March 6, 2013
By Greg Mescall
He's the most coveted 70-year old free agent in American sports. It's the 2009 Masters Nationals in
"Chick, when are you playing?," asks one man
"Hey Chicker, we have an extra spot for you tomorrow. No, seriously we do," says another.
"Hi Chick, ready to play?" adds another old friend.
But McIlroy just smiles and tells them to wait for his email reply - a reply they both know won't be coming. The funny thing is McIlroy could most likely still play; silver-haired, well-tanned and in tremendous shape he could pass for Charlton Heston's stunt double. For McIlroy, like any elite athlete, it's knowing when to hang it up. "I could stay with the 60+ division, but it was more of an ego thing," says McIlroy, "I didn't think I could still do what I was capable of in my 20s, my fear was I wouldn't contribute, I'd be a detriment."
Rare that you will find a 70-year-old that decides at 69 he has finally plateaued as an athlete, but that is just the latest chapter for Chick McIlroy.
McIlroy is a throwback to a time of the corner throw, the leather ball, and true full-court presses. His idol wasn't Tony Azevedo or Terry Schroeder, but Bob Hughes, a 1950s era Olympian that McIlroy describes as legendary and highly respected worldwide, at a time when the world wasn't so small. But the water polo world was.
He came up on the El Segundo Swim Club in El Segundo, where he still calls home. In those days water polo was largely club orientated, as the college game was still years from crowning NCAA Champions. While water polo today is hugely popular in
Qualifying for the Olympics was also a drastically different procedure. The 2008 Olympic Team was selected via a lengthy tryout process that is mandated by USA Water Polo and the USOC. In 1960, club teams would participate in an Olympic Trials tournament and the winner of that tourney took their club to the Olympics as the representative for the
McIlroy got involved with the sport at age 14 and had the benefit of training with the 1956 Olympic squad as they prepared for
McIlroy remembers walking onto the pool deck in
The years rolled by and before long the 1964 Olympics in
Occasionally a group of siblings will be on the same Olympic squad and the Lopez triumvirate in taekwondo was a highlight of the 2008 Games in
It was a fleeting moment for the brothers as Ned and Paul gave up the game following the Olympics, but Chick still lights up in recalling the memories. "It created an even greater bond with my brothers in the game, you didn't have to talk to them, everyone knew where to be," said McIlroy, "and afterwards you could not see each other for years and get back together and pick right back up where we left off."
Chick remembers that after 1964, Ned had had his fill of chlorine and was done with the game, while Paul was done with competition and moved on to lifeguard full time. Today Ned is a retired LA County lifeguard and sells insurance. Sadly, Paul passed away last year due to spinal viral meningitis, after a long career as, you may have guessed, a lifeguard.
The team again struggled at the Olympics, this time placing ninth, a finish that still bothers Chick today, "I was really disappointed in the Olympics, we didn't have a really good showing," says McIlroy in regards to both the 7th and 9th place finishes.
In addition, just getting to the Olympics was quite a sacrifice. McIlroy estimates it cost him $10,000 to participate in each Olympics at a time before USOC funding. While today's players are supplemented by the USOC and USA Water Polo, McIlroy remembers a time of raffles, cookie bakes, and swim meets all designed to raise money for the team.
As any Olympic athlete can attest to, the effort required to stay at that level can be taxing. "At the time you don't realize you are at the top of your game until it's all over. Then when you try to get in that shape again, oh my god, you sacrifice daily. When you lay off and come back, it's even more work," said McIlroy.
Once the Olympics were done McIlroy never gave up the game. He continued playing and staying involved with the game coaching and teaching in the
He's witnessed the evolution of the sport from the increased offense, to the benefit of field blocks, and the extra physicality. As he watches his old friends on the Tri-Valley squad compete he can quickly point out what would have been whistled fouls or exclusions in his day.
It was this Tri-Valley group that lured him back to the world stage a little over a year ago. Having played Masters water polo for many years, McIlroy was contacted by the Tri-Valley squad as they readied for World Masters in
These days McIlroy is still involved with Masters swimming and is a lifeguard at
Back at the
But now he remains on the sidelines an admirer of the game and a wonderful link from the past of USA Water Polo to it's future. "You know there is going to be a time to hand the baton to the younger players," he muses. For Chick McIlroy, he seems to have found that moment.
This article appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of SkipShot Magazine
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