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US water polo team combines Olympic amateur ideal and success

No group of Olympic athletes seems more at home here than the US water polo team, and for good reason. All 13 players carry a ''Made in California'' label. Even Walt Disney Productions would be hard pressed to find a better fit for these Olympics. Or a better team for that matter. Favored to win the gold, the US has beaten Greece, Brazil, and Spain to advance to the championship round.

It's as if the whole team fell out of a life guard's chair at Santa Monica beach.The overriding impression is one of sun-bleached hair and tanned, chiseled bodies.

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Captain Terry Schroeder's athletic physique so impressed Robert Graham that he sculpted it for the new gateway statue outside the Los Angeles Coliseum.

But looks aside, the team is also the embodiment of the Olympic ideal of sport for sport's sake. There are no watered-down amateurs collecting appearance fees or endorsement money.

These guys play because they love the game and the close friendships they've made through it. ''If we had a reunion every year it'd be fine with me,'' says Gary Figueroa. ''Just being associated with the other players has been an honor.''

A strong esprit de corps has grown out of the sacrifices made by the team members, whose average age is 27.

Drew McDonald, a 28-year-old Stanford graduate, says he has treaded water as an investment advisor during his formative business years in order play.

This shouldn't be interpreted as a pledge of poverty, though, because many of these swimmers were doing well as bankers, real estate brokers, and the like before quitting their jobs five months ago.

That's when intensive training began at California State-Long Beach under Coach Monte Nitzkowski, a frizzy-haired taskmaster who sometimes lashes out at players like his friend Bobby Knight, the men's Olympic basketball coach.

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A successful restaurateur as well as college coach, Monte has earned recognition as one of the sport's best technicians during 12 years guiding the national team.

''He knows the game probably better than anyone in the world,'' Schroeder says. And at this point, his squad plays it as well as the globe's best teams.

The United States owns a 19-1-1 record this year, losing only to the Soviet Union in a European tournament.

That was a bit of a letdown, but one the Americans expected to reverse in L.A. until the Soviet pullout. All along, however, the objective has remained the same: to win the gold. The players aren't just California dreamin' either, although one might suspect they were, for despite a strong swimming tradition, the best the Americans have ever done in Olympic water polo was win the bronze in 1924, 1932, and 1972.

The US really hit rock bottom in 1976, when it failed to qualify a team. In a sense, though, that was a turning point since it illustrated the importance of having a regular national team.

''For too long we relied on what amounted to college all-star teams,'' Nitzkowski explains. To remedy the situation, a four-year program designed to keep players together was begun.

''Ours isn't a sport like basketball, where a Bobby Knight can sit down and select players for the Olympics,'' Nitzkowski says. ''We don't have that many top-flight players, so development is more important than selection. It takes 10 to 12 years to really master this game.''

The development process begins in high school, and since California has an interscholastic program, it has been the exclusive supplier of the US team since 1960.

A strong 1980 team would have been in the medal hunt at Moscow except for the US boycott. But after missing both the '76 and '80 Games, water polo was on the ropes.

''We almost lost it as an intercollegiate sport,'' says Nitzkowski, who plans to retire after these Games. ''Even now I feel we're fighting for the future of our sport.''

American ignorance about water polo runs deeper than the Olympic pool at Pepperdine University in scenic Malibu.

This distressing lack of knowledge surfaced after the team was asked to appear at a major department store. It turned out that the tie-in was with Ralph Lauren sportswear - and the store expected athletes on horseback!

That, of course, is an extreme example. But it's not stretching things to say that many spectators, are getting their first real look at the sport in these Games.

What they are learning is that water polo is a sport of great endurance in which players swim constantly (standing is discouraged by a minimum water depth of 5 ft. 11 in.).It also can get rough, particularly in front of the goal, where a dozen linebacker-size swimmers vie for position.

No game this year, however, is likely to deteriorate into outright warfare as did the 1956 Olympic contest between Hungary and the USSR - easily the most famous every played. That confrontation in Melbourne took place shortly after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and ended with the Russians exiting the crimson-stained waters with two minutes left.

The United States likes to use a counterattacking, fast-break type of strategy. One swimmer responsible for spearheading these charges is Tim Shaw, a former racing world record holder and 1976 silver medalist in the 400-meter freestyle. Johnny Weissmuller of Tarzan fame once swam in both as well, and in the same 1924 Olympics.

Shaw had always wanted to give water polo a try. He made the team, but says it wasn't easy since his teammates also have strong swimming backgrounds.

Comparing the sports, Shaw finds water polo to be a greater mental challenge.

''With water polo you have to train your mind to get ready for 10 days of competition, instead of thinking about just one race,'' he explains. ''Swimming is won in workouts, but with water polo you have to deal with whatever the other team does against you. It makes it a tougher sport to train for.''

In the pool, Shaw and his teammates are hard to tell apart, except for the numbers that appear on the caps they wear.

For the squad's team picture, though, the players doffed their caps and showed off their California good looks.

The picture was turned into a hot-selling color poster by the Los Angeles Olympic organizers.

''We'll be in most every sorority house in the country,'' Nitzkowski said as he displayed a copy. That might not be the ultimate in public recognition, but it's a start - one that could be enhanced greatly if his swimmers can become the Golden Boys of Summer. With the Olympic pool right in their backyard, Team California should get the part.

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