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Addicted to Chlorine : Campbell, Olympic Teammates Return to Water Polo

July 15, 1991|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — Maybe the Olympic Festival drug-testers ought to be running some of this pool water through their lab. For water polo players at least, the stuff seems to be addictive.

Supposedly, the best players in the United States had shown off their California tans for a last time in that famous pin-up poster circa summer of '88. They had put their Olympic silver medals in safe deposit boxes, dried their hair and set about getting on with life outside the pool.

After their second-place finish in the Seoul Summer Games--behind Yugoslavia--key players Terry Schroeder, Craig Wilson and Peter Campbell all retired.

Don't look now, but they're all back.

Schroeder and Wilson have rejoined the U.S. national team which is now competing in Spain, and Campbell, who just returned last week from playing professionally in Italy, is playing with the South team in the Olympic Festival. He scored four goals in an 8-7 loss to the North squad Sunday at Cal State Long Beach. In a second-round 11-5 loss to the West, he scored on a penalty and now leads the men with five goals after the first day of play.

"I guess it's just a way to put off joining the real world," said Campbell, who at 31 is one of the oldest players in the water polo competition.

After the 1988 Games, during which Campbell led the U.S. team with nine steals, no one was surprised when he said he was going to hang up his Speedos. After all, what was left to accomplish?

The four-time All-American led UC Irvine in scoring three of his four years there and helped the Anteaters win national titles in 1980 and '82. He was NCAA Player of the Year and NCAA tournament MVP in 1982.

On the international scene, he was a 10-year veteran of the national team, winning two Pan American Games gold medals (1983 and '87), a gold medal in the 1989 Olympic Festival and silver medals in the 1984 and '88 Olympics.

So Campbell retired after the Olympics and spent a year working in a bank. The smell of chlorine--and national team Coach Bill Barnett--beckoned, however.

"So many guys were retiring and Bill asked me if I was interested in coming back," Campbell said. "I didn't like my job in the bank all that much so I told him I'd give it a shot."

His comeback ended up becoming a trek to Italy, however. While playing in a tournament in Europe, he was contacted about playing for a team in Bergamo, Italy, and accepted.

The Italian season runs from January to June and the team pays Campbell's expenses--apartment, car, food--but little in salary. So he's not socking away any big bucks, but he is bucking joining the real world just a little bit longer.

"I just finished my second year," he said. "Bergamo is a city of about 150,000 that's about 30 miles northeast of Milan. We only play on Saturday nights, so it's really kind of like a vacation."

Campbell's girlfriend, Yvonne Lesley, an executive with Lorimar Television, joined him in Italy for the last month.

"We had fun," she said. "I think it's nice that a guy who has worked so hard, sacrificed so much for so long since he was 15 years old, gets a chance to have some financial rewards as well as fun with his sport."

The level of play in Bergamo's division is slightly above collegiate water polo in the United States, Campbell says, but well below world class. His skills have deteriorated a bit because of the lack of competition, he admits, but "that's not to say they couldn't be back to where they were with the right kind of training."

That kind of workout regimen, of course, is just what the national team is doing right now in preparation for the '92 Games in Barcelona. Campbell admits that he is intrigued with the idea of playing in a third Olympics, but he's not sure where he stands at the moment.

"I'll talk to Barnett when he comes back in August and see how I might fit into his plans," he said. "They have a lot of younger players coming up through the system now. They might not even need me."

One of those he might end up battling for a spot on the Olympic team is his brother, Jeff, who was also a standout at UC Irvine and has recently been moved to the two-meter defensive position that is Peter's specialty.

"Part of me says being in a third Olympics would be really great," he said, "but part of me remembers what training five hours a day is like. I'll be 32 and I'm not sure my body could stand it.

"I've sort of been playing Ping Pong with the idea in my mind."

Campbell's parents obviously would enjoy seeing their sons play together in Barcelona. And Lesley says she, too, would be happy and supportive if Peter chose to try for a third Olympic medal.

"I want him to play, but only if that's what he truly wants in his heart," she said. "He shouldn't do it because he wants to please me or his parents. He should do it if it pleases him."

For the time being, Campbell is content to let the debate rage in the back of his mind. This week, he's enjoying the chance to meet some of the younger players and help them progress. He revels in his coach-in-the-water role, dishing out advice and assistance, and slinging in a few goals when the opportunity arises.

Campbell might not have reached a decision about his future just yet, but don't be surprised if it involves yellow balls and turquoise water for a while longer. Whether it's in Spain or Italy, he figures to spend another summer wearing a silly hat in a pool somewhere.

Less than a week removed from a transatlantic flight and a seven-month season of European play, he was diving back in the pool at Cal State Long Beach Sunday because "hey, it was a chance to play some polo."

Not to mention let the real world spin on by itself just a bit longer.

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