US aims for medal in rugged Olympic water polo competition

The situation was almost perfect for Terry Schroeder to swim off into the sunset after the 1984 Olympics. The Games were held in Los Angeles, his hometown; the water polo matches played at Pepperdine University, his alma mater. Many friends and family members turned out to see the United States team captain, who was the model for a headless statue gracing the entrance to the main Olympic stadium.

If the Americans had won the gold medal, Schroeder probably would have hung up his bathing suit. But they didn't. Despite going undefeated and tying Yugoslavia in the championship game, they wound up with the silver on the basis of fewer overall tournament goals.

So Terry, 28, is back, seeking a satisfying conclusion to an Olympic career he once thought would end in Moscow eight years earlier.

``If I had played in the [boycotted] 1980 Games, I probably would have retired, gone back to school, and got on with my life,'' he says. ``Before '84 I basically thought the same thing - that it would be my last Olympics and that I would settle down and stop this silly business of driving every night to workouts. I feel the same way now. I doubt I'll be around in '92. My wife probably has a lot more to say about it now than I do.''

Schroeder is one of five holdovers from '84 and one of just two players appearing on his third Olympic team, Kevin Robertson being the other.

The squad stands a reasonable chance of winning a medal, although the gold appears to be a long shot, given the presence of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the two co-favorites. The US gets an early test when it opens preliminary-round play this week against the Yugoslavs.

Except for the sparsely attended 1904 Games in St. Louis, when the US swept all three medals, American teams have had little success in Olympic water polo - the only other medals being bronzes in 1924, '32, and '72 plus the silver in L.A.

This year's team had some promising tuneups over the summer, though, taking first in one international tournament and third in another. The results provided welcome encouragement to the squad's 13 members, who must make significant sacrifices to play the sport.

Schroeder estimates he has racked up well over 50,000 miles on his car during the past year driving from his home in Agoura Hills to evening and weekend workouts, held at Newport Beach.

Except during final Olympic preparations, most of the players hold down regular jobs. In Terry's case, his 50-mile commute to practice began after a busy day spent as a vice-president of student affairs at Pepperdine or seeing patients at the family's chiropractic office.

The team's failure to attract major corporate sponsorship, which would pave the way to more full-time training, is a source of frustration to the players.

``It really doesn't make any sense, because this is an Olympic sport, one in which we have a chance to win a gold medal,'' Schroeder observes.

Perhaps sponsors have stayed away because they don't perceive a need to back a team listing lawyers, businessmen, and other professionals on its roster. Or perhaps a virtually all-Californian squad lacks national appeal. Chris Duplanty, a Hawaiian, is the first non-Californian to make the team since 1956.

Schroeder points out, though, that ``none of the guys has been able to put away any substantial savings'' while essentially holding down two full-time jobs. And he feels that the team should be able to find a California sponsor that would be an ideal match.

In 1984, the water polo people came up with their own idea to generate revenue, namely a hot-selling team poster showing off a collection of deeply tanned physiques. The effort fell through this time, although Schroeder has done some modeling for individual posters.

Water polo is much more popular in Europe, where goals are sometimes placed in harbors for pickup games and fans are knowledgeable enough to know who the top American players are.

In the US, though, hardly anyone seems to care. ``You come home from a big tournament and you're lucky if your dad shakes your hand,'' says Schroeder.

One thing that has helped make the sport more enjoyable for American TV viewers is the underwater shot, used effectively by ABC at the '84 Olympics.

Much of what happens in water polo occurs below the surface, where there is a lot of grabbing and holding.

``It has to be one of the most difficult sports to referee, because you're watching players who are like iceberg tips above the water,'' notes Schroeder. Even so, the two officials who pace the pool deck catch plenty and seem to blow their whistles every few seconds.

Terry, who plays the critical two-meter position, comes in for a lot of abuse when he stations himself approximately that distance in front of an opponent's goal. He may absorb 75 to 100 minor fouls a game, a situation the game's non-punitive rules seem to condone if not encourage. The water cushions some of the contact, but the two-meter player must take his lumps without losing concentration or composure.

``You can hit Terry over the head with an anvil and he won't blink or complain,'' former US coach Monte Nitzkowski once said of the team's Rock of Gibraltar.

Two-meter men must also stay afloat despite concerted efforts to sink them. The pool depth doesn't permit standing on the bottom, which is why treading water becomes second nature, games consisting of four 7-minute periods, with 2-minute breaks in between.

``Guys could tread water for a year straight if somebody brought food to them,'' Schroeder says. ``It's not that difficult to do. It's when two or three guys are hanging on you that it becomes tough.''

Like most water polo players, Terry started off in competitive swimming. By 11, he had tired of taking laps and turned to sports like baseball and football. In high school, friends talked him into trying water polo. He took to it immediately as an ideal way to combine swimming ability with catching and throwing skills.

``Sometimes you can't help wondering about how much money you would have or where you might be if you'd spent as much time playing baseball or football,'' Schroeder says. ``But I wouldn't trade what I've done for anything. Water polo has been very good to me.''

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