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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONDHEIMER

Toring's Legacy, Influence Carry On

September 16, 1998|ERIC SONDHEIMER

STUDIO CITY — In the crystal-clear water of the Harvard-Westlake High pool, the legacy of Jim Toring lives within Holden Burkons, a feisty, fearless 14-year-old freshman water polo player.

At 5 feet 2, 103 pounds, Burkons resembles a jockey trying to mount a wild horse as he engages 6-9 teammate Bill Strickland in a duel for the ball during practice.

It's comparable to Billy Barty taking on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a game of one-on-one. But there is Burkons, clinging to Strickland's shoulder, refusing to yield an inch.

"Jim taught me I didn't have to be the biggest in the pool to be the best," Burkons said.

Not far away, 6-5 Peter Hudnut lurks in the water like a shark preparing to devour its prey. He might be the best high school water polo player in the nation. UCLA, Stanford, Pepperdine and California are lining up with scholarship offers.

"If I had never met Jim Toring, I probably wouldn't be playing," Hudnut said. "He was my mentor. So few people actually have a chance of playing with their idol, and I played two summers ago with him. I play because of Jimmy. I try my hardest to be like Jimmy."

It has been five months since the tragic death of Toring, a former Harvard-Westlake and UCLA All-American. He died April 20, one week after being struck by a bus on a Paris street. He was 23.

Memorials to Toring are taking hold. UCLA water polo players are wearing caps with Toring's nickname, "Jamma," on the back. A new $20,000 scoreboard dedicated to Toring will be unveiled later this year at UCLA's pool.

This week, Harvard-Westlake and Long Beach Millikan are hosting the Jim Toring Memorial Invitational, a 16-team high school tournament that has its championship game Saturday at Belmont Plaza in Long Beach.

But Toring's true legacy can be seen every day in the teenagers he inspired at Harvard-Westlake. Many attended his somber memorial service last April in Westlake Village.

The players have accepted his passing, but they will never forget his laugh, his thirst to succeed and his athletic ability. Hudnut and Burkons, in particular, have embraced their many lessons from Toring.

"He was such an amazing player," Hudnut said, "but Jim Toring as a person was unbelievable. He made water polo fun with anyone who he came in contact with. When I was in sixth grade, he used to take me down to his national team practices. He was like a big brother.

"The last thing he ever said to me was this summer he'd help me get better in water polo. He said he and I could play on the national team and maybe the Olympics together. He knew it was my ultimate dream. Everyone knew it was his dream. When he was around, he kept me always wanting to get better. Now that he's gone, it's even more so. He's always in the back of my mind, always pushing."

Burkons met Toring at a summer water polo camp two years ago. He considered Toring indestructible and an inspiration.

"When my friends told me he was hit by a bus, it was a shock," Burkons said. "I thought he was so strong and had overcome so many obstacles that he would beat it. I want to be just like him. Whenever I play a game, I think about him and every game is for him because he was such a great role model."

In a time of need, Hudnut could always seek comfort from Toring.

"I remember when he broke his ankle," Hudnut said. "Since he wasn't able to play, he came by [Harvard-Westlake] with his cast on and tried to help out. I was having a bad day, so I was outside the pool hanging my head. He threw a ball and hit me in the head. I was mad. He started goofing off and turned my water polo from bad to good."

Few people took Toring's death harder than Harvard-Westlake Coach Rich Corso. It was Corso who spent countless hours training Toring in high school and with the U.S. national team.

Whenever Corso sees a player wearing a No. 2 cap, Toring's old number, he thinks of him. If a player makes a great play, he thinks of Toring.

"He was a kid who just loved the game," Corso said. "He would grind through the weight training and the swimming, but as soon as you dropped a ball into the pool, there would be a big smile on his face. If we were playing an intrasquad game, he thought he was playing for the World Cup. That's how intense and how much enthusiasm he brought to the game."

Toring was a unique water polo player. "The best from this side of L.A., hands down," Corso said.

Watching the tiny Burkons take to heart the lessons passed on by Toring is a sight to behold.

"They'll hit you and you have to keep fighting," Burkons said.

Toring is gone, but his influence and legacy live on.

*

Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422.

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