goalie that our field players were not afraid to take chances on defense or the counter-attack; they knew Craig was backing them up,” recalled Nitzkowski. Corso added, “Craig gave our players great confidence; they knew Craig would take care of them.”
Craig played for Pete Snyder at UC Santa Barbara, where he led the Gauchos to a NCAA Championship in 1979. He has been inducted into the UCSB Gaucho, USA Water Polo and International Swimming Halls of Fame.
Craig resides in Fountain Hills, Arizona with his wife Nicole and ten year old daughter Aly. He is a technical consultant in the healthcare industry.
FOSTER: What got you into water polo?
WILSON: I grew up in Davis, California and had the opportunity watch the UC Davis team play. I loved watching Davis’ goalie, Peter Hagen. Back then the rules called for a penalty shot after a team made ten fouls. I loved watching Hagen psych himself up and psych out his opponents before a penalty shot. When a penalty shot was called, Hagen would face the back of the goal with his hands on the bars of the goal. He would shake the goal and let out a primal scream, which I’m sure could be heard across the campus. Pete would block many of the shots to the home crowd’s delight. He was way too cool and very tough. I was hooked, I wanted to play water polo.
FOSTER: Did you start right away in the goal?
WILSON: No, but after my first season as a field player, I decided to try the goalie position. It was pretty tough because I had braces. When a shot hit my face, it would usually result in blood from cut gums.
FOSTER: So, you had some success in high school, played for one year at UC Davis, then found yourself as a Gaucho at Santa Barbara. In the 1979 NCAA championship game, Santa Barbara faced an intimidating Stanford squad. They had All-American, John Gansel, in the goal, and future Olympians Jody Campbell, Alan Mouchewar and Jamie Bergeson in the field, but you guys beat them in the semifinal match, then thrashed UCLA 11-3 in the final. Tell us about that final game.
WILSON: The final game against UCLA was the best game we ever played as a team. Pete Snyder did a great job preparing us for that final game and win.
FOSTER: With your success in college, did you have visions of being an Olympian?
WILSON: Not really. After my last season in Santa Barbara, I thought I was done, but National Team coach, Monte Nitzkowski, called and told me he liked the way I passed the ball and wanted to know if I would come down to Long Beach to train with the National Team. Monte wanted a fast-moving team and I think he thought my passing would fit in. Turns out it did; in 1981, I made the National Team.
FOSTER: You made your first Olympic team in 1984. That was one of the best teams in USA Water Polo history.
WILSON: The 1984 team was a very disciplined team. Our defense was phenomenal. Every player was always in the right position.
FOSTER: The last game against Yugoslavia was tough, you went out to a 5-2 lead, but then the Yugos caught you in the last period to tie at 5-5. They ended up winning the Gold Medal by goal differential.
WILSON: We were all amped up for the game. I remember being a bit shocked to be up 5-2 at halftime. Milivoj Bebic scored the tying goal. He was on the left side between 4 and 5 meters out. I remember seeing him rise out of the water and his elbow came up and hit Peter Campbell in the head. I thought for sure that the referees would call a contra foul on Bebic and was thinking counter attack, and not about blocking the shot, but the refs let it go and his shot sailed into the goal. Was it a good shot? Maybe. Could I have blocked it? I don’t know, but this was one of three horrible calls by the referees in the last minutes of the game.
FOSTER: Who was the toughest shooter you faced in 1984?
WILSON: There were some good ones. Frank Otto from Germany was the top scorer in the 84 Olympic tournament. He was a lefty and had a very good outside shot, but the guy who confounded me was Ton Buunk from the Netherlands, also a lefty. We had never played the Dutch, so I had never seen him before. I think he had a better shot than Otto. We couldn’t stop him and struggled to prevent an upset. I think the final score was 8-7.
FOSTER: The 1988 U.S. squad had to be one of the favorites in Seoul. You had five veterans returning-- yourself, Terry Schroeder, Kevin Robertson, Peter Campbell and Jody Campbell.
WILSON: The 1988 team was a veteran team. It was the most talented team I ever played on. We beat Yugoslavia, the defending champs, in the preliminary round, so things started off well.
FOSTER: The most exciting finish I ever saw was in the game against Hungary. The winner of that game advanced to the medal round and the loser played for 5th through 8th. Mike Evans put us ahead with 30 seconds left, but the Hungarians tied it with 15 seconds left, so it looked like we were doomed. In the final seconds, Terry Schroeder slammed in the winning goal with time expiring. What was it like to be a player in that game?
WILSON: It all happened too fast. I remember Schro making a Herculean move to turn his defender then I saw his arm with the ball. I couldn’t see the shot but when I heard the roar of the crowd, I knew he had done it.
FOSTER: So you wound up against the Yugolsavs in the final game. Same result as in 1984—a tie game after regulation, but this time you lost in overtime. Some have told me that we should have won in 84, but the Yugos deserved the Gold Medal in 88. Your thoughts?
WILSON: We trained and played many exhibition games with the Yugos over a 6 year period and we played them in many international tournaments as well. We were both evenly matched. I would guess we played them 16 times over that stretch of time, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the end result would be 8-8. So all I can say about 84 & 88, it could have been us with the two golds.
FOSTER: By the time the 1992 Olympics rolled along, U.S. fans had come to expect our team to medal after back-to-back Silver Medals in 1984 and 1988. The 1992 squad was certainly talented, and you were coming off a win at the FINA Cup in 1991. After winning the first three games, we got derailed by the Unified Team (Russia), and things never seemed to get back on track.
WILSON: The 1992 team was very talented, but not as consistent as the 84 and 88 teams. After losing to the Unified Team, we had a very important game against Spain. The critical play occurred late in the game with Spain up by a goal. Mike Evans was on a fast break ahead of his defender Jordi Sans. Some think Evans kicked Jordi and deserved the offensive foul. In my opinion, Mike was just swimming and Sans did the only thing he could—swim into Mike’s flutter kick and fake being kicked. Anyway, the ref bought it and called the foul on Mike. Spain took advantage of the situation and scored on a counter attack. There was no way we could respond, so we were out of the Gold Medal Game.
FOSTER: In the Bronze Medal game, we once again faced the Unified Team. We were never really in the game. What happened?
WILSON: We really didn’t show up to win; we wanted the Gold Medal and when that wasn’t possible, we just didn’t have the energy. By contrast, the Unified Team was very determined to take home a medal. It was sad, because that was the last game I played with the US National team.
FOSTER: But you have some good memories from Barcelona, I’m sure. I was at the game against Germany, sitting with most of the parents of the team. The game was very important and we were all very nervous. I was concerned because Frank Otto had the talent to do some damage. But, you totally took control of the game. I don’t think I have ever seen a better game by a goalie. You were incredible and totally shut down Otto and the rest of the German team. I was trying to get Coach Barnett’s attention to take you out of the game in the last minute so we could give you a standing ovation, but I couldn’t get to him.
WILSON: Yeah, that was the best game of my career. Sometimes the water polo ball looks like a beach ball coming in slowly. Sometimes it looks like a golf ball coming in quickly. That day was a beach ball day. By that time, I had seen Otto for years. I knew all of his moves and shots.
FOSTER: Do you still play?
WILSON: I am still active in water polo with many of my 1979 Santa Barbara teammates—John Dobrott, Greg Boyer, Mike and Bill Yates, David Hendrickson, Cam McBee and Peter Neuschel. We won the 55+ division at the past two FINA World Masters Championships in Riccone, Italy and Montreal, Canada. Not bad for 36 years later!