U.S. men's water polo Coach Terry Schroeder instructs his team during… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
Terry Schroeder considered hanging up his coaching whistle after the Beijing Olympics.
He had pulled off a near miracle in barely a year with the U.S. men, steadying a water polo team that had gone through a revolving door of coaches and was ranked ninth in the world. He instantly had their respect as a four-time Olympian and captain of back-to-back silver-medal winners in 1984 and 1988. He quickly won their loyalty with an emphasis on teamwork, which appealed to players whose careers scattered them throughout Europe.
But as much as he loved molding players and lives, he missed watching his two daughters grow. He also felt a duty to patients at the Westlake Village chiropractic office he shares with his wife, Lori. "I feel like I was born to do this in a lot of ways," he said, "but I also put a lot of priority on the family, and this takes a lot of time and energy."
After talking with his family he decided to return. "I'm a bit of an Olympic addict. It's my drug of choice," he said, smiling.
Equally important, he saw each player was willing to sacrifice something significant — money, time with loved ones, launching a career — to accomplish unfinished business together.
"Our mantra in 2008 was 'Let's get back to the podium.' We're really now trying to put these guys in a mind frame of 'Let's be the best team ever from USA Water Polo. Win a medal at world championships, come away with an Olympic gold medal,'" he said.
"Obviously there's not too many steps above that silver — just that one big one."
They will begin that climb Monday in Shanghai by facing Germany at the world championships, where the top three finishers will earn berths in next summer's London Olympics. Serbia qualified by winning the World League title and if it finishes in the top three, the top four will get Olympic spots.
The U.S. has never won a medal at the world championships. Its only Olympic gold medal came in 1904.
Reaching the podium at Shanghai won't be easy for the U.S. men, who trained together only a few weeks. If they miss they can try again in October at the Pan Am Games, but they've embraced Schroeder's philosophy that they're in it to win it.
"A silver is essentially losing gold. We want to be on the top step. Always," said defender Peter Hudnut of Encino, a Beijing Olympian. "We have a little bit older team and almost everyone came back. We don't play for money. We play for each other and we play for winning and for our country."
Tony Azevedo of Long Beach, a three-time Olympian, cited Schroeder's team-building skills as the reason the group has remained nearly intact since 2008. Azevedo is among several players who will pass up lucrative contracts in Europe — about $65,000 for the season in his case — to stay together for training.
"What made us so great at the Olympics was we played like a group, a unit," Azevedo said recently at the team's training base at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.
"We have a lot of guys who took some time off, but as long as we can jell like that again there's no doubt in my mind we're among the top three teams in the world right now. For sure."
This year and next present a prime window for success. The world team roster, which could change for the Olympics, is weighted with veterans. Time is tapping on their shoulders, life insistently intruding on the pool.
Five players are married. Two have children. Center Ryan Bailey has taken steps toward becoming a firefighter. Defender Layne Beaubien is involved in his father's insurance business. Schroeder can't treat them like the kids they once were.
He allows them a lot of input, which maintains mutual respect.
"He's willing to take criticism or advice or another opinion and he's very open-minded about that. Some coaches aren't," said center Jeff Powers, a two-time Olympian and UC Irvine alumnus. "He's very eager to grow. It's nice as a player to see a coach as hungry as he is."
Schroeder's hunger extends to leaving a wide legacy. He has already done that in one sense — he modeled for the bronze male athlete statue at the peristyle end of the Coliseum — and he's writing a book for his daughters, 16-year-old Leanna and 9-year-old Sheridan. Even if it's never published he wants them to benefit from what he learned in the water and on the pool deck.
"There's nothing like working towards a goal and giving up part of your life to make something work. To belong to something that's bigger than yourself," he said. "It's really special and you develop friendships that last a lifetime."
His wife and daughters plan to join him for the last four days in Shanghai. "Hopefully we'll be in the semis then," he said.
His players won't settle for that next summer. "This time we're getting the gold, not the silver," Azevedo said. "That's what we're all staying home for. All of us are going to take a big pay cut to do this, but we really believe in ourselves and this group."