By Greg Mescall
Terry Schroeder had his life all figured out.
He was going to graduate from Pepperdine University, help the United States Men's Water Polo Team to a gold medal at the 1980 Olympic Games, and then retire to start chiropractic school while building a family with his future wife Lori.
Which is what made the scene in early 1982 so weird.
Schroeder stood by, completely nude, as sculptor Robert Graham pushed a giant pile of clay to the floor, scrapping 20 hours of work. The artist was starting over in an attempt to make a bronze statue of the future Olympic great. Schroeder's physique was to represent the ideal Olympic athletic form.
Schroeder's phone rang out of the blue a few months earlier with a call from Graham's secretary. Organizers of the 1984 Olympic Games had commissioned two statues, one male and one female, to stand sentry at the Los Angeles Coliseum, site of the opening ceremony of the Summer Games.
After being assured this was no hoax and somebody really wanted him to be the statue, Schroeder relented and agreed to the gift that keeps on giving. A bronze statue of himself, ripped, in peak physical condition with no signs of fading.
The organizers, the sculptor, even Schroeder couldn't have known then how fitting it would be today to have a permanent memento of easily the most important figure in American men's water polo in the last 50 years.
Why the statue? Not because it's something Schroeder loves to talk about--he doesn't.
It's because he's left a lasting impact on men's water polo, one that he continues to build on. When talking about permanent reminders, what better metaphor than a statue?
But Schroeder will be the first to tell you that a host of others helped lift men's water polo in the 1980s. Coaches, athletes, fans, and more. But travel around the United States or around the globe and discuss U.S. water polo in the `80s and early `90s and one name keeps coming up: Terry Schroeder.
How did Schroeder end up in this predicament, posing for a bronze statue and enduring ribbing from teammates that goes on even now? For starters, the United States never took part in the 1980 Summer Olympic Games. Merging athletics and politics for reasons many still don't understand, President Jimmy Carter announced in 1980 that the United States would boycott the coming summer's Olympic Games. This altered the lives of Schroeder and many other athletes.
"The boycott in `80 really changed a lot of things," Schroeder said. "It changed the way I thought about the Olympic Games, about the sport of water polo and what it meant to me in my life, it was kind of a big crossroads for sure. It made me think about what I really wanted and what I was getting out of this and why I was really doing it."
This is a slice of the story of the man credited with making water polo relevant again in the United States. And to get a better appreciation of what the time around the 1984 Olympic Games accomplished, it helps to know what they led to for Schroeder.
Terry Schroeder would go on to do a lot in the game of water polo. After making his long-awaited Olympic debut in 1984 and leading his squad to a silver medal, he would earn another silver at the 1988 Olympic Games and come painfully close to a third-straight medal at the 1992 Games in Spain. Starting in 1986 he became head coach at Pepperdine, his alma mater; he guided the team to the pinnacle of the game at that level, an NCAA crown, in 1997. He returned to the National Team scene in the mid-2000s and took over as head coach of a down-on-its-luck Senior National Team ahead of the 2007 Pan American Games. All the while he ran his own chiropractic practice with his wife, Lori.
Eloquently beating his chest with a mantra of "returning to the podium," the team did just that. Following gold at the Pan American Games, the squad earned a berth at the 2008 Olympics in China. The 13 men, galvanized by an "us against them" mentality, stunned the world in Beijing by earning a silver medal, throttling a few world powers in the process. They had gone from worst to pretty close to first. Ranked ninth in the world coming into 2008, Schroeder along with assistant coaches Robert Lynn and Ryan Brown had worked the U.S. men back among the elite. A chance to better the results of Beijing fell flat in 2012 with Team USA falling out of the medal hunt. The circular nature of Schroeder's life surfaced again with a return to Malibu and Pepperdine to once again lead the Waves, a position he occupies today.
"He holds a decade of United States water polo under his wing as a player and another chapter as a coach. Terry has few equals in American water polo," said Gary Figueroa, an Olympic teammate.
One can think of Schroder's life as a big set of spinning gears shaped like Olympic rings, all working in concert--the important things anyway. His family with Lori and two children (Leanna and Sheridan), his chiropractic practice, the National Team, and Pepperdine. Depending on the year among the last 30, any one of those commitments outside his family has increased or decreased in size.
But few moments have stood larger than 1984. A high-powered team determined to show the world what they were cheated out of in 1980. The galaxy's greatest sporting event on home soil. The All-American star playing for a gold medal in front of his fans, two hours from his hometown, in his college pool.
"Walking into that home crowd and hearing 80,000 people cheering on `USA, USA' still gives me goose bumps," Schroeder said. "It was just an incredible experience to get out there with your teammates knowing what each of us had gone through and given up, the sacrifices to be part of that team. Then to have the water polo at Pepperdine where I had gone to school was a pretty incredible part of that journey."
While the United States was among the favorites in 1984, it didn't mean things would be easy. That said the red, white, and blue rolled early on, downing Greece 12-5, Brazil 10-4, and Spain 10-8 in preliminary play. In the final round things got a little tighter. Team USA edged the Netherlands 8-7, toppled Australia 12-7 and on August 9 defeated West Germany 8-7 to approach the medal round undefeated. They would take on rival and fellow gold medal favorite, Yugoslavia.
But it's what happened in another game that perhaps most directly reflected the outcome of those Olympics. While Team USA earned a hard-fought one-goal win over West Germany, Yugoslavia took on Spain. But the Spaniards, having been eliminated from medal contention prior to the match, didn't take the contest with Yugoslavia all that seriously. Unlike today's Olympic water polo competition, an outright winner in the medal round wasn't necessary; goal differential could decide it all, something not in the favor of Team USA.
"I vividly remember the Spanish team, after they had been eliminated from competition. They lost to Yugoslavia by eight or ten goals. It screwed up the goal differential thing and knowing that going into the final two days, goal differential was critical and that stood out," recalled Schroeder.
While the score was actually 14-8 in favor of Yugoslavia, the damage had been done. All would be forgiven if the United States could come up with a victory but a tie or loss would do them no good.
"In the final we were ahead 5-2, knowing we had that game. (Goalie) Craig Wilson was on fire and we felt there was no way Yugoslavia was going score three more goals. When he's hot, the ball looks like a beach ball and he had one of those games when he was blocking everything," said Schroeder. He continued, "that feeling of being ahead 5-2 and knowing we had that shot to win the gold medal and I had a goal taken away at the end by an offensive call," laments Schroeder. Then Yugoslavia scored three unanswered goals in the fourth quarter to force a 5-5 draw, winning the gold medal on goal differential.
While the validity of that offensive call has been debated among water polo fans worldwide, the United States still earned a silver medal, their first in program history. "Some things stick out, a couple of painful things, but I think the memory of that team and what they went through and what it meant to be part of it far surpasses the hurt and pain," Schroeder added.
Having experienced the pain of coming so close to gold as both a player and a coach, Schroeder offers a unique perspective but one that's echoed by those who've won silver medals in team sports.
"I think deep down there was pain in coming so close and still missing it. I think as time went by, and still goes by, the silver medal is obviously a pretty fantastic experience. Yet, it's such a weird medal as I experienced it, again as a coach. It's such a tough emotion," Schroeder says. "You watch the bronze medal game, and the team that wins celebrates, and they're super happy they won the bronze medal. When you walk away with a silver medal, you get a feeling like you`re defeated, knowing that you lost. You didn't accomplish what you were supposed to accomplish. There's still some hurt that got into me knowing we were so close."
The summer of 2014 marked the 30-year anniversary of those Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Jody Campbell, a member of the 1984 and 1988 teams, held a gathering at his home in Southern California, a reunion to help commemorate what was accomplished all those years ago. And in an era of Olympic athletes with full-time jobs, no foreign leagues to compete in, and even less money, a special bond unites all the players from that time.
"Years can go by and you don't see somebody and we get together for a dinner or a reunion and almost immediately we're back to what we were in '84 and '88 with all the stories, all the laughter, ripping each other," Schroeder said. "It's really just a special group of guys, having gone to that breaking point has really created a tight bond."
The 1980s were a magical time for men's water polo in the United States, but how did it happen? Prior to the 1980 boycott, Team USA failed to qualify for the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada. So what happened to make this program a power?
"Looking back, I think it's definitely a combination of coaching and the right players. On the players' side, we were willing to give a part of ourselves for the good of the team always. I think with that core unit, from '84 to '88, it was good leadership in the pool. We ended up making the team better and ourselves better. There was a lot of love in that group. We had all the pieces. To be successful, you need a good center, a good goalie, good outside shooters, and guys willing to be role players. Whether it's going in there to play defense for two or three minutes and beating on some guy or being a 5-on-6 specialist. We had all the pieces and it all came together," Schroeder said, adding that was a similar key to the success of the 2008 team he coached.
Coaching, great athletes, sacrifice, selflessness. Attributes you could apply to many of the great teams in any sport over the last century. It was also exactly what the USA Men's Water Polo Team needed.
Schroeder is out of the Olympic scene at the moment, but his impact remains in place. Two athletes he coached at both the collegiate and national team levels, Jesse Smith and Merrill Moses (also a Pepperdine assistant), remain in the mix for another Olympic Games in 2016. And you can bet that come 2016, the man who helped set a foundation for greatness will have his eyes on the pool in Rio. He also understands why Smith and Moses, both in their 30s, keep chasing the dream.
"I think participating in the games one time draws you in more than I ever believed it would," Schroeder said. "I still feel like I'm addicted a little bit to the Olympic Games. It brings the best out of people, and that's pretty exciting to me."
It's another beautifully breezy day in Malibu as the 56-year-old Schroeder walks the pool deck at Pepperdine. When his eyes catch the flags blowing just right, he can daydream back some 30 years to those magical moments in the water.
And roughly 30 miles south, a bronze statue stands stoically in Los Angeles, reminding him that the dream was real.
This article originally appeared in FINA Aquatics World Magazine
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