US Water Polo Team 1964
The US Olympic team in Tokyo, 1964 Olympic Games, Standing L-R: Dan Drown, Ron Crawford, Stan Cole, Bib Saari, Ralph Whitney, George Stransky, Coach Urho Saari. Bottom L-R: Tony van Dorp, Chick Mcllroy, David Ashleigh, Ned Mcllroy, Paul Mcllroy. Source: The history of USA Water Polo in the Olympic Games.

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.”

Urho Saari at the Urho Saari Swim Stadium
Legendary El Segundo swimming coach Urho Saari. Daily Breeze file photo by Jack Wyman

“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

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Tony and Fred van Dorp_15 October, 1964_AP
Tony and Fred van Dorp_15 October, 1964_AP

They were born in Batavia in the Dutch East Indies, which is modern-day Jakarta Indonesia. And these brothers of Dutch nationals played water polo together for the Dutch national team…until 1963. The elder brother, (Anton) Tony van Dorp, had moved to the United States in 1957 and became an American citizen in due course. The younger brother, (Alfred) Fred van Dorp, stayed in Holland and competed for the Dutch team at the Rome Olympic Games in 1960. Tony debuted in Olympic competition in Tokyo in 1964, but with the USA team.

And three days after the commencement of the Tokyo Games, the brothers found themselves immediately facing off as Holland took on America. Fred had the first laugh, as he was able to fire a goal past Tony in the first minute of the game. In the final quarter, Tony got the second laugh as he stuffed Fred on a penalty shot. As AP related of the game,

“Right-handed players like myself throw to the right side of the goal in such a situation,” Alfred explained. “But I thought I’d fool him so I threw the ball to the left side.”

Said Tony, “I figured he’d try to trick me, and I was ready. Maybe I know my brother too well.”

But Fred got the last laugh as Holland emerged victorious 6-4, a nice birthday present for the younger brother. Said Tony, “We hated to lose, but we’ll consider the win a sort of birthday present for Al. It’ll save me buying him something myself.”

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On December 6, 1956, Hungary and the Soviet Union faced off in the pool at the Melbourne Olympic Games in arguably the most famous water polo match ever.

It was only a month earlier when a spontaneous uprising by Hungarians against their Soviet overlords throughout the country was crushed by tanks and troops from the USSR. And as the fickle finger of fate always has its way, Hungary ended up in a match with the Soviet Union in the Olympic water polo semifinals.

As this fascinating Smithsonian article explains, this was not just a water polo competition. This was war.

“Within the game’s first minute, a Russian player put a hammerlock on a Hungarian and was sent to the penalty box as the crowd jeered. A Hungarian player scored the first goal, punching a Russian player on the chin with a windmill motion while shooting. The Hungarians scored three more goals, including two by Zador. They taunted the Russians, who were being shut out and becoming increasingly frustrated. Two more Russians were sent to the penalty box after slugging Hungarian players.”

Freedom's FuryThe picture up top is of Emil Zador, who was punched at the end of the match as he turned his head away from the competition for a moment, his bloodied visage a reminder that the removal of politics from the Olympic Games was a whack-a-mole experience at best.

But even more amazing than that picture is the film from that match! Here is a clip from the 2006 documentary, Freedom’s Fury, narrated by Mark Spitz. In addition to interviews of the players from that game are the spellbinding images of grappling and punching in the pool.

Hungary would go on to beat Yugoslavia to win gold. Emil Zador, the famous bloody face, stayed