When Ryan Nober told his mother that he was going to try out for the water polo team at Calabasas High School in Southern California, she was taken aback. She had heard the name of the game, but had no idea how it was played, what the size requirements were or anything else. In fact, she is a bright lady, so I am not attributing the next statement to her, but I have even been asked, “How do they control the horses in the water?” No kidding!
Water polo is a sport I am quite familiar with. My son Steven not only played it when at nearby Agoura High School, he had great success as a member and captain of the nation’s 4th-ranked NCAA team when he was at the University of Arizona.
Armed with this knowledge, I took it on myself to tell Mrs. Nober all about water polo. It was chore I welcomed gladly because I remember fondly how during my son’s high school team — the Modlin brothers, Peter Sedgwick, Moby, Coach Vidokovich and the rest of the gang — would often hang out at my house. A nicer bunch of kids has never been assembled. They were a team that brought both local and national honors to their school.
Steve got into water polo because his mother would not sign the papers for her little boy, who was even six feet tall then, to play football. As a result, I had to learn about water polo, and here’s what I found out:
First, there are very few formal records as to the origin of water polo. However, it is said that the sport began in the rivers and lakes of mid-19th century England as an aquatic version of rugby. In the beginning, they used an inflated rubber ball imported from India. In the Indian language, balls are called “pulu” pronounced “polo.” Put together, the sport’s name became water polo.
To attract more spectators to swim meets and the like, the London Swimming Association designed a set of rules for indoor swimming pools. Since the inception of these rules, there have been many changes over the years, too many to bore you with. Simply stated, today the rules parallel those of ice hockey.
Water polo was first played in the United States in 1888. At that time, the game featured the rugby style of play, which resembled American football in the water. It became very popular, and by the 1890s it was playing to large audiences in major venues across the country. A championship game in Boston’s Mechanics Building drew 14,000 spectators.
A ritual before each game is for the referee to inspect the fingernails and toenails of each player to make sure they have been cut short enough. Since a lot of the action can get rough and takes place under water out of the referee’s sight, the toes and fingers could act like knives, inflicting damage.
Eventually, it became an Olympic sport and played a dramatic part in world politics at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia when Hungary played Russia.
In 1956, Russia, in a malevolent show of force, crushed a civilian uprising in their then-satellite country of Hungary. The Russians were brutal! Tanks rolled onto the streets of Budapest.
During this period, the Hungarian national water polo team, training in Czechoslovakia for the Olympics, had been sequestered from the violence at home. The Russian tanks rolled over their homeland on November 4, quelling a spontaneous uprising by the oppressed Hungarians that had been going on for 12 days.
When the Hungarian team arrived in Australia at the beginning of December just weeks after the revolution had been put down, only then did they first learn of the onslaught that had taken place at home only a few weeks earlier. Hundreds of Hungarians had been killed and thousands more had been arrested.
My friend Rene Henry recently called this to my attention and reminded me that our friend Gabor Nagy had been a member of that team. We, who have lived in comfort and freedom as U.S. citizens, cannot even imagine what went through the minds of those Hungarian athletes.
These historical events played a great part in what transpired that year at the Melbourne Olympics. Hungary and Russia were two of the premier teams. Hungary won their first matches at the Olympics with ease. On December 6, 1956 they faced the Russians in a semi-final match.
Hungary proved to be the better team and won by a big margin. However, it was slugfest worthy of Muhammad Ali’s best moments in the ring. Forget about the toes and fingers inflicting damage — the water in the pool that day went from a clear blue to crimson. Fists flew! In no small way, the Hungarian team had avenged their countrymen, and they went on to beat Yugoslavia and win the gold.
Most of the team sought political asylum in the United States and went on to colleges and universities including USC, where a legacy of Water Polo and aquatic greatness was to begin.
Ironically, the star of that team was Ervin Zádor, who was so bloodied he could not play in the final. He went on to make Olympic history as the coach and teacher of U.S. teenage swimming sensation Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
As for my friend Gabor Nagy, he has documented this momentous time in Olympic History in a screenplay called, “The Day the Pool Ran Red.”
I hope it gets made into a movie, one day. It is an important story.