I was a few weeks into the process of becoming “myself” in the pool in Vista when I arrived on the pool deck at Fallbrook for the first time for water polo tryouts. I’d found a home on the Vista Swim Team, but now I had to find a way to fit in at my school.
|Vista Swim Team: Me, Mr. Malone, and my friend John.|
Fallbrook Union High School had two pools, a six-lane competition pool with a deep end and a shallow end and a diving well with one- and three-meter springboards. Both were relatively new facilities, spreading across a large, open expanse of grass and concrete that sat below the gymnasium and the main campus areas. I looked around that afternoon and saw a handful of skinny boys, fellow freshmen, none of whom looked like they knew what they were doing. Further on stood another collection of skinny boys who knew each other—the sophomores. Most had junior varsity water polo experience. Beyond them stood the upperclassmen, enormous Southern California beach bums with uniformly bronzed skin, long bleached-out hair, and bodies like Viking raiders.
Holy shit! I thought. How the Hell am I going to compete with them?
I tried not to let this show on my face.
Our coach turned out to be a middle-aged man with brown hair and an ugly expression. He looked us over and said without preamble: “Five hundred yards! Heads-up, no goggles! Come on, what are you waiting for?!”
The upperclassmen all stripped off shorts and t-shirts, stepped out of sandals, and hit the water with languid, unhurried grace. They’d come dressed like beach bums, and now I understood why. The freshmen and half the sophomores had no choice but to watch while fiddling with shoelaces, socks, and the rest of their clothes. Having spent the last few weeks swimming twice per day in Vista, I at least knew enough to wear flip-flops. I therefore hit the water before the other freshmen, and though I’d not done a lot of swimming with my head up, water polo-style, I was at least comfortable with the distance. I caught most of the upperclassmen by the end of the first fifty, and by the end of our first hundred, it was obvious that I had as much pure speed as any player in the pool, including the seniors.
We finished, and while some of the slower guys were catching their breath, a couple of the sophomores introduced themselves. They were friendly now, obviously wanting to know a little something about the new fastest kid on their team. “I’m Dan,” I said, and when I started talking about the Vista Swim Team, a few of the guys mentioned that they’d heard of it.
“Alright!” the coach cried. “JV Team! Passing drills!”
“Come on,” one of the sophomores said. He was about my height but stockier with curly black hair that ran down to his shoulders. “I’ll show you how to pass.”
We faced off in two lines, egg-beatering14 in place while the coach hauled a giant sack of yellow water polo balls out of a storage shed. He threw these into the water in a clump, and I soon found myself throwing a ball back and forth with my new friend while treading water. The physical portion of this was easy. I didn’t have any problems staying afloat. However, my first pass went hopelessly high, and when my friend got the ball and threw it back, it hit my hand and bounced out, skipping across the water a few feet behind me. My next few passes went similarly errant.
I might be good at swimming, but I couldn’t catch, and I could barely throw!
I started to panic, thinking that my friend must be getting annoyed, but instead he smiled. “Look,” he said, “pop out of the water and catch the ball with your whole arm and shoulder. Rear back and cushion the ball, and if all else fails, at least control where you drop it. You don’t have to swim after it. You’re gonna have to fight for it anyway, at least until you develop some legitimate ball-skills. Don’t worry so much.”
These words helped, and I soon started making a bit of progress. Thankfully, most of the rest of the freshmen were having similar problems. But then the coach came over and gave me a hard look.
“You!” he cried, pointing at me.
I turned quickly, wondering what I’d done.
“You’re the JV team’s new sprinter. Come on, I’ll show you how to sprint for the ball.”
I popped out of the water like a spring. I’d already made the team!
I realized that I’d truly found a place for myself just a few weeks later when, as a freshman, the varsity boys pulled me aside one afternoon to tell me about the “Speedo Patrol”. Water sports were played outdoors in San Diego, and as a result swimmers and water polo players were issued faux fur-lined parkas to wear on pool decks when it got cold. Swimming was a spring sport, but water polo ran concurrently with football, though it was played in nothing more intimidating than a speedo-style bathing suit topped with a nylon cap with hard plastic cups meant to protect the ears. In the late 1980s, this created something of an opportunity.
We met in the locker room before our first home football game. I had no idea what to expect, but I was beyond flattered to have been invited. Commanded to appear, really. The older boys all stripped off and started putting on their speedos, goggles, and parkas, and not knowing what else to do, I followed suit. Then somebody pulled a can of black house paint from their locker while another boy started counting bodies. That first game was against our rivals from Vista High School, so we quickly painted letters onto our chests, spelling “BEAT VISTA!” one letter at a time for every player present. We then donned running shoes, stuffed our bathing suits with socks to give us some “heat” downtown, and pulled bandanas down over our heads and faces to mask our identities. Sunglasses or smoked brown goggles came last, ensuring true anonymity. Now in costume, we ran full tilt for the stadium where ten thousand unsuspecting townsfolk sat innocently watching a football game.
Security saw us, and to my amazement they opened the gates!
We sped through at a dead run, hitting the track and speeding around behind the team bench and the cheerleaders but in front of the hometown crowd. I saw pom-poms waving and heard the crowd erupt in a roar. We stopped in the center of the stands, faced right, pulled open our parkas, and flashed the crowd bare-chested and gesturing lewdly as only teenaged boys can do in front of thousands of screaming fans. BEAT VISTA! The crowd went crazy, and then we were off, heading for the visitors’ sideline and a very different reception.
I’d never had so much fun in my life.
We wandered up to the stadium after we’d showered and changed clothes, basically unremarkable for all that we’d just flashed the entire stadium wearing nothing more than our banana-hammock swimsuits, scarves, and sunglasses. I found this girl that I knew, and this being the start of my freshman year, I was already half in love with her.
“Hey,” I said. “Did you see the Speedo Patrol?”
Her whole face lit up. “Yeah! Those guys were amazing!”
I puffed out my chest and couldn’t help preening. “I was one of those guys,” I said. “I was out there with them.”
“You were not!”
She turned on her heel and stalked away furiously. She literally could not believe that I, a mere high school freshman, had been on the Speedo Patrol.
That’s just how it was for a while.
14. The egg-beater is a way to tread water with your hands up. It’s named for the way your feet move in the water.