They were tied 1-1 with the Yugoslavians at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Along with Hungarians and the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia was part of a European domination of a sport – water polo. The United States were not on the same par as Yugoslavia at that time. They had never played any teams outside the United States until those Games. And yet, there they were, tied 1 apiece with the Yugoslavians.
“Our first game was against Yugoslavia,” said Daniel Drown, who was on that USA squad. They were supposed to be huge. When we came out of the tunnel at the pool, we didn’t think they looked that big. Then we went to shake their hands and their shortest guy was 6ft 3, and their biggest were 6ft 7. They were huge!”
The US team played even throughout the first half with the Yugoslavians. And in the second half, they caught a break – one of the Yugoslavians was ejected with four minutes remaining, which meant they would be down one man until the US scored. Despite the advantage, the US played tentatively. “We have an extra guy,” said Drown. “If we score, it will be the biggest upset. But everybody was afraid. No one would take the shot. Finally, one of their guys scored and they won 2-1.”
The US water polo team would go on to beat Brazil 7-1, but lose to the Netherlands, and thus fail to advance to the finals.
Drown remembers thinking, “we didn’t deserve to win. We were playing way over our heads.” But he knows the US team played brilliant defense. And he believes the fledgling US water polo program benefited from the coaching of Urho Saari.
“Saari believed in conditioning, absolute conditioning,” said Drown. “His philosophy was to work us so hard, so that you were sick to your stomach, and you couldn’t eat after a workout. But when it came time to play in a game, we may not have been as good as the other team, but we would be in better shape. We would think, ‘why couldn’t we win?'”
According to this article, Saari was an innovator in water polo. “Saari insisted that more emphasis should be placed on swimming, rapid ball-handling and changes in offensive and defensive tactics. He frowned on rough play and thought that teams should be less dependent on scoring done by the center-forward.”
“We would play 3 on 3 keep away for long periods of time, which disciplined you,” explained Drown. “One person had the ball and one would receive and he had better be open, and the third guy better be getting open. Everybody is constantly moving to get away from whomever is guarding them.”
“Saari would also run every night a scrimmage for 90 minutes four on four. He would referee it. When you did something wrong, you could see clearly when something was wrong. They threw to an open space and you weren’t there. You’re always thinking. ‘I should have switched off. I should have been in that open space. I got my man.’ You have to do more than what your job is. You have to help your teammate.”
This was particularly important because one of the US team’s best players, Roy Saari, was not going to play on the water polo team. The son of Urho Saari, Roy was a world-class swimmer who would go on to set a world record time in the 1500 meter freestyle, as well as win two gold medals in relays, the 4×200 meter freestyle and the 400 meter medley. According to Drown, with the loss of Roy Saari, the team had to double down on a strong defensive strategy. “What were we going to do without our star? We had a smart bunch of guys. We won’t allow goals.”
In the end, the US team finished ninth in the competition. But they left Tokyo with their heads high. In the finals, Hungary played Yugoslavia to a 4-4 draw and won gold on a tie-breaker. “The Yugoslavians scored four goals against the Hungarians, the gold winning team,” emphasized Drown, whose team gave up only two to the silver medalists.