Terence Ma, Former VP of USA Water Polo, Reflects on Leadership

USA's head coach Guy Baker talks with his players during a time out in a preliminary round women's water polo match against Italy at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008. The teams tied 9-9. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Guy Baker in 2008 with the U.S. women's water polo team—the product of three decades of effort. Photo Courtesy: Mark Humphrey

In unraveling how USA Water Polo’s current leadership—including Board Chair Michael Graff and CEO Christopher Ramsey—have dominated U.S. polo for the past 15 years, the thread leads to Terence Ma. Second in command to former USAWP President Rich Foster, Ma was bounced out of the organization in 2007 and has not been involved with American water polo since.

In a wide-ranging interview with Swimming World, Ma says this was not by choice. He describes being a devoted volunteer who spent thousands on travel and lodging to fulfill his responsibilities as USAWP vice-president at a time (2001-06) when the organization was a fraction of its current size. He helped draft a new set of bylaws at the urging of the United States Olympic Committee—not because USAWP was in dire need of a makeover, but due to a drive by the USOC to migrate national governing bodies [NGB] for individual Olympic sports from volunteer-run organizations to professionally-managed entities.

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Terence Ma

Ma details that term limits in the reformed USAWP were intended to be two quads (eight years)—a restriction that Graff and his board have circumvented. When he finishes his fourth quad this coming June, Graff will have served so long due to an extension in 2012 and modification of the USAWP bylaws in 2017.

Now a medical education and IT consultant in the Northeast, Ma has stayed out of the disputes which have roiled the organization since last October, when the Orange County Register reported that Ramsey and Cristy Sicard, Senior Director, Membership & SafeSport Compliance, had been named as defendants in a civil lawsuit against Bahram Hojreh. Unlike a number of prominent coaches, former national team athletes and USAWP members who have criticized leadership for its actions in regard to Hojreh, a former age group coach in SoCal accused of multiple counts of sexual abuse against former players, Ma has a different grievance. At last month’s USAWP General Assembly, the organization’s biannual gathering of board members, senior leaders and regional officials, both Ma and former USAWP President Rich Foster believe that their efforts in the earlier part of this century were unfairly—and inaccurately—criticized by Graff.

[Water Polo Olympians Start Petition Demanding Removal of USA Water Polo CEO, Board Chairman]

It’s not the first time Foster has felt this way but, as Ma details below, things have gotten personal. In accusing his predecessors of self-dealing, conflicts of interest and leaving the parent organization heavily in debt—and by not acknowledging their contributions—Graff may have unnecessarily poked a hornets’ nest just as his tenure is ending.

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– What’s challenging to grasp is why USAWP leadership—including you and Rich Foster, the USAWP president—decided in 2006 to rewrite the organization’s by-laws, create a new structure and transition to an entirely new board.

When I first started with USA Water Polo and got more involved, it was essentially a volunteer organization. Our professional staff was the executive director and a couple of people in an office helping him. At that time, Bruce Wigo was the executive director. After I became vice president, Bruce and Rich Foster had a falling out, and Bruce decided to step down.

By the way, in those days, Rich’s position was president. We didn’t have a chairman. It was a president, a vice president, a secretary and a treasurer—those were the four elected positions.

Bruce was an employee of the organization. Essentially everyone else was a volunteer. He had a few people who worked for him. Under Rich’s administration we set up the office in Colorado Springs. That’s where we had a small staff—I think there were three people in that office. Bruce was based primarily in Florida.

Bruce “retired” [in 2003] so we hired Tom Seitz, through a process that Rich ran, to be the next executive director.

After a year, it was clear that Seitz was not working out. Two of us, Al Frowiss, then Zone Chair for San Diego, and I were dispatched by the executive committee to terminate Seitz. This took place on March 8, 2006. Since we did not have a termination for cause in Seitz’s contract, we had to pay him for the rest of the quad. Angie Birchler was the Assistant Director of USA Water Polo based in Colorado Springs.

During this, much of which Rich ran, we went through a process to rewrite the bylaws as mandated in 2005 by the USOC. So, we held off against hiring a new executive director, especially as it was coming right before the USWP Assembly where the new bylaws were to be adopted.

Under Rich, we had gotten Los Alamitos as a national training center. Prior to that we had never had a national training center. A lot of the national training took place in the Newport High School pool because Bill Barnett and long-time team manager, Barbara Kalbus, ran everything out of the Newport Beach pool.

We decided that we needed to have a more formalized training center, so that’s why we got the one in Los Alamitos. We raised money and did a lot for that.

– How did the USOC get involved in changing the structure of USA Water Polo?

The USOC mandated certain changes to all governing bodies in 2005, not just water polo. My memory is that we were complimented by the USOC for being the first organization to take them up on the challenge to change to a more professionally-based structure. At the 2006 Annual Meeting, I chaired the Board of Delegates meeting which passed the new bylaws. I ran that meeting—and wrote myself out of a job.

USAWP_old_logoMy disappointment had to do with the fact that in the traditional process, I would probably have been elected president for the next cycle. I was looking forward to going to the Olympics because that would have been my only shot at going. Before that, at my own expense I had already been to all sorts of senior and junior water polo world championships, Pan American championships, and swimming world championships as a representative of water polo. I had gone to world university games at my own expense.

I hosted FINA games—I organized and hosted an international tournament on behalf of the U.S. men’s water polo team in Hong Kong. I had already done a lot of those things as vice-president and I hoped to go to the Olympics as the next president of USA Water Polo. But it didn’t happen. We changed bylaws and I was out of a job.

– Bryan Weaver and Mike Scofield were identified as members of the transition committee which migrated USAWP to a new board structure.

As part of the transition, Foster selected Russ Hafferkamp to chair the committee to help populate the new board. I recommended Bryan Weaver, who had been very much involved with masters [water polo] to be part of the process. I don’t remember all the people on the Committee. Originally, the old Executive Council (Foster, Ma, Kurt Krumpholz, and Alan Cima) was proposed as the Nominating Committee for the new board, but we changed that due to the perception of a conflict of interest.

Mike Schofield had been Chair of Zone One for ages. And, as coach for [the] Navy men’s team, he was part of the split that occurred when the CWPA formed and all that caused between Bruce and Rich. Mike would have a very good perspective because he was in Zone One and probably knew Mike Graff from before. But, I haven’t spoken to Mike Schofield in years.

The last secretary was Barbara Kalbus?

No, the last secretary was Kurt Krumpholz—the father [of J.W. Krumpholz, silver medalist at the 2008 Olympics] And the treasurer was Alan Cima.

– What do you think of Graff, Ramsey and the job they have done since you left?

Let me back you up here. The first thing is, I don’t know Mike Graff, I don’t know Chris Ramsey. I’ve never met either of them. I’ve never even talked with them—I was never able to get through to either of them. My only animosity towards them is they never returned any of my phone calls or communications.

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USAWP Unrestricted Funds. Graphic Courtesy: USA Water Polo

Secondly, based on the graph of the growth of this organization that was shown at the last annual meeting, which is the only one I’ve attended since the one I chaired in 2006, what I’ve seen is remarkable.

Number three, now that I’ve had more experience in the world and have run a medical school, I can tell you that we were a group of volunteers who dug into our own pockets for everything. To run things we needed to go to a more professional model.

What’s important, when we [rewrote] the bylaws, one thing we were very concerned about—I don’t have the old bylaws in front of me, they’re stored away somewhere—we absolutely did not want a chairman who would be chair for a long period of time. We thought that the model we had before, which was presidents that had a max of two quads. was an excellent idea.

That was the model we were looking at—for the volunteer side. For the professional side we wanted to have people who were solidly, we thought that we needed to have a true office, but I don’t remember how we were going to structure that.

Let me get to some specifics.

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USAWP Financial Data 1988 – 2019. Table Courtesy: USA Water Polo

In every slide that was shown at the recent annual meeting, it showed us having a deficit of $600,000 in 2006 for the organization. I have no clue where that $600,000 deficit came from. The most I remember is having a deficit of, is a hundred thousand dollars and that was couple of years prior to that. Alan Cima, the then-treasurer, would have a better memory of this. I wasn’t on any committee that dealt with the money side. Our financial structure was adequate and good enough that we were able to support both a men’s team and a women’s team; the women only got started in time for the 2000 Olympics, which was under our watch.

The national training center was under our watch, and we were able to make things work.

The next thing is that, when I was an officer, we never got a suspension letter from the USOC. Now, if it was hidden by Rich, I don’t know. But he says he never saw one. I do remember seeing a letter from the USOC, complimenting us on taking the process of changing the bylaws. They were complimentary to us for having hosted the FINA [World League Super] finals in Long Beach, a couple of other major events and our participation in the world league.

In my memory everything wasn’t great but we were growing and doing better and better every year. But we needed a more professional organization to support the NGO.

– I’m not surprised there was an intent to ensure the board chair would not stay on as long as they liked. Which is in fact what happened. Graff liked the gig—he was certainly good at it—and was able to engineer his board and to a certain extent membership to perpetuate his own position.

Which brings me to the question: why Mike Graff?

He was selected by Russ Hafferkamp. I have no idea how that happened. My memory is that he was CEO of a manufacturing company—the name that comes up is Bombardier. When you look at USA Water Polo at the time, we were mostly amateurs in the financial world. It was clear we needed solid financial backing and management experience. But California was particularly polarized. We had a lot of strong individuals who considered themselves professional management people.

In my opinion now, as an experienced manager, I would not consider them as people who would be appropriate for this type of organization.

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Russ Hafferkamp. Photo Courtesy: Mark Constantini

There was always this tension between Northern California, Southern California and the rest of the country. And these were all people who were all involved in water polo then and there. That’s why we built into the board of directors the idea that we would have people who had not been involved for at least 15 years as members of the board.

I guess Russ took and ran with this because Mike Graff was someone who was an internationally known administrator of a major organization who had been out of water polo for 15 – 20 years—and presumably neutral.

Mike was named, my position ended and I never had any more communication from the organization, so I couldn’t tell you what was behind all of that. I was told when we did the original bylaws that I would be named to the board. Somehow or other I was never named to the board and was dropped.

– I’ve read the term “independent director” and how it’s meant to designate someone not involved with the sport. Graff has referenced himself as such. It strikes me now as a misnomer but it was (apparently) correct when he was elected.

One thing you mentioned is that Rich Foster is furious about how he was characterized at the recent assembly.

Let me set up the background for you. Since 2006—or whenever it was that we went out of office—I had not heard from or had been able to get in touch with Rich since then. Last December, Rich sent me a LinkedIn message: We should get together and talk.

I sent him a response; he said he’d call the next week. But I never heard from him. Because of your contacting me, and Liz Grimes contacting me through LinkedIn, I became curious about what’s happening with USA Water Polo. I’m a life member and that’s the only way I have any link to USA Water Polo at this point.

I decided to register for and listen in on the General Assembly that was broadcast. After listening to part of Mike Graff talk, I was steaming hot. I was furious.

The next day, or maybe a day after that, Rich Foster called me.  He told me he too was furious; he’s thinking about suing. I said to him: I agree! I’m furious too!

[A Moment of Truth at the USA Water Polo General Assembly?]

The comments that made us angry is that there was self-dealing. There wasn’t any self-dealing to my knowledge. That there was graft; what graft? He was talking about how we were suspended by the USOC, we weren’t suspended by the USOC! The $600,000 deficit—that wasn’t under our watch. The letter from an accounting company that [USAWP] was no longer a going concern. That wasn’t under our watch—it wasn’t something that I ever saw, and I saw all that documentation.

All of that was alleged to [before Graff’s] coming in—and that would have been Rich Foster and me. I was furious about that. And Rich was too. I can only speak for myself; I was not receiving an income and yet I spent close to $200,000 the final two years of my administration at USA Water Polo just on travel, hotel costs and a variety of other [expenses]- car rentals and other things I was not reimbursed for.

– Do you look back on the organization you left in 2006 and what you now know of USAWP and see that the changes were ultimately beneficial?

Just to put in context, I grew up in Southern California, and when I left to college in 1976, since then I’ve lived in California two years—and that was eight years ago. Other than that, I’ve lived all across the country.

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Rich Foster. Photo Courtesy: R. Foster

During my time in water polo, [the sport] has always been California-centric. There were spots in the country like the Northeast, Chicago, St. Louis and Florida that always had water polo. Texas has always had water polo, particularly in the Houston area. Boys’ water polo has always been there and has been strong for a very long time. The Dallas Water Polo Club has been very strong there for a long time.

The Linehans have always been involved. Jim Linehan Sr.—the father—was the secretary during my first term as vice-president. He was secretary before Kurt Krumpholz.

Our challenge had always been how to grow water polo outside California. It’s always been difficult, and part of that is how the CWPA came to be. When you look at our structure then, I’ll just say we were a volunteer group doing whatever it could to make things happen. Under Rich’s leadership we did some things to make [our operation] more professional—though I would argue that some of the idea were big successes, somewhere terrible failures.

But at least we started that process.

The USOC mandating a different structure to the organization put us on the path to be much more professional, and what I see of the materials occasionally crossing my email is that the organization has become [that].

We made Guy Baker the Olympic lead for all our national teams and he started the Olympic development (ODP) pathway. While we were in the administration, we hired Ratko Rudic, the best-known water polo coach in the world to be our men’s national team coach. Things didn’t work out with Ratko but he was the coach.

[Swimming World Presents “Lessons with the Legends: Water Polo Coach Ratko Rudic”]

We had dreams of being a great organization, but we didn’t have the mechanism or the support. I recognize now in hindsight we didn’t have the behind the scenes support to make it happen.

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Ratko Rudic, Pro Recco’s coach. Photo Courtesy: Pro Recco

What it seems to me is—from what I’m seeing of USA Water Polo—we now have that in place. This is from a few passing glances, so I don’t know it to be absolutely true.

What would have been concern to me is the size of the board that [the organization] has now expanded to. You don’t get good decisions from such a large board. Our board in the past was too small and isolated. Our board was the nine Zone Chairs and some referees. That was basically it. That wasn’t good either.

The professional structure is important and that has to underlie everything and make it work. From what little I’ve seen. USA Water Polo has made that work.

– To your point about a great organization in the making, on the national team level it’s been half successful; the women are spectacular while the men remain a work in progress.

The men have been a work in progress all along, with the one exception of the silver medal [in 2008] for which Rich Foster takes a lot of credit. The men’s team has always been seventh and eighth, and even with Ratko Rudic, the best coach in the world, we weren’t able to improve very much.

It speaks to a lot of things we’ve been discussing, and what little discussion I’ve heard sounds the same. It’s a matter of the fact that our men and our children aren’t taught or don’t grow up on water polo like they do in Europe.

– The animosity towards Ramsey is both pronounced and entirely personal. He was formerly a chief fundraiser for a major New York City arts organization—an essential skill given the financial challenges the organization faced when he arrived.

Does this animosity reflect the tribalism that has existed in American water polo for decades?

That I have no clue. What you relayed of some of his thinking as to why that is the case may very well play into that. Bear in mind that 15 years ago, if my memory is correct, our CEO and executive director—who supposedly had the credentials because he had been an athletic director—Tom Seitz—made barely $100,000.

When you talk about someone who’s making close to $500,000, that’s more money than people think it’s worth in a volunteer organization, particularly one where one side is successful and the other side is not.

[On The Record with USA Water Polo’s Chris Ramsey: Present, Past, Future]

That Huntington Beach versus Newport Beach versus San Diego in California, particularly the [Olympic] Club versus Central Valley versus East Coast versus everyone hates Florida… there is a lot to that. And that was how the organization was run when Rich and I were in charge. Our job was to manage all that as volunteers.

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Chris Ramsey. Photo Courtesy: Artem Zinger

Now that we have a professional organization that takes the power base away, I can see that as an issue but for people to get to the point where it’s personal? I don’t know if that’s enough of an explanation.

I can relate to that because I experienced that [in water polo]. I had to mediate between Huntington Beach and San Diego… when you say “Southern California” you don’t mean San Diego. They’re not Southern California! We had to mediate between that. We put one of the youngest [age group] tournaments in St. Louis all the time and everyone had to travel—it was called The Speedo Cup—to St. Louis. The California people were furious. “Why do we have to travel to the Midwest? We have to pull our kids out of school. Why can’t they just come out here? We’re all out here and we’re always playing in the final rounds anyway…”

That’s the stuff we dealt with. We had to manage that because there were individual power bases. Creating a national training center was part of our way of moving away from being Newport Beach-centric.

All of that plays together, and I think that Chris Ramsey would certainly get a lot of animosity because having centralized authority within the professional structure is going to take away from the power bases. But making that personal and hating the man himself and meaning he’s a horrible person? That seems to be a step too far.

And, he should be protected from that by his chairman and the volunteer board. That’s what the board is there for—to manage the politics.

2 comments

  1. avatar
    Anonymous

    USA polo is a non profit. The books are available. Verifying debt should not be a problem. There was a time when the non-profit floated a loan to a national team coach to buy a house. Easily verified. Ma’s perspective is balanced. “Newport Beach-centric” water polo was tiresome and unfair. The value of obtaining water for the national teams cannot be overstated. Seeing a Socal dominated sport under the management/control of mid-level East Coast investors with virtually no “high level” water polo exposure seems backwards but the overall result is not displeasing.

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Thanks for this comment. You’ve touched on a tricky (for lack of a better word) point: what WAS the state of USAWP when Graff / Ramsey et. al. took over. It’s perhaps NOT dissimilar to claims made by former President Trump that he inherited a “broken” economy and turned it into the “greatest in history.”

      In this case, it’s clear that there were financial issues pre-2006; how serious can be documented (as you note) and inferred (as Dr. Ma mentions). At the root of ALL of this is the fact that USAWP (at times) is mired in past challenges (or failures) past success (2008 for the men’s NT) and past grievances (which I’ve documented).

      What I appreciated about Dr. Ma’s perspective is he balanced out some of what his successors have claimed (clearly, the organization enjoyed success under the Foster / Ma team; in fact, it’s been argued that Ratko Rudic’s work w/the men’s team is what built the foundation that produced silver in 2008).

      As to your point about Easterners leading a (primarily) SoCal sport, I have VERY mixed opinions. Being an Easterner myself (!) I like that Graff / Ramsey / Smith can think outside of the CA box for growing the sport. I believe that there’s GREAT opportunity in locations such as Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico (even though it’s not part of the continental US it IS part of America). BUT, I acknowledge that the conditions will likely ALWAYS exist for California to produce the best polo athletes (like French wine; sure, you’ll drink good stuff from Australia but…).

      As to your line: “the overall result is not displeasing” I agree; having gone a couple of times to JOs in California, it’s clear to me how passionate polo parents / supporters / age group athletes are. IMO, that’s a wonderful image for a nation seeking to break out of the isolation caused by COVID-19.

      Your correspondent

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