On The Deck with Cal Berkeley’s Johnny Hooper

If you've never seen Johnny Hooper play, you should! He's on of the most dynamic polo players in the U.S. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Johnny Hooper of Cal Berkeley is up for this year’s Peter J. Cutino Award for the best collegiate water polo player along with Stanford’s Ben Hallock and UCLA goalie Alex Wolf.  The three players have long played with and against each other throughout their water polo careers, and all three will be at San Francisco’s famed Olympic Club this Saturday night for the awards ceremony.

[Olympic Club Announces Hallock, Hooper and Wolf as Cutino Award Finalists]

Swimming World spoke with Hooper on a wide-ranging number of topics including his time at Harvard-Westlake School under coach Brian Flacks and through his senior year at University of California Berkeley and now representing USA at international competitions.

– What are some of your best memories of playing at Harvard-Westlake and Cal Berkeley?

The relationships that I have had with the players and coaches at Harvard-Westlake and Cal Berkeley have been amazing. I really developed great relationships with them. 

There were a lot of talented players that I was able to play under Brian Flacks and Kirk Everist at both schools. Both Kirk and Brian have been awesome and really know what they are doing.  

It has been great winning at both Harvard-Westlake and Cal Berkeley. Harvard-Westlake never won a CIF Division I championship before I got there. We played Mater Dei both during my junior and senior years in the CIF Division I finals and won both times. It was really cool to bring the first [water polo] championship to the school. 

Same with Cal Berkeley; we had not won an NCAA championship in some years before we won during my junior year (2016).


The splendor of The Olympic Club. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

– You played in many JO finals, CIF Division I championships and an NCAA title game. Now you are playing at the international level. How does the pressure differ at each level?

There’s a bit more pressure, especially at the top, when you move up. You have to hold your composure and have a different level of focus. It gets a little bigger on the stage each time you play at a higher level. You have to do the little things right.

If you are smart and always try to get better and have a mentality to learn, then you give yourself a better chance to be successful at each one of those levels.

– You rarely lose sprints. How often do you work on sprints in practice? How fast are you in a 50-yard sprint?

Not that much to be honest. You are going to get sprint work through swimming in the game of water polo – and by working on explosive speed during swim sets. There’s not much time devoted to sprinting. What I always say is that sprinting is really about the starts. You can be really fast, but to be the best sprinter, it is all about the start.

I swam the 50-yard freestyle in high school. I was something like 19 point something in the 50 freestyle at Harvard Westlake. I don’t remember what I ended up placing at CIF Swimming Championships. 

[But] I was always terrible at flip turns. I wasn’t that invested in the swimming portion in high school. I was always focused on water polo and showed up at the swim meets when the coaches asked me to.

– You often took the penalty shots at Harvard Westlake and at Cal Berkeley. Do you think of anything in particular when you shoot?

I usually have a place where I am going to shoot, but at the last second, I try to read the goalie. I switch it up at the last second depending on what the goalie does. I stay up as long as I can before I release.  It’s all about holding the ball for as long as you can while watching the goalie. You’ve got to have a fast twitch and make a decision based on what you see in the goalies and their tendencies.

– How in the world do you get up so high in the water? Is there anything that you do that other water polo players do not do?

It’s a by-product of being in the water a lot. My dad first took me in the water when I was really young. I have just been in the water all my life so much and practicing all the time doing leg drills and having that mentality of always adding something more. Trying to make it a bit harder and a little bit better each time that you do a drill.


Hooper is as athletic as any polo player in the world. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Coming out of the water so high comes from being in the water all the time. I have a unique eggbeater kick. I quickly come over my hips. It’ something that I’ve been doing this since I was very young.

I am pretty flexible, but to be honest, I let my legs do their own thing. Weight-wise, I am probably stronger in my upper body compared to my lower body in the gym. I work out my upper body in the gym much more than my legs.

– What are some non-water polo training do you regularly or occasionally do?

Off-season is super important and I try to get rest when I can. I keep up my cardio and I am a big surfer. If you surf, it definitely helps when you have breaks. It makes things so much more exponentially easy when you come back to be able to swim and keep your touch with the water. 

I definitely surf a lot.  When I have a break, I always play a lot. I play pick up basketball, pick-up volleyball, pick-up baseball, almost every sport. It keeps my coordination up. I think playing a bunch of sports just enables you to be a better player in your specific sport because of your coordination, feeling the ball a different way. Like when you are playing different sports, you can try something in that sport in the game of water polo. 

The way you think, the way you feel the ball in a different way.

There are so many things that you can add to your game when you play other sports.  You can be a better player when you think you can add that to water polo.

– You have been a leader on your club teams and at both Harvard-Westlake and Cal Berkeley.  Would you describe yourself as more of a vocal leader or a lead-by-example player?

I have had great leaders and captains at Harvard-Westlake and Cal. Those guys have really paved the path for me so I can attribute the leadership qualities that I have to them. The captains have had to have both traits: being vocal and leading by example.  You need to have an equal balance of both. In some situations, you need to utilize both and have tried to use both traits when leading.

You have different players on the team who react differently to different situations. There are so many things that come to mind: you have to be able to listen, and to be vocal. And it is important to know how your teammates will react to how you are leading.

– Was it different being a leader at Harvard-Westlake where there were no foreign players and being a leader at Cal Berkeley where you had foreign teammates?

Yes, but you don’t stray from those principles. I learned on the go from players older than me who had gone through the same experience and the same situations. You definitely have to put yourself in the shoes of those players. They are not used to the situation because they are coming from different places so you have to incorporate different leading styles at Berkeley.

– You’ve been dominant at every level of water polo – club and collegiate – and now you are playing at the international level.  What adjustments – physical and mental – are you making to your training, preparation and play to adjust to playing against the best players in the world?

Playing on the highest stage with the national team, you have to bring your physical and mental game. Physical strength – a huge part of the game – will come because you spend so much time in the weight room. But the biggest part is the mental aspect in the high level where we are now because you are playing against experienced players who have been playing at this level for 10, 12 years. 

Tactically, things happen so fast at this level the mental part is what will make or break you. You have to be ready and capable of adapting to every situation as fast as you can – and this comes more from your mental side compared to your physical side.

– What do you mean by everything happens so quickly at this level?

Passes come quickly. Shots come fast. Guys are thinking all the time. You have to be thinking of different scenarios as you play. You can be out of position just for a second and it will be too late. You always have to be anticipating and always be thinking of two or three steps ahead.  

To be successful at this level, you have to be three or four steps ahead before the ball touches you. You have to be thinking of two scenarios in front of the goal: one is passing and one is shooting. You have to have both options ready. You have to be multi-faceted and you need to have different tools in your tool kit to be successful.

The first thing that you see may be that you will not be open and therefore you have to go the other way. You have to figure it out from there.

Stanford, CA; October 6, 2018; Men's Water Polo, Stanford vs USC.

Stanford’s Ben Hallock—Hooper’s friend plays for Cal’s nemesis. Photo Courtesy: Hector Garcia-Molina

At the international level, it is way more front court defense and front court offense—especially when you play against European teams.  When you play against the really good teams, the room for error is very minimal. The turnover ratio is so much less than in high school and college. It is unbelievable.

You have to really make all your possessions count and you cannot turnover any possessions because you will get punished ten-fold at the international level. Keeping the ball in your possession for as long as they can is how they are playing overseas.  That is the best-case scenario.

You have to find your own little niche, especially for me. You have to find your opportunities to capitalize, reading players and studying your opponents before the game to understand their tendencies.

– You study players before the game. But foreign teams do not really know you.

The foreign teams do all their own research. Every player has a scouting report about them. But definitely being the underdog and not having extensive scouting reports on you gives you the benefit of the doubt. You can quickly catch stuff. I definitely like playing against teams that do not think that I am as good or fast as I am. I love that, I feed off that.

– You have played with or against all of your Team USA teammates during your age group and college careers.  Now you are on the same team.  What are things that may have surprised you about their personalities or play?

It is awesome to play with or against players who you know your whole career. Ben and I didn’t play college together, but we picked up right where we left off in high school. Especially with Ben, it took about 20 seconds to get back and click again. I remember that Ben and I got our touch back literally after seconds we played together despite not playing together for three years. 

It’s awesome playing with guys who you know well water polo-wise and guys who know and trust.

[On Deck With Stanford Water Polo’s Ben Hallock]

– How do you think that the new FINA rules will help you?

The new FINA rules will be very helpful to u the USA team. It will be to our advantage and a new style of playing. Everyone needs to adapt to the new style of play. It gives everyone a clean slate from the US, South America, Europe. It adds a new element to the game so everyone needs to master. The teams that adapt to this game will be the most successful team.

[FINA Approves New Water Polo Rules; More Changes Likely]

The referees and FINA water polo are trying to limit the physicality—so they are trying to clean up the sport by being very short with the whistles.  Short-term, they are trying to call a lot so there will be double the number of ejections. In the long-term, they won’t have to make so many calls because it will already be the norm that the physicality is limited. 


When you’ve got inside water, size doesn’t matter! Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

– You are 6’-1”. Does it bother you that people think you are too small to be successful in international play?

This doesn’t bother me at all—it gives me an underdog status that I use to prove people wrong. It’s been very successful in the past and I can use it to my advantage now and in the past.

It’s better that way. It makes me better in other things. The bigger players are better are their things and I am more successful in other things. You have to use that mentality beyond water polo as well. That is how you can be successful in life.

– What are your short-term goals?

I graduated with a degree in business from Berkeley. I am in the Haas School of Business. 

Water polo has been a huge part of my life so right now I am living in the present right now. I am living in the present and getting better in water polo as best I can.

Giving back and sharing what you know is important in order to grow the sport.

– If you were to give advice to high school freshmen who want to play in college, what would you say?

Put in the hard work.  I have the mindset that someone is ready to play well and to take your spot. You need to have that vision that you are ready to work as hard as possible and have that vision to do the little things correctly.

Having the long-term goals enables you to reach your short-term goals of getting better as a player.

You have to be very hard working and show what you can do to the best of your abilities.

You have to focus like the little things correctly; like how you carry yourself inside the pool and how you carry yourself outside the pool. All the little things like how to do the drill correctly and do “correct” water polo. Like sprinting as hard as you can or being a good teammate. If your job is getting water for your teammates and making sure they are hydrated, then you do that to the best of your abilities. Little things like that will make a stronger team.

Coming from the bottom to the top, everyone has to work towards that goal in the future will make your more successful in the future.

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