American swimmer Michael Phelps is making a big splash at this year’s Olympic games but at the 1984 Olympics it was a water polo player named Terry Schroeder and the men’s Olympic water polo team who were catching the eye of fans, especially female fans.
That year, the men’s water polo team was anticipated to take the gold medal and I was assigned by TIME Magazine to cover their games. The assignment had nothing to do with my knowledge of the sport, which was zero at the time, but everything to do with its proximity to where I lived. I simply was closest to where the water polo events were being played, at Pepperdine University‘s pool in Malibu.
I had only to drive over Malibu Canyon Rd or Topanga Canyon Road from my home in the San Fernando Valley, drop down to the ocean side town and make my way to the pool that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. From my spot in the stands, I watched the men’s team battle it out each day while I got a good tan and enjoyed the view, both in the pool and beyond.
Water polo, which has grown in popularity in the U.S. since then, was largely dominated by European teams at the time. But the ‘84 American team played in a style that was said to be ‘revolutionizing’ the sport. As then coach Monte Nitzkowski explained to me, they borrowed a lot of their technique from American basketball and football to make their playing look “creative and instinctive.” That, plus the fact that they were fast and highly mobile, put their chances for winning the gold medal better than in any previous Olympic Games. (Sadly, Nitzkowski just died recently on July 28 at age 86.)
But while their athleticism was exciting, their physiques were, how to put it, well quite explicitly, ‘hot.’ The poster of the 16-man team posed poolside instantly sold out its first run of 10,000 with two additional printings equally as popular. The team had to set up a special toll-free number just to handle the order requests. And the poster, along with my reporting about it, appeared in TIME’s People section of the magazine.
Sculptor Robert Graham, was also struck by the water polo players’ perfect physiques. He selected one of them–Terry Schroeder–to pose for the giant sculpture of a headless male figure, very controversial at the time, that towered before the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the Opening and Closing Ceremonies took place. The model’s identity was to have been a secret, but somehow it was disclosed that Schroeder had been chosen.
Water polo‘s a fast game, one that demands an excellent backstroke, strong legs to propel the player up and out of the water with the ‘eggbeater’ kick in order to pass the ball to teammates and speed to out swim the opponents when attacking the goal. I had to be a quick study to learn the basics of the game and understand the qualities that made the players so good. It helped that I was, and still am, a swimmer myself. Despite expectations, the 1984 team lost in the finals to Yugoslavia to capture the silver instead of the gold medal.
This year’s Olympics’ men’s water polo team didn’t make it through to the Quarter Finals but the women’s team (which didn’t exist in 1984) will be playing this week as they advanced in the competition. Although a difficult game to watch on television as much of the action occurs underwater, tune in and I think you too will discover how exciting the game is and just how strong and skilled the players must be.
The 1984 mens team captured the imagination and eye of America’s Olympic fans across the country and no doubt, raised the awareness for the sport. And, I’m pleased to say, I watched it happen while reporting on them for the magazine.