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Water Polo the Y's Way
By Chuck Hines
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Chuck Hines
All right reserved.
Chapter OneYMCA Water Polo At Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota
We knew water polo was a rough and rugged sport. Not for sissies. Nonetheless we'd set up "goals" on opposite sides of the Midway YMCA pool in St. Paul, Minnesota. Then, dividing ourselves into two teams, we tried to shoot a water polo ball into the circular opening of the opposing "goal." Standing on the bottom was permitted. So were grabbing and ducking. It was a free-for-all. We called it Battle Ball and pretended it was water polo, even though we knew it wasn't the real thing. But it was a start.
I had come to work part-time at the Midway YMCA after completing a two-year tour of duty with the U.S. Army. This included a stint in Korea, where the War had just ended. I'd been stationed at K-55, a base about 60 miles south of Seoul. We were part of the occupation forces. If you've ever seen the TV show M*A*S*H, that was us. But we weren't a medical base. We were an engineering unit there to support a jet fighter squadron. I was the company clerk. Yeah, just like Radar from M*A*S*H.
One day a notice came through that the Pacific Area Armed Forces Swimming Championships were going to be conducted in Japan. Those of us in Korea could qualify in a meet to be held at Seoul. I had been a competitive swimmer since the age of 10 and eventually raced for my hometown high school in Rochester, Minnesota. As a senior, I participated in the YMCA's National Swimming Championships. Then I attended Gustavus-Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, on a swimming scholarship. One day while sitting in the cafeteria, I noticed a young lady waiting in line. It was love at first sight. Literally. I turned to my swimming teammates and said, "Do you see that girl? She's the one I'm going to marry." I didn't even know her name, but as I write this, Lee and I have been happily married for 55 years.
The Korean War was going on, and when I was 20, I received my draft notice. I was bused to Fort Riley in Kansas for 16 weeks of basic training, after which I was given permission to train for swimming in the small four-lane, 20-yard indoor pool at nearby Kansas State University. The Army sent me to the Midwest AAU Championships being conducted in a nice six-lane, 25-yard pool at Omaha, Nebraska, and I won the 100yard backstroke. My parents and Lee, to whom I'd become engaged, came from Minnesota to watch. Then the Army sent me off again, this time to Korea. We spent 11 days traveling on a troop ship. It was up and down. It was up and down. It was ... I was seasick the entire time. Imagine, the Midwest champ vomiting all over the place because he couldn't take the wavy water. How humiliating.
Compared to the ocean, the Seoul Olympic Pool was relatively smooth, and I qualified there for the Pacific Area Championships. Our Army team of six swimmers, including two who were black, a rarity in those days, flew to Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan and its beautiful eight-lane, 50-meter outdoor pool, joining about 150 other Army, Air Force, and Navy swimmers from Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam, Okinawa, Korea, and Japan. We were given time to do some enjoyable sight-seeing in the nearby city before competing at night, under the lights. I placed third in the 100-meter backstroke and joined with breaststroker Frank Wright from West Chester State College and freestyler Frank Dooley from Ohio State University to win the 300-meter medley relay race for the Army troops in Korea. We each received a beautiful silver cup, which I've retained to this day.
After a year in Korea, our entire company of about 200 men was shipped back home, and we were stationed at Camp Wolters, Texas. One day the base commander called me into his office, and as I stood at attention, he asked, "You're the swimmer?"
"Well, you've done your duty overseas, and now I want you to represent our base and the Army in swimming competition."
How lucky can one guy get?
My Army swimming teammate was Ollie Davis from Honolulu, and together we went to meets in Amarillo, El Paso, Wichita, and then to New Orleans, where I copped the Southern AAU championship in the 100-meter butterfly.
Author's Note: The butterfly stroke, with dolphin kick, had just been legalized, and I picked it up quickly and became proficient in it.
At the end of the summer, we flew in a military airplane to Sampson Air Force Base in upstate New York for the World Armed Forces Swimming Championships. We'd been practicing in a 50-meter outdoor pool at Camp Wolters and competing in various long-course meets. The World competition was contested in a 25-yard short-course indoor pool. I hadn't practiced turns for quite awhile, and after botching a couple of them, I took a slow third in the 200-yard backstroke. I did better in the 100-yard butterfly, losing by a matter of inches to an Air Force swimmer named Jack Nelson, who the next year would represent the U.S. at the 1956 Olympic Games.
While Jack Nelson went on to Olympic fame, I returned to civilian life in Minnesota. Lee and I were married. She had attended Gustavus-Adolphus College on a nursing scholarship and had completed her nursing degree at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul while I was serving in the Army. So when I returned, she went to work as a Registered Nurse, and I went to college at the University of Minnesota on the GI Bill. Once I got my feet on the ground, I started working part-time at the Midway YMCA.
Which brings us to our Battle Ball games. I was now 24 and coaching many of the boys from the local high schools who practiced their swimming in the Midway YMCA pool during the winter months. Minneapolis and St. Paul were at the bottom of the state's interscholastic swimming scene. None of the schools had pools. All the practicing was done, usually several teams at a time, in YMCA pools. It was crowded and often disorganized. So I can say with a certain amount of certainty that when the boys I was coaching from St. Paul's Murray High School won the medley relay race at the state championships, it was quite a surprise, quite an accomplishment, and it probably helped convince me to pursue a career in YMCA aquatics. The victorious quartet was comprised of Dick Swanson, backstroke; Doug Malmstrom, breaststroke; George Ubel, butterfly; and Duane Malmstrom, freestyle. I still remember their names.
However, churning up and down the pool was easy compared to our Battle Ball games. It was a rare day that someone didn't end up with a bloody nose and the rest of us with bumps and bruises. But we enjoyed it.
I also was hired as the part-time swimming coach at the Minneapolis YWCA. We had a team of about 30 girls. This was l-o-n-g before the advent of Title IX – more on that later – and the high schools had no athletic teams for girls. None. Hard to believe nowadays, but true. It was the AAU – the Amateur Athletic Union – and the YWCA that provided girls with opportunities to compete in swimming and other sports. Our YW team started out slowly but ended up, a couple of years later, upsetting the state champs from Minneapolis' Ascension Club. I discovered in the process that I thoroughly enjoyed working with the ladies.
Author's Note: For those who may not know, Minneapolis and St. Paul, nicknamed "the Twin Cities," are adjoining communities separated only by the Mississippi River. Minneapolis is young and brash and Protestant. St. Paul is older and staid and Catholic. But they work well together. The University of Minnesota has campuses in both communities.
In 1958, I graduated from the University with a degree in Recreation Administration and was offered a job by the Minneapolis YMCA as director of aquatics at the downtown facility. As a teenager growing up in Rochester, I had swum with and against the Y boys, and I was fully familiar with the situation there. One day shortly after I began working in Minneapolis, I was approached by a young man on the deck of the pool who asked, "Have you ever played water polo?" He was Ricardo Gonzalez Izquierdo, a newcomer to town from Mexico, who had represented his country in water polo at the 1955 Pan-American Games. And thus began my involvement with water polo. REAL water polo.
Our YMCA pool in downtown Minneapolis was typical for that day and age: four lanes, 20 yards long, located in the basement. Not much to work with. Yet when we learned, much to our surprise, that the YMCA of the USA had just revived its long-dormant national water polo program, we were off and running. Ricky Izquierdo spent several months teaching me the correct techniques of water polo during the autumn of 1958 and winter of 1958-59. The sport was more a combination of basketball and soccer in the pool than the slug 'em and duck 'em Battle Ball we'd been playing at the Midway Y. Because basketball and swimming had been my two favorite and best athletic activities as a youngster, I had no trouble learning water polo. At one time I turned to Ricky and blurted, "This is MY sport!"
Nor did we have any trouble recruiting players. All the Minneapolis high schools used the YMCA pool for their swimming practices and meets, and some of the boys competed for the YMCA in the summer months. When we issued a call for polo players in March of 1959, over 30 high school boys signed up. By this time, we had cheap homemade goals for each end of the Y pool, official caps, and half-a-dozen balls. Ricky knew what he was doing when it came to water polo, and so did I to some extent, and we found another experienced and excellent player, Lou Edl, who had been a high school star in California before moving to Minneapolis.
We started with our own four-team intramural league, playing five-per-side in the small YMCA pool. Each team contained eight or nine players, counting all the substitutes, with Ricky captaining one team, Lou another, I the third, and one of Ricky's friends from Mexico, Pedro Nieto, also an experienced player, the fourth. The remaining members of each team were high school swimmers, of whom the best were Big Bob Thiel, a 6-3, 200-pound defender; John Dwyer, a good young goalie; and Nick Jambeck, a swift-swimming and high-scoring forward. We adults took turns refereeing when we weren't playing ourselves. That was 50 years ago, and I still can remember how much FUN we had.
We had so much fun, in fact, that we decided to host a YMCA tournament as part of the Y's attempt to resuscitate the sport nationally. We invited two teams from Detroit, one from St. Louis, and two from Winnipeg, Canada. Of course, we entered a team of our own. On a weekend in late May, we conducted the six-team Minneapolis YMCA Men's International Invitational. If I remember correctly, the Detroit Downtown YMCA finished first, St. Louis Downtown second, Winnipeg Central third, Minneapolis fourth, Winnipeg Ol' Timers fifth, and a team of teenaged boys from Detroit Denby sixth.
Looking back, the competition must have been fairly good, as I know our Minneapolis men's team was doggone decent. Ricky Izquierdo, the Pan-Am Games veteran, was our hole forward; his buddy Pedro Nieto and I played the mid-pool positions; Lou Edl from California, at 6-2 and 200 pounds and possessing a mean streak, was our defensive stopper; and Hawaiian Ollie Davis was our goalie. High schoolers Thiel, Dwyer, and Jambeck served as substitutes.
After Ollie, my former Army swimming teammate, and I had been separated from active duty, I'd returned to Minnesota and he'd gone home to Honolulu. One day the phone rang. It was Ollie. "I'm becoming a bit bored," he said, "so I think I'm going to enroll in the art school at Minneapolis."
"C'mon," I replied, "we'd love to have you."
A strong breaststroker, Ollie immediately became a standout water polo goalie. He spent a couple of years living in Minneapolis and was responsible for Lee and me going out to Hawaii in July and August of 1959. We drove to Los Angeles and left our car with Lee's uncle, who was a resident of El Segundo, and then we flew onward to Honolulu, on the island of Oahu. It was an exciting experience as this was the year Hawaii became our 50th state. For six weeks, Lee and I took classes at the University of Hawaii. We also spent several days on neighboring Kauai, which we enjoyed, and were introduced by Ollie's brother, Jesse, to skin- and scuba-diving and to "the mystic world beneath the sea," about which you'll be hearing more later.
Getting back to our YMCA tournament, I recall that Jim Ham was a star for the winning Detroit team, while Brian Horton led the way for Winnipeg Central. Guy Simones of the Winnipeg Ol' Timers served as head referee. St. Louis had several standouts whom we would be facing again in the future.
We kept on playing polo for fun in the small Minneapolis pool, and in 1962 I wrote an article which was published in the YMCA's Journal of Physical Education. Accompanied by three photos – one of Ricky lunging high out of the water to throw a pass, the second showing me propelling a shot into the goal, the third of a group of our younger boys passing the ball amongst themselves in a circle – the article reported that "water polo, an Olympic sport since 1900 and regarded as the world's roughest, toughest aquatic activity, is being played at the downtown YMCA in Minneapolis, Minnesota ...
"A 1959 invitational tournament took on international proportions with the participation of YMCAs from Detroit, Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Winnipeg, including star players from the U.S., Hawaii, Canada, and Mexico ...
"In recent years, Minneapolis has devoted its efforts to promoting intramural water polo competition. Over three dozen men and high school boys have enjoyed playing in the Senior League. Twice that number of younger boys in the YMCA's Fish, Flying Fish, and Shark classes have learned to play as part of their instructional program. A match for boys ages 14-and-under between the Minneapolis YMCA and the St. Paul Midway YMCA ended in a 3-to-3 tie ...
"Water polo requires swimming speed and stamina, ball-handling ability, and teamwork. Teams officially consist of seven players but can easily be reduced to five or six if pool space is limited. The hardest job belongs to the referee who must interpret an abundance of confusing rules while watching closely to detect fouls committed beneath the surface or obscured by the churning water ...
"Because of its nature, water polo is an excellent physical conditioner and provides many opportunities for teaching teamwork, team tactics, fair play, and good sportsmanship. It is an exciting sport which could, and should, be considered by more YMCAs nationally."
* * *
Since we'd started playing water polo in the winter of 1958-59, I'd been writing and publishing a small bimonthly newsletter, mostly for the participants in our Y program. In 1961, I started sending out the newsletter nationally. The sport was still quite small, and I might have had 100 subscribers, at most, from coast to coast. In those days, it was the Amateur Athletic Union that governed most sports, including water polo, and the AAU announced its All-America men's team annually. There were no intercollegiate or interscholastic All-America teams, so I and a few others took it upon ourselves to list and publicize the first collegiate and prep All-America players in my little newsletter, starting in 1962.
We listed 21 collegians and 35 prep, or high school, stars. Most were from California, the only state in which water polo could be considered a semi-major sport, but there were a few players from the East and the Midwest. So few high schools were playing polo that boys who were involved with AAU and Y teams were considered. Several California coaches – Rick Rowland, Urho Saari, Jimmy Smith, Jim Schultz come to mind – plus a few others including Fred Bassett from Yale, Harry Benvenuto from New York City (and the Brooklyn Central YMCA), Ralph Erickson from Chicago, Wally Lundt from St. Louis – helped make the All-America selections.
I don't remember many of the collegiate and prep All-Americans we chose in 1962 or in the years that followed, but I do know that high school swim stars Don Schollander and Mark Spitz from California were among those who made our list. As most readers will recall, both eventually became famous Olympic gold medalists in competitive swimming.
Excerpted from Water Polo the Y's Way by Chuck Hines Copyright © 2012 by Chuck Hines. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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