Column: Johnny Hooper has top water polo skills and competitiveness to match

Harvard-Westlake senior sets standard for excellence

Johnny Hooper spends so much time hanging out in pools that he might be a good test subject to determine the effects of chlorine on a teenager’s body.

“My dad threw me in the water when I was 6 months old,” he said. “It was sort of sink or swim.”

There’s no turning back for Hooper, a 17-year-old senior at Studio City Harvard-Westlake who has developed into perhaps the No. 1 water polo prospect in California.

Last season, he led Harvard-Westlake to the Southern Section Division 1 championship, fulfilling a vow to knock off defending champion Santa Ana Mater Dei after his team lost to the Monarchs in a regular-season match.


It taught everyone a good lesson about Hooper — don’t ever question his competitiveness.

“I like being No. 1 in all aspects,” he said. “I get so mad sometimes when I’m not first in every aspect in the pool. I never want to be the one getting scored on. I always want to be the one scoring. I’ll freak out if I miss.”

Hooper doesn’t miss shots very often. He’s got a powerful arm that sends the ball flying into the net. His ability to swim swiftly and anticipate where the action is going to take place enables him to put himself in ideal scoring position on transition plays.

“He’s very confident in his abilities and is probably the most competitive person I’ve ever met,” Coach Brian Flacks said. “He’s a freak of nature athletically. He could be a big-time swimmer. He could play volleyball. He lives and breathes water polo.”

For the last 10 years, Flacks has been Hooper’s coach. They first met when the 6-foot, 170-pound Hooper was a 7-year-old and started playing for Flacks’ club team. The two have won virtually every Junior Olympics age-group competition. Hooper showed up three seasons ago at Harvard-Westlake just when Flacks became the head coach. He’ll probably feel a little lost when he goes off to college and Flacks isn’t around.

“It’s going to be really weird,” Hooper said.

Flacks was 17 when he first started coaching Hooper. Their relationship is built around mutual respect.

“We get into it,” Flacks said. “He’s kind of the kid who’s going to push back and make you a better coach. We’ve grown up together. He’s going to make sure I’m at my best. I’m going to make sure he’s at his best and we’re going to butt heads occasionally.”


Hooper’s father, Gary, is in the Beach Volleyball Hall of Fame, but water polo won out over surfing at an early age for the younger Hooper.

“Surfing and water polo sort of collided,” he said. “I wanted to play water polo because I thought I’d have a brighter future.”

With scholarship offers from UCLA, USC and Stanford and Olympic competition almost certain for his future, Hooper gives fans a chance to see one of the best prep players at his craft.

Harvard-Westlake is ranked No. 1 in Division 1 and knocked off Mater Dei on Saturday to win the Santa Barbara tournament championship. The two schools figure to have several showdowns this season, including an Oct. 14 match at Harvard-Westlake.


“All I can vow is that every minute of every practice we’re going to be going hard,” Hooper said.

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