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Pioneer Spirit

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

It took only 100 years.

Women’s water polo will make its debut as an Olympic sport in Sydney, Australia, in September, a century after men’s water polo debuted as the first Olympic team sport.

But don’t think there has not been women’s water polo played in those 100 years.

Dozens of women in Los Alamitos three weeks ago to watch the U.S. team and the five other Olympic squads play a tournament could tell you otherwise. One of them, Vi Krahn, who lives in Leisure World and played for the Los Angeles Athletic Club in 1926 when the club won a national championship, is 98 years old.

They told stories throughout the weekend. Stories of the struggles, of the nights they slept on pool tables or cement floors, the weeks spent living in a van parked outside a gym and showering in the gym, of the begging and pleading, politicking and maneuvering that went on for two decades before finally, in 1997, the announcement came.

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Maureen O’Toole, a 39-year-old mother of an 8-year-old daughter, said that of all the hard times, nothing made her angrier than when she heard women’s water polo wasn’t being considered for the Olympics because the International Olympic Committee said synchronized swimming was the sister sport to men’s water polo.

“That was terrible,” says O’Toole, the oldest member of the U.S. team. “Synchro? Not that I have anything against synchro but, hello, there was a sister sport to men’s water polo. Women’s water polo.”

But before that happens, O’Toole wants everyone to know the stories of some of the people who came before, people who fought for her sport.

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Stories of people such as Sandy Nitta.

When she was 15, a teenager from Monterey Park, she made the 1964 U.S. Olympic swimming team in the 200-meter backstroke.

“Problem was,” she says, “my whole goal had been to make the Olympics. Once I got there, I thought my job was done. So I didn’t exactly have the right focus.”

Three years after those Games, she gave up swimming and started coaching. As the novice swim coach at the City of Commerce pool, she looked for ways, besides swimming laps, to keep her swimmers in shape. Water polo seemed fun, so Nitta would give her swimmers a choice: long-distance swim training or water polo.

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“Usually the girls picked water polo,” she says. “And, you know what, the sport really caught on. Within a year we won our first national [junior] championship.

Nitta is 51 now and speaking from Las Vegas, where she coaches a water polo club team and is a professional gambler.

“Our first goals were trash cans filled with water and the flag was a broomstick with a white cap nailed to one side and a pair of blue shorts nailed to the other. When I took our first team to nationals, the girls couldn’t figure out why they weren’t using trash cans as goals.”

When she was a kid, an uncle visiting from Japan taught her to shuffle cards in that cool way where you can make bridges and fans. He also taught her to play poker. It is a skill, like swimming, one she has used profitably all her life.

All the years when she was coach at Commerce, nearly 20 years, the position was non-paying. Girls would sleep on Nitta’s apartment floor. She would play poker for gas and food money.

“One year I was with the national team,” she says. “It was 1985, I think, and we flew to London, played some games, then took the Hovercraft to Belgium. We were driving three vans and Jill Sterkel, the Olympic swimmer, was on the team.

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“When I was on the Olympic team, we did everything first class. You put your luggage outside the door and someone took it away. Somebody got me a passport. I didn’t even know I needed one. So I look in the back of this van and there is Jill Sterkel sound asleep on a pile of luggage with water polo balls rolling around on top of her.”

When the 1984 Summer Games were in Los Angeles, Nitta and others made a push to get women’s water polo on the schedule as a demonstration sport, but nothing happened.

“I had given up hope,” she says. “I didn’t think it would happen, but now it has and it is going to do so much for the sport, you won’t believe it.”

She went to Italy last spring for the tournament in which the U.S. team finally qualified for the Olympics.

Brenda Villa, who is from Commerce and who started playing water polo at the City of Commerce pool, is an attacker on the U.S. team. As Nitta watched Villa score the winning goal in the championship game, the game in which the U.S. clinched an Olympic spot, Nitta said, “I got pretty emotional.

“I thought, ‘What if I never started the City of Commerce team 30 years ago, maybe we wouldn’t have a Brenda Villa now.’ So, yes, I think I really do feel a part of this Olympic experience.”

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Richard “Doc” Hunkler was a swimmer and water polo player from Texas A&M; who took a coaching job at Slippery Rock, a small NCAA Division II college in Pennsylvania.

When a friend told him about the Slippery Rock job, he thought it was a joke.

“All I knew about Slippery Rock,” he says, “was that they always put their football scores up and I had always thought that was a big joke. That’s what I told my friend. I’d see Slippery Rock 20, California 17. A joke, right?”

Hunkler took the job as swimming coach in 1970 and started a men’s water polo team.

“A couple of women came up to me and asked me to start a women’s team,” he said. “I told them if they brought me 14 women, I’d start a women’s team. They brought 36 women. OK, six of them couldn’t swim. So we started with 30 women and a dream.”

What started as a club team became an AAU team and then one of the nation’s best college teams.

Hunkler, who retired last year, and his wife made the first goals and sewed the first caps for the team. They would travel in old university vans and bring sleeping bags. The team would bed down on gym floors or on the floors in the dorms and apartments of opponents.

“We’d get alumni and student government money to travel,” he says. “One year we made the national finals in San Diego and the student government president said, ‘Coach, we don’t have the money to fly you to San Diego.’

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“So we got two university station wagons and the university gas card and drove--52 hours, straight through. We slept on the floor. On the way home Sandy [Nitta] owned a motel in Las Vegas and told us to come by. We stayed a couple of days because you could eat so cheap in Vegas. Then we stopped in Colorado Springs because that was where U.S. women’s water polo was headquartered and we got free food again.”

There was tragedy at Slippery Rock too. Hunkler still can’t talk about it nearly a decade later.

The details must be gathered in bits and pieces, old newspaper accounts and from past players who can barely talk of the tragedies themselves.

In 1993, Hunkler thought he had a national championship-caliber team. One of the potential stars had come from Hawaii, a woman named Leslie Kerfoot.

After less than a year at Slippery Rock, she committed suicide by hanging herself in the basement of her apartment. The team, and the coach, were distraught. They still can’t talk about Kerfoot.

A year later, standout goalie Trish McGuire died in her room of a heart attack. She had a heart condition that the doctors and her coaches believed was under control. Her best friend on the team, Carrie Bayse, another top player, became bulimic after McGuire’s death and eventually gave up the sport.

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At the Los Alamitos reunion, Dion Gray was wearing a T-shirt, hand-painted with various water polo scenes and players. Bayse had painted the shirt, and several others, for people on a 1995 national team, a team she had hoped to be on.

Nitta says that Bayse lives in Las Vegas now and is doing well, working as an accountant and getting physically healthy. “But please don’t try and talk to Carrie,” Nitta said. “Please don’t.”

Said Hunkler: “It’s still too hard.”

He is called the father of women’s water polo and, he says, “I tell people that if I’m the father, Sandy Nitta is the mother.

“What is going to happen in Sydney is going to make many people happy, but no one more than myself and Sandy.”

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Maureen O’Toole grew up in Long Beach and, like so many young swimmers, played water polo to stay in shape. She quickly grew to like the sport more than swimming. She played on the boys’ team at Long Beach Wilson High because there was no girls’ team and, when she was 16, she was invited to try out for the national team.

“There was a big, international tournament at the City of Commerce,” she says. “There was an A, a B and a C team picked. I was picked for the C team and that changed my life. I was a young kid who thought I was great. I just figured I’d be on the A team. That toughened me up.”

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A year later, in 1978, she was on the U.S. team that played at the FINA World Championships. It was the first time that the international organization that runs swimming and water polo included women’s water polo. It was a demonstration sport.

“We didn’t get to march in the opening ceremonies,” O’Toole says. “We had to pay our own way, pay for our uniforms. They didn’t have rooms for us, and we ended up sitting in the lobby of the hotel for hours. But we didn’t know any different. We got to play international games, and we got a medal.”

In 1986, at the FINA World Championships, women’s water polo finally became recognized as an official sport.

After the 1991 World Championships, O’Toole retired when her daughter, Kelly Mendoza, was born. Two months later, O’Toole was back. “It was a great way to get back in shape after Kelly was born,” she says.

She retired again in 1994--for good this time, she was sure. She was divorced and had a daughter to support. She also had moved to Northern California, where she got a job coaching California. She met and fell in love with Russ Hafferkamp, a water polo player.

On an October day in 1997, he showed O’Toole a two-sentence item in a newspaper that said women’s water polo had been made an Olympic sport. She didn’t believe it.

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A couple of hours later, Nitta called. She asked if O’Toole was interested in getting back into shape and trying out for the Olympic team.

“Sandy flew to Oakland and we talked,” O’Toole says. “Doing this would mean giving up my job at Cal, giving up being a full-time mom, moving down to Southern California.

“It seemed impossible. And yet it was never an option not to do it. This was a dream all my life. So I gave up my job. I didn’t want to take Kelly out of school and Russ has a great job and two kids of his own up north. So I came down alone.”

The Olympic team has trained for 2 1/2 years at the Los Alamitos facility. O’Toole has stayed with her mother in Huntington Harbour or her brother in Long Beach. Kelly comes down in the summer. She sees Russ whenever she can.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” O’Toole says. “It’s been a real stretch, physically and mentally.”

Maureen and Russ have a yellow Labrador retriever named Sydney after, of course, the Olympic site. As O’Toole looks forward to what will be coming she gets emotional.

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“I have a great sense of responsibility,” she says. “I’m going to be representing all my past teammates who would have loved to have been in my position. I know when I walk out for the opening ceremonies I’m going to start crying, partly for all the women who didn’t get this chance. I’m playing with girls like Ericka Lorenz, who is only 19 years old. I know she’s happy about going and will be thrilled to walk into the Olympic Stadium.

“But her emotions just can’t be like mine. There are so many people who helped this sport grow and I’m as happy for them as I am for me.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

First and Gold

A look at the Olympics’ new additions:

NEW SPORTS

Taekwondo (Men and women)

Triathlon (Men and women)

NEW DISCIPLINES

Women’s water polo

Men’s and women’s gymnastics trampoline

Women’s modern pentathlon

Women’s weightlifting

NEW EVENTS

Track and field: Women’s hammer throw, women’s pole vault, women’s 20-kilometer walk

Sailing: 49er class

Shooting: Women’s trap, women’s skeet

Synchronized swimming: Duet

Diving: Men’s and women’s synchronized (3-meter and platform)

Cycling: Women’s 500-meter time trial, men’s Olympic sprint, men’s Madison, men’s Keinn cycling

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