Athletics News

Chick McIlroy - Living the Water Polo Life


Chick McIlroy poses with a local official in 1964

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 Irvine, California and for the first time in 55 years Chick McIlroy isn't playing. McIlroy decided last year after leading the Tri-Valley Club to Gold at the World Masters he would be retiring, but that hasn't stopped folks from checking in on Chick.

"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 California, in that time, the Golden State was largely the only home for the game. Living in Southern California, McIlroy was at the epicenter of the growing sport.

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 United States.

McIlroy got involved with the sport at age 14 and had the benefit of training with the 1956 Olympic squad as they prepared for Melbourne. In 1960 McIlroy joined up with the local Lynwood Water Polo Club for their push to the Olympic Games. The Lynwood club won the qualifying tourney and were off to Rome for the Olympics. McIlroy described himself as an alternate on that team, meaning he was a bench player in a time of no substitutions.

McIlroy remembers walking onto the pool deck in Rome: "We walk in and the stands are chanting `Italia, Italia, Italia' I thought we  might get mobbed," he laughingly recalled. "There were thousands of fans at the game, do you know how many fans came to our club games in California? Well you and I would make two," he added.

Team USA finished below expectations with a seventh place mark but a whole new world was opened for McIlroy. "Once you play internationally, it makes you realize what a small world it is, and a whole window opens up. You become more a citizen of the world and much more aware of all these different cultures," he said.

The years rolled by and before long the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo were on the horizon. Chick was back with the El Segundo Swim Club, flanked this time, by brothers Paul and Ned. The final year of a club qualification tournament for the United States was 1964, but the El Segundo group made it worthwhile as they earned the bid for the Olympic Games.

Chick McIlroy at the 2009 Masters, his first on the sidelines

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 Beijing, but rarely do three siblings join forces on the same team sport.

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 Palos Verdes School District for some 39 years. The exploits of the current national team are never far from McIlroy's radar and the success a year ago in Beijing truly thrilled him, "I am so proud of last year's Olympic Team, it was just unbelievable," he said "everybody dreams of playing in the Gold Medal game, and it just gave me a lot of pride to have been on the National Team."

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 Perth. He jumped on board and trained hard to prepare for that tourney. The team blitzed the rest of the field going 7-0 and nearly 50 years after he competed for his first medal, Chick was wearing the Gold this time. "It was a highlight of my career, the idea of a World Championship, even though it was Masters was a big treat for me," he says.

These days McIlroy is still involved with Masters swimming and is a lifeguard at Redondo Beach, CA. `Just like any other rookie lifeguard,' he describes himself at Redondo, while recalling that his recertification is coming up soon. "It's an easy swim, hardly anyone ever fails," he notes. Typical stuff for a 70-year-old.

Back at the Woollett Aquatic Center, McIlroy continues to fend off overtures to play, not that he isn't tempted. "Watching them brought back ambivalent feelings towards playing again.  I wanted to and didn't want to.  Their invitation to play was really tempting."

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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