By Ed Castro
PALM DESERT, Calif., june 20. YOU can't hear the sense of urgency in the voice of Ratko Rudic. Nor do you sense the pressure he should be under.
For the moment, Rudic is completely at home with the daunting task of coaching the United States men's water polo team to an Olympic gold medal.
"That's the reason I am here," Rudic explained. "Here in the United States, there is a lot of talent. But the United States has never won gold. That's what I want to do."
Rudic was named head coach of Team USA in early 2001. He has less than two years to mold America's best into gold medal contention, hoping do so for the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece.
"It's been a lack of competition which gives the team a lack of experience," Rudic said. "That has to change and improve. If you have competition, you will get the experience. If you get the competition, you will be able to compete."
Rudic and Team USA conducted a clinic and staged an exhibition match at Palm Desert High School on Wednesday. For Rudic, it was another step in building his program.
"This is no vacation, very hard work," Rudic said.
"Each day, this team has a three-hour workout in the morning. They work out with weights and then in the
pool. They do the clinic. They do the exhibition. It's very hard."
Rudic has implemented a rigorous schedule for Team USA. This month alone it will take part in 12 clinics and exhibitions at various sites throughout Southern and Central California.
This weekend, Team USA begins play in the inaugural season of the American Water Polo League, an invention of Rudic to help build his program. The league, which is the first step in developing a professional league here in the United States, will feature play from four teams — Long Beach Shore and the Newport Water Polo Foundation along with the World All-Stars, a roster of
talented international players.
Following the American Water Polo League schedule, t
Team USA will then open the 2002 Men's FINA World Water Polo League, a grueling stretch of games
against Croatia (June 28, 30), Russia (July 4, 6) and Hungary (July 26, 27).
"Right now, we are trying to prepare for these matches," Rudic said. "United States water polo has to get used to this. It's like this in Europe. They play all the time."
As a former member of the Yugoslavian national team, Rudic won gold and silver (1968 and 1980). As coach, he guided Yugoslavia to back-to-back golds in 1984 and 1988. He was named coach of Italy's national team and coached it to gold in 1992. Team Italy won bronze in 1996 but had to settle for fifth in Sydney.
But Rudic inherits a U.S. squad that finished sixth in Sydney and has not enjoyed a medal since 1984 and 1988, both silver medal efforts.
"I would hope that anyone in the United States, like I was, was ecstatic when they heard he was the new coach," said Adam Wright, a driver on the team from
Seal Beach. "If there is anyone who knows how to win, it's him. He's won at the world championships, at the Olympic games. He's experienced it all."
Wright is among the players to notice the immediate impact of Rudic.
"It's a much different approach," Wright said. "His philosophy stresses the team to be a cohesive team. That's the way to win."
Team USA quickly found out that Rudic is strict on conditioning. "He likes to train hard," Wright said.
"If you are a conditioned team, you will do well."
Still, there is work to be done before Team USA becomes a viable contender on the international scene."
Local fans soaked it all in as Team USA and the World All-Stars, featuring Olympic gold medallists Dubravko Simenc of Croatia, Hungarian Gold medallists Tamas Marcz and Zolt Varga, Italian Olympic Bronze medallists Alberto Gehebillini and Marco Gerini, and Japan's Atsushi Naganuma, staged the clinic and exhibition.
"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for us to see this caliber of water polo," Palm Desert High School boys water polo coach Tim Finnell said. "In
essence, we have just seen the best in the country. To come out to our area for three or four hours really says a lot about them."