By borrowing strategy from professional basketball, the US Olympic water polo team has suddenly become a minipower in a sport that also combines stamina with the roughness of professional football.
"Former Olympic winners have generally been the teams that were the most physical," explained the US water polo coach, Monte Nitzkowski. "But the way the game is played today, with a hole man [like the center in basketball], screens, fast-break offenses, zone defenses, and a 35-second shooting clock, skill has become just as important as power."
"There was a time when this country had plenty of good swimmers, but no specialists," Nitzkowski continued. "What I mean are players who could fill the key positions on a water polo team that require a special kind of body. But now we're getting more kids that have the flexibility to make us champions."
During last week's FINA World Water Polo Cup Championships at California State University in Long Beach, the United States finished fourth behind the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Cuba. This was the same Russian team that won the 1980 Olympic gold medal in Moscow. Other teams in the six-day competition represented Hungary, Spain, Australia, and Bulgaria.
Too many people still think of water polo as a sport in which two teams of seven players each thrash around in water deep enough so nobody can touch bottom. Until crowds become more knowledgeable, too many of the game's finer points will go unappreciated.
Water polo is generally played in Olympic-size pools roped off to roughly the dimensions of a basketball court. The game is broken up into four seven-minute periods with two-minute rest stops in between. Players are carefully watched by two referees who patrol the pool by walking back and forth on platforms. Individuals can be sent to a watery penalty box for 45 seconds if their fouling becomes too physical.
During that time period, of course, the offending team competes with one less player than the opposition, the equivalent to having a one-man disadvantage in ice hockey. The reason periods are limited to seven minutes is the game's mental and physical intensity, which can wear out a swimmer in a very short time.
Players wear rubber-type swim trunks, which create the impression of having been painted on, and old-fashioned-protector cups that cover the ears. Spectators are quickly able to identify individual players by the numbers on their helmets.
When players are swimming toward the opponents' goal with the soccer-size ball floating loose in front of them, they guide it along by keeping it in contact with their foreheads. But the quickest way to advance the ball is to throw it to a teammate, who has already established position near the goal.
Once players on the offensive team get into position, the ball is passed back and forth among them until someone decides the goalie is off balance enough to risk a shot. The ball is generally thrown with the force of a line drive in baseball, or else skimmed over the top of the water in a way that often causes it to bounce erratically.
Water polo goalies, like those in ice hockey, are the last line of defense.The shooter's target is a netted, 10-foot-wide goal that rises 3 feet out of the water. If the ball goes in, it counts one point. Most water polo game scores are high, say 10 to 9.
What does Nitzkowski, swimming and water polo coach at Long Beach City College since 1955, look for in putting together an Olympic-caliber team?
"Mostly, assuming the young man is already a fine swimmer, we're after the great athlete -- the one who probably would excel in any sport," Monte said. "Specifically we're looking for size, players with super leg strength, and the ability to learn and think quickly. The team concept is what we develop in practice, but experience is something we can only buy with time.
"One of the reasons we lost to the Russians last week [6-5] was our tentativeness against a team that is highly disciplined. A couple of times when we should have been protecting ourselves on defense, we were still gambling that we could get something going offensively.
"An experienced team like the Soviets' would have sensed what was happening in a similar situation and known what to do instantly. Instead, we hesitated, couldn't seem to make up our minds, and provided the Russians with a chance for an easy goal."
Actually the US has done well in water polo since it failed to qualify for the 1976 Olympics. The pursuit of college degrees and making a living keep getting in the way for US players, who, unlike their Soviet and Yugoslav counterparts, don't play on government-subs idized teams that practice year-round and seldom break up.