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Club History



Peering into Des Moines Water Polo’s Past

Remembrances of Bob Helmick

By Chuck Hines

It was 1962, and I’d been given the worst possible time slot for promoting water polo in the small four-lane, 25-yard basement pool at the Des Moines, Iowa, YMCA. It was on Saturday evenings during the autumn months … in the midst of the football season … and also, of course, a prime dating night. I had recently moved to Iowa from Minnesota, where I’d been playing and coaching Y water polo since 1958, and I was hoping to start the sport in Des Moines.  But on Saturday nights?

Four teenage boys and one college student showed up for the first practice, and we tossed our only ball around the pool and shot at benches placed on the deck. A few more boys started attending in the weeks that followed. In November, a lanky young man in his mid 20s walked into the pool and said, “Hi.  I’m Bob Helmick and I’d like to give water polo a try.” Although no one knew it at the time, this was a defining moment in American sports.

Bob had grown up in Des Moines, graduating from Roosevelt High School and then from local Drake University, where his dad was a physics professor. He’d attended the Drake Law School, graduating with honors at the age of 22, after which he went to work for one of the city’s most prestigious law firms. At 25, Bob was married and a young father himself.

Due to having severe asthma, Bob had never been an outstanding athlete. His best sport was swimming, which he’d done to improve his breath control, and he had a strong crawl stroke. Like everything he did, Bob pursued water polo with a passion, using his daily lunch breaks to come to the YMCA, where he diligently lifted weights and swam sprints. Gradually he filled out his 6-3, 185-pound physique. He never missed our Saturday night practices as our attendance grew to 12, 15, 20, and when our Y team played its initial games against the nearby Iowa State University Y team, Bob was in our starting lineup as a defensive stalwart. The local newspaper ran an article about the games, identifying me as the team’s player-coach and including a photo of Bob in his water polo cap and holding a ball in the Y pool.

When the summer of 1963 rolled around, I, as a full-time, professional youth program director at the Des Moines YMCA, arranged for us to use a large, deep outdoor pool on Saturday mornings, and our regular indoor practices were moved to Monday and Thursday nights at the YMCA pool, where we now had good homemade goals, official caps and a dozen balls. Bob, myself and two or three other adult polo enthusiasts were successful at recruiting more high school boys and the list of participants grew to 40. We also brought in a group of teenage girls, 15 in number, many of them from Bob’s Sunday School class, and this became one of the first girls’ teams in the entire U.S. in the modern era. They practiced in the Y pool on Tuesday nights and joined the rest of us in the larger, deeper outdoor pool in the summertime.

We conducted clinics at other Iowa communities including Burlington, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Fort Dodge, Iowa City, Tipton and Storm Lake. We held the first Iowa State Championships in 1964, with eight teams taking part. Des Moines defeated the University of Iowa for the men’s title, while Davenport, led by player-coach Ruth Johnson, dunked our Des Moines girls for the women’s crown. Our out-reach also produced new water polo programs at Austin and Worthington, Minnesota; Omaha and Fremont, Nebraska; and NW Missouri State College. We played against top AAU, YMCA and college teams from Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, Winnipeg and elsewhere, winning several tournament titles. Bob became an excellent defensive player, a “hole guard” as we called ‘em in those days, and he was selected as an AAU All-Midwest player and as a three-time YMCA All-America.

While this was occurring, Bob and I also became more involved nationally through the auspices of the AAU, or Amateur Athletic Union, which was the governing body for water polo and many other athletic activities. We attended AAU meetings from coast to coast, and in 1965, I was appointed by Andy Burke of California as chairman of the first-ever AAU Women’s Water Polo Committee. Bob became involved with the AAU Men’s Water Polo Committee, and we both worked with Dave Rivenes of Miles City, Montana, to conduct the initial AAU-sponsored Junior Olympic Championships at Des Moines in the summer of 1969. By that time, I’d departed from Des Moines for another YMCA assignment, and Bob had taken command. At the JOs, with a single division for 15-and-unders, his teams placed second to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in the boys’ competition and second to Portland, Oregon, in the girls’ category.

Also in 1969, Bob was elected as chairman of the AAU Men’s Water Polo Committee, and at the same time, thanks to some astute maneuvering by our friend John Spannuth, president of the American Swimming Coaches Association, Bob was elected chair of the U.S. Olympic Water Polo Committee for the 1969-1972 Olympiad. He immediately appointed me as secretary of the committee and of the U.S. Men’s Olympic Team, a position I occupied while continuing to serve as chair of the AAU Women’s Water Polo Committee.

It’s hard to comprehend ALL that Bob was doing in those days. He was practicing law. He was a husband and the father of four growing children.  He was a leader of water polo nationally. He was coaching the Des Moines YMCA boys’ water polo team which won the Y Nationals at Macomb, Illinois, in 1970, and at Lima, Ohio, in 1971, and at Bloomington, Indiana, in 1972. He and his adult assistants organized a Hi-Y polo program that served all six of the Des Moines high schools. Wait, there’s more. Bob took the Des Moines Y men’s team to play nationally from California to Houston to New York City, with international trips taken to Canada and Puerto Rico. Whew!

In 1972, the U.S. Men’s Olympic Team, with Bob serving as both Team Leader and Manager, earned the bronze medal at the Summer Games in Munich, Germany, and this propelled Bob into international stardom. He found others to direct the Des Moines YMCA program, and from the mid 1970s into the early 1990s, Bob served as (1) Secretary of FINA’s Technical Water Polo Committee, (2) Secretary and then President of FINA, (3) Vice-President and then President of the Amateur Athletic Union, (4) Vice-President and then President of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and (5) a member of the International Olympic Committee.

Eventually Bob dropped out of the international scene – frankly, he was exhausted – and after serving on the Atlanta Olympic Organizing Committee for the Summer Games of 1996, he “retired” from sports and concentrated on his law practice and other activities in Des Moines. You can read more about Bob on the web-site of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 2007. Go to http://www.ishof.org/bob-helmick-(usa).html for a full bio including additional photos.

Sadly, Bob passed away unexpectedly from a stroke in April of 2003, at the age of 66. He was a special person, one of the smartest men I’ve known, a very successful attorney, an accomplished pianist, a lover of art, who did much behind the scenes to make Des Moines a better place to live. If you visit Drake University, you’ll find a place called “Helmick Commons,” named in his honor.

Yet many of us remember Bob for all that he gave to sports in general and to our sport in particular. He occupies a unique niche in the annals of water polo history.

About Chuck Hines: Chuck started out in water polo in 1958 and has been involved for over 53 years. An All-America player in 1960s, Chuck coached ten national championship teams in AAU and YMCA competition in the 1970s. He was the first chairman of the National Women’s Water Polo Committee, from 1965-1976 and an officer of the U.S. Olympic Water Polo Committee for the 1972 games where the team brought home a bronze medal. Chuck also coached the Asheville YMCA team that represented the East Coast in the first women’s international tournament in Montreal and Quebec City in 1977. During the 1980s, Chuck served as a national official and director of an Olympic Development Clinic. In the 1990s, he used his skills in directing a nationally-publicized program for inner-city youngsters. More recently, Chuck has been involved in serving as the supervisor for the local YMCA’s recreational water polo program each autumn and serves as a historian for the sport. He recently authored “Water Polo the Y’s Way,” a 240-page chronicle of his experiences in the sport that is available through Amazon and Authorhouse.    

 

More by Chuck Hines

In 1961, Buck and Rosemary Dawson of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Harry Hauck of Detroit revived AAU women’s water polo in the U.S. A “national” tournament was held at Patton Pool in Detroit In 1961, involving six teams from Michigan. This event was repeated in 1962 and 1963. Ann Arbor, coached by Rosemary, was the winner of all three tourneys. Other teams entered were Patton Pool, Detroit Denby, Detroit (or American) Turners, the Post A.C., and, in 1963, Flint, Michigan.

The Des Moines, Iowa, YMCA began a water polo program for girls in 1963. This writer was the coach. We had fifteen girls on our roster, and we played our initial games, both indoor and outdoor, against Davenport, Iowa, in 1964.

At that time, Californian Andy Burke was chairing the AAU men’s water polo committee, which was a sub-committee of Swimming. At the AAU convention in Detroit, Andy pushed hard and successfully to make water polo into a separate entity, with one committee for the men and another for the women. Andy continued to lead the men and appointed Dave Rivenes of Miles City, Montana, to guide the new women’s program. Dave hosted the 1964 AAU women’s championships in a roped-off course on the lake in his hometown of Miles City, and his girls finished first.

The next year, 1965, the AAU asked Dave Rivenes to start working to expand its Junior Olympic pro-gram, and Andy Burke appointed me to replace Dave as the women’s water polo chairman. We started selecting AAU women’s All-America players and added junior national competition for younger girls. As a result, new programs popped up in a dozen communities around the country.

Ruth Johnson of Davenport, Iowa, then took over as chair of the women’s water polo committee, and I served as vice-chair, and the sport continued to grow in the mid and late 1960s. The Northern Virginia Aquatic Club, coached by Brian Zimmerman, forged to the top in AAU women’s competition, winning a number of senior indoor and outdoor championships. Their chief rival was the Santa Clara Swim Club of California, coached by George Haines. There were several other good teams in northern and southern California, supervised by such coaches as Dave Beaver and Burt
Shaw.

The Midwest still had Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Flint in the mix, plus new teams in Chicago and Quincy, Illinois, and Canton, Illinois, plus several from the St. Louis area, plus the YMCA teams at Des Moines and Davenport in Iowa. It was Davenport, with Ruth Johnson serving as player-coach, that won the YMCA’s first “national” tournament in 1967. A year later, Davenport lost in the Y finals, held at East St. Louis, to a young but swift-swimming squad of girls from Houston, Texas, coached by Don Atwood.

As the sport continued to expand, the Palmetto Barracudas from Miami, led by Coach Vince Santo-stefano, made their presence known. This team and the Sheridan Swim Club of Quincy, Illinois, coached by Dan Dittmer, gradually replaced Northern Virginia and Santa Clara as the two best AAU senior wo-men’s teams in the country.

In 1969, the first-ever AAU Junior Olympic Water Polo Championships were hosted and financed by the Des Moines YMCA and supervised by Bob Helmick, who went on to become president of the AAU, FINA, and the USOC. There was a single age group, 15-and-under, and teams came from coast to coast to compete. In the boys’ category, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, edged Des Moines for the title, with Chicago placing third. In the girls’ competition, Portland, Oregon, grabbed the gold medal, with Des Moines securing the silver and Albuquerque, New Mexico, taking home the bronze.

Ruth Johnson concluded her very successful term as the AAU women’s water polo chair by promoting the usage of two referees in an attempt to minimize the “roughness” of the game and to maintain an emphasis on swimming speed, finesse, and ball-handling. Thus we in water polo had a strong and positive relationship with the American Swimming Coaches Association, which fully supported our efforts. I was serving as ASCA’s water polo chairman and also as the organization’s secretary-treasurer and newsletter editor. And so the decade of the 1960s came to a close.

A committee of former AAU and YMCA coaches from the 1960s and 1970s has compiled a list of 60 of the best women water polo players in the U.S. from the 1960s. If we’ve missed any deserving players, please let us know. We want this list to be as inclusive as possible and to be included in water polo’s archives, as these women – most of them were teenaged girls, actually – overcame great adversity to build the sport to where it’s at today. We now have official high school, intercollegiate, world, world cup, and Olympic competition available for women and girls, none of which existed in “the old days.”

And More Chuck Hines

Water Polo the Y’s Way  Chapter 2YMCA Water Polo In Des Moines, Minnesota 1962 – 1966

  The director of aquatics at the Des Moines YMCA was Ivor Thomason.  He had come to Minneapolis-St. Paul when we were starting the Y’s new national scuba program to attend a certification institute, which I was supervising.  I’d met him at that time.  When my wife Lee and I moved to Ames and I began visiting Des Moines on Saturdays to work-out, Ivor immediately approached me and asked if I could develop a water polo program.  “I’m strong on swimming and scuba diving,” Ivor said, “but I know nothing about water polo.  Can you help?”

“I can only come on Saturdays,” I told him, “because my wife and I are serving as relief or substitute house parents at the Beloit Lutheran Children’s Home.  I’m also the recreation director, and she’s the nurse.”  This was a residential treatment facility in Ames for boys and girls with a history of severe emotional problems, so working there was a major challenge for Lee and me.

“That’s okay,” Ivor replied, “because the only available pool time we have is on Saturday nights.”

Whoa.  There’s no worse time for programming at the YMCA than Saturday nights.  Nevertheless we started our polo program with two or three balls, no caps, and no goals.  Only five prospective players showed up the first night, but one, Dan Hafelfinger, was a college student who’d played high school water polo in California.  He wasn’t as big and burly as Lou Edl, the Californian who’d migrated to our Minneapolis program, but he was a speedy swimmer and a good ball-handler.  Gradually, from one Saturday night to the next during the autumn months of 1962, we increased the number of participants.  Unlike Minneapolis-St. Paul, Des Moines was fairly strong in high school swimming in those days, with each of the six high schools having its own six-lane, 25-yard pool.  The high school swim coaches were reluctant to let their boys come to the Y to play polo.  I contacted them and said, “If you have any SLOW swimmers who can’t cut the mustard in your program, send them to us at the Y.”  So that first year, we had a bunch of teenaged slowpokes, but these boys were all thrilled to be included in our Saturday night activities.

One night a lanky young man in his mid 20s walked into the four-lane, 25-yard pool in the basement of the YMCA and said to me, “Hi.  I’m Bob Helmick.  I saw the notices about the new water polo program, and I’d like to give it a try.”

Author’s Note: This was a defining moment in the history of American sports.  Bob Helmick became an All-American in water polo, the Team Leader for the U.S. Men’s Olympic Team, the President of the AAU and FINA and the USOC, a member of the IOC, and eventually an inductee into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.  You’ll be reading more about Bob in this book, but let me say it all started on a Saturday night in the autumn of 1962 in the small basement pool at the Des Moines YMCA.

The first actual games we played pitted the Iowa State University YMCA men from Ames against the Des Moines YMCA men and boys.  We now had homemade goals at each end of the Y pool, plus official caps and half-a-dozen balls.  It was five-per-side competition.  I’d been teaching and coaching both groups, and I refereed the games.  Iowa State copped the initial encounter by a couple of goals.  Des Moines won the second contest by the same margin.  The Des Moines Register ran a nice article about what we were doing, which included photos of Bob Helmick and Dan Hafelfinger.  This piqued the interest of many teenagers around town, and more high school boys started coming to our practices, including a few of the fastest swimmers.

As we neared the summer of 1963, Ivor came to me one evening.  “Aren’t you about done with your year of service at the Children’s Home?”

“Yes.”

“What’re your plans?”

“Lee and I aren’t sure what we’ll do.  Why?”

“There’s an opening here at the Des Moines YMCA.  You should apply.”

I did, and I spent the next three years, from the summer of 1963 through the summer of 1966, serving as a youth program director for the Des Moines YMCA.  My main duty was supervising the large youth department at the downtown facility, which kept me busy, and didn’t include aquatics.  That was Ivor’s bailiwick.  However, he deferred to me when it came to water polo.

On Sundays, Bob Helmick was teaching a teen class at Des Moines’ Central Presbyterian Church, and he told them about his water polo involvement.  The girls asked, “Can we play, too?”

This was prior to the creation of Title IX, and there were still NO athletic activities for girls at the local high schools, so Bob came to me and Ivor and inquired whether we could, or should, include girls in our polo program.  The YMCA at that time was almost all male, and we had no separate locker facilities for women and girls.  We’d have to schedule the girls at a time when they could use the men’s or boys’ vacated locker rooms.  By now, we had so many men and boys participating that we’d moved them from Saturday nights to Monday and Thursday nights, which I could handle now that Lee and I were living in Des Moines and I was working full-time for the YMCA.  I asked Ivor, “Can’t we find room for the girls on Tuesday nights?  Maybe an hour?”

Like many, Ivor was a bit hesitant to bring in members of the fairer sex, but Bob and I kept twisting his arm, and he finally relented, hoping that the board of directors would approve.  As the 1963-64 school year started, we scheduled time for the girls once weekly.  The first Tuesday night we tried it, we had five who attended, and the numbers gradually increased week to week.  The ladies were lovin’ it.

*****

Soon we had 35 teenaged boys and 15 teenaged girls playing polo, supervised by a few of us older guys – Tom Cady, Russ Chance, Dan Hafelfinger, Bob Helmick, Merlin Humpal, and I, all of us also playing ourselves – so the program was progressing beyond belief.  But aside from our recreational efforts, who would we play against?

We scheduled a home-and-home series with the University of Minnesota men’s water polo club, which had been organized by students who’d learned the sport in our Minneapolis YMCA program.  The first game was played seven-per-side in the large Cooke Hall pool on the University campus.  The Minnesota players were fast.  How fast?  I found myself up against 6-4, 200-pound Steve (Spider) Jackman, who just happened to be the NCAA champion in the 50-yard freestyle.  He was from my hometown of Rochester, Minnesota, and had been the national high school champion in the sprint.  Now, as a Golden Gopher, he’d swum the 50 in :21.2.  Not bad for the mid 1960s.  I was somewhat slower and smaller at 6-0 and 180 pounds.  But I was a much better water polo player.  Des Moines won the game.  I don’t remember the exact score, but I recall that I outscored Steve by one goal to none.  Throughout the game, I coached him on the fundamentals, and when it was over, we smiled at each other and shook hands.

The return match was contested in our small Des Moines YMCA pool.  We played five-per-side, which should have given us an advantage over the faster collegians.  Didn’t happen.  Minnesota had a new player, Bob Gawboy.  A Native American from the town of Ely in the northern section of the state, he had been a national high school champion in the individual medley.   He then went on to win the AAU senior men’s national title in the 200-yard breaststroke.  Though small, he was a crafty water polo player, scoring two goals against us.  The Gopher defense had held us to just one goal as the game wound down.  With seconds remaining, I worked my way clear and had an open shot from the left side, about five yards out.  Should I loft a lob (my favorite shot) over the goalie’s head into the far corner of the cage or try to power one past him into the near corner?  I elected the latter.  The goalie blocked it.  The game ended with Minnesota in front, 2-to-1.

We also wrote to a number of YMCAs telling them of our water polo program and offering to conduct free clinics on the sport in their pools.  Several replied positively over the next year – Burlington, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Fort Dodge and Tipton in Iowa, Austin and Worthington in southern Minnesota – so we found some good opposition.  The Cedar Rapids men and boys and the Davenport women and girls became very good in a short period of time and challenged us for Y supremacy in Iowa.  In the summer of 1964, we hosted the first Iowa Championships at a large, all-deep outdoor pool in West Des Moines.  It was sanctioned by the AAU, and we played regulation seven-per-side.  Five men’s teams participated, most containing a number of teenaged boys, and three women’s teams competed, each comprised mostly of teenaged girls.

In the men’s finals, it was Des Moines vs. the University of Iowa.  The University had started a club team led by All-America swimmer Dave Strief, who’d been the state champ in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle races for Des Moines’ Roosevelt High School.  He also was one of our YMCA water poloists.   I remember Dave doing :23.3 for the 50 and :51.6 for the 100, which were exceptional prep times for the ‘60s.

Another Roosevelt swimmer, Terry Gates, was our best prep polo player in Des Moines.  Terry was big, about 6-1 and 190 pounds, and combative, and ambidextrous, and he was fast, having swum :53.8 for the 100-yard freestyle.  He could play any position in the pool, including goalie.  In the cage, his reflexes were lightning quick.  So despite his speed, we used him as goalie against the University.  Three of us “older” men – Russ Chance at hole forward, I as our mid-pool quarterback, Bob Helmick back on defense – and collegian Dan Hafelfinger and two of our high school boys rounded out the starting lineup.  It was a tight tussle, but the concluding score was Des Moines YMCA 6, University of Iowa 4.

In the women’s championship clash, the Davenport YMCA team, led by 30-year-old player-coach Ruth Johnson, defeated our Des Moines Y teenaged girls, 8-to-4.  Our best player was Paula Lambert, who was fast and an excellent all-around player, and she fed the ball to Tina Bergeson, our leading scorer.

Author’s Note: I was the high scorer at the Iowa AAU Championships, which was a rarity, and earned an award for being Iowa’s AAU Player of the Year.  I also made the AAU All-Midwest Team after performing reasonably well against the Chicago, Omaha, and St. Louis squads later in the summer.  As a result, I received Honorable Mention on the AAU All-America Team.  This was my best year ever for playing water polo, and I also won the Midwest men’s championship in scuba diving.  And yet … and yet … what I remember  most is missing that last-minute shot against the University of Minnesota in our small YMCA pool which cost our team the game.  Geez, if only I’d tossed up a lob!

November of 1964 saw Bob Helmick and me and our wives flying to Houston, Texas, for the annual convention of the Amateur Athletic Union.  Our flight was delayed by a freak snowstorm, but finally we reached our destination.  Thanks to my bimonthly newsletter which had been distributed nationally for several years, almost everyone at the water polo meetings knew of us, including the sport’s leaders from California, and we were able to meld together the AAU and YMCA water polo programs.

Returning home, I wrote another article on the sport for the Y’s national magazine, the Journal of Physical Education.  The article stated that “in seeking to find a pool sport that would appeal to teenaged boys, we hit upon an activity that became popular almost overnight, water polo.  At the time we started the program in Minneapolis, I had never seen a real game played.  But we built goals and purchased caps and balls and then watched as our polo program expanded from seven beginners to 39 enthusiastic high school boys. We watched as some of our boys, upon graduating from high school and enrolling at the University of Minnesota, introduced the sport there.

“When I came to Des Moines, once again I initiated a water polo program for high school boys.  We started slowly and with only a few players, but in just two years, we have increased to the point where our Y water polo club contains 40 men and boys and 15 girls.  Yes, even the girls wanted to get into the act and pressured us into accepting them.

“The teams meet once or twice weekly at the YMCA and a third time at a community outdoor pool in the summer months.  We have our own four-team intramural league, and the most deserving players represent us in games against neighboring AAU and Y teams.

“We make an honest effort to incorporate Values Education into the program.  This takes the form of strong adult leadership – men who set a good example – and an emphasis on playing hard but playing fair.  The club newsletter regularly carries Christian comments and quotations.  An annual award goes to the club’s best sport as decided by a vote.  A recent club survey brought out the following facts:

  • 100% of the club members felt water polo had improved their physical fitness.
  • 95% felt it had helped them learn to think and react more quickly under pressure.
  • 88% felt is had helped them know what to expect from others in situations of physical and emotional stress.
  • 72% felt it had helped them improve their self-confidence.
  • 60% felt it had helped them significantly in learning to control themselves in situations of duress.
  • 30% felt it had helped them develop a better philosophy of life based on Christian values and virtues.
  • And in the voting to determine the player who should receive the sportsmanship trophy, 80% of the club members were mentioned.  Apparently four-fifths of the players are good sports in the eyes of their fellow club members.

“In summary, more YMCAs need to come up with a unique aquatic program aimed at fulfilling the needs of their high school youth.  For us in Minneapolis and Des Moines, water polo has been the answer.”

*****

Since 1958, the YMCA had been conducting a yearly national tournament for men.  These had been held in Detroit, Minneapolis, and St. Louis, and in 1965 it was our turn to host the event in Des Moines.  We brought in AAU All-American Bill Kooistra from Chicago to do a short pre-tourney clinic and to serve as the head referee.  Bill had been an Olympic player for the Illinois Athletic Club, and everybody respected his expertise both in the water and on the pool deck.

St. Louis had become the kingpin of YMCA water polo, and they fielded two superb  teams, one repre-senting the Downtown Y and the other competing for the Carondelet Y.  Dick (Hoot) Newman, the 6-7, 240-pounder, was St. Louis Downtown’s hole forward and star player.  He was supported by Art Kelley, a terrific defender, and the swift-swimming Casey brothers, Dan and Don, and all-around ace Ed Hellman.  This was an exceptional team, one of the best in the entire U.S.   For St. Louis Carondelet, defensive whiz John Carson, a chiropractor, was the player-coach, aided by Steve Steska and others.

Chicago had a decades-old history of water polo excellence, and they entered a team from the Lawson YMCA.  Their leader on defense was Jim (Moose) Mulcrone, and they had plenty of firepower up front.

The fourth strong entry was our own Des Moines YMCA squad.  We were reasonably good.  We had prep All-American Terry Gates at goalie and 6-3, 190-pound Bob Helmick anchoring our defense.  Russ Chance, a quick-handed and prolific scorer, was our hole forward.  Dan Hafelfinger and I were our two mid-pool players in the five-per-side competition.  We had our swift-swimming high school boys as substitutes.

There were several other YMCAs competing, including a competent crew from Cedar Rapids, but we knew it was the four aforementioned teams that would be contesting for the championship.

St. Louis Downtown edged Chicago Lawson by one goal for the team title, and St. Louis Carondelet defeated Des Moines by two goals in the third-place matchup.  When the smoke has cleared and the pool vacated at the end of a long weekend, we realized that while our team hadn’t done so well, we’d hosted an exceptionally good YMCA men’s water polo tournament.

We were also conducting a variety of other invitational tourneys that were sanctioned by the AAU, playing five-per-side in the spring months in our small YMCA indoor pool and seven-per-side in the summertime in the larger West Des Moines outdoor pool.  Teams came from other Iowa communities and from Manitoba and Minnesota and Montana, from Omaha and Quincy, and elsewhere.  In addition, each autumn we were continuing to run our own intramural league, which by now had morphed into the beginning of a Hi-Y program, with three of the high schools entering their own boys water polo teams.  Tech High, coached by Tom Cady, was the best.  His swimmers weren’t as fast as those from Roosevelt and Lincoln, but they could really play polo.  Our own Y teams rounded out the league.

From 1962, when we started in Des Moines, through the rest of the decade, we had six boys who earned prep All-America honors: Terry Gates and Wayne Mitchell of Roosevelt, John Eichelis and Bobby Jeglum of Tech, Bob Miller of East, and Marlin Willis of North.  Some of our other teenaged standouts during the ‘60s were little Jerry Bower and the battlin’ Bs, Mike Bean and Ben Bishop, determined Dwight Johns, goalie Dave Mack and his buddy Al Meek, Tall (Bob) Paul, speedster Dave Strief, and defense-minded Brian Wistey.

Bob Helmick and I were selected as YMCA All-Americans three times and our high-scoring hole forward Russ Chance once.  Many of the Chicago and St. Louis players were AAU and/or YMCA All-Americans, as was Omaha’s outstanding player-coach Bill Murdock, and from time to time the Detroit YMCAs would pop up again with their star goalie, Tom Sullivan, becoming an All-American.

The leading YMCA polo program in the East during the 1960s, Brooklyn Central, coached by Harry Benvenuto, produced its share of All-Americans.  Harry’s teams of teenaged boys were beating most of the Eastern collegiate men’s teams.  I’ve always held Harry in high regard.  He was named to two different swimming and water polo Halls of Fame in New York City before retiring and living out the rest of his life in Cottondale, Alabama.

In November of 1965, Bob Helmick and I attended the AAU Convention which was held at Yellowstone National Park.  We flew into Bozeman, Montana, and were bused from there to a lodge at Yellowstone.  Very interesting experience.  Bob and I were relative newcomers to water polo on the national scene, yet the growth of the sport in the Midwest and amongst the Ys seemed to impress the Californians.  Much to my surprise, I was appointed by Andy Burke to serve as chairman of the new AAU Women’s Water Polo Committee.

Organized women’s water polo was first played in England and the U.S. (New York City) in 1901-02.  The Dutch started in 1906 and played an exhibition game at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.  The Montreal YMCA in Canada fielded a women’s team in the mid ‘20s, of which I have picture.  But following the 1931 AAU Women’s Championships, which was strictly a California affair, the women’s game was dropped.   It was thought to be “too rough.”  After 30 years in which the ladies weren’t playing anywhere, there had been a small resurgence of interest in the gals’ game, initiated by Rosemary Dawson of Ann Arbor, Michigan, with a helping hand from Harry Hauck in Detroit.  They conducted several AAU tournaments in 1961, 1962, and 1963, with teams entered from several Michigan swim clubs.  There were maybe a dozen other women’s teams in California, Illinois, Montana, and yes, Iowa – at Des Moines and Davenport.  Our teenaged girls were still playing amongst themselves at the YMCA, with an occasional contest against Ruth Johnson and her Davenporters.  Somehow this was sufficient to get me appointed as the AAU Women’s Committee Chairman, a position I held while working with a few others for 11 consecutive years, through 1976.  In an era in which women were just starting to receive proper recognition in sports, despite opposition from most of the men, we faced an uphill battle until Title IX was enforced.  More about that later.

Also in 1965, I was appointed by the YMCA of the USA to serve as the Y’s representative on the U.S. Olympic Water Polo Committee, a position I also held for 11 years, through 1976.

I’d been a charter member of the new American Swimming Coaches Association and had been elected as its water polo chairman.  The ASCA took over sponsorship of the prep and collegiate All-Americans, under my direction, and I continued to send out my bimonthly newsletter and write a water polo column for Swimming World magazine and occasional articles for Swimming Technique magazine.  Thus I was chairing water polo committees for the AAU and ASCA and YMCA of the USA, representing the Y on our Olympic Committee, writing about the sport, and serving as player-coach of the Des Moines teams.  I was doing most of this in my spare time because my duties as a Y youth program director kept me busy with a wide variety of non-aquatic activities.

One day an unexpected letter arrived at our home in Des Moines.  It was from the Swimming Association of India, asking if I’d be interested in moving to that country to serve a two-year term as director of water polo at the National Sports Institute in New Delhi.  For a while, I was interested, as it looked like an exciting opportunity.  I asked some of my friends for references, and Mike Milliman of California, an officer on the board of directors of the American Swimming Coaches Association, wrote, “I would like to recommend Mr. Chuck Hines for an overseas assignment as a swimming and water polo coach for India.

“It is very difficult to find words adequate enough to give Mr. Hines the recommendation he deserves.  In my opinion, Mr. Hines is one of the main reasons for the growth of competitive water polo throughout the U.S. during the past five years.  I am sure others will describe his excellent coaching ability.  On the administrative level, his work in the water polo field is unequaled.  Presently he is the American Swimming Coaches Association Water Polo Chairman, the AAU Women’s Water Polo Committee Chairman, and the AAU Men’s Water Polo Committee Vice-Chairman.  He writes two newsletters on the sport as well as articles for Swimming World magazine and Swimming Technique quarterly.

“Mr. Hines initiated the Interscholastic and Intercollegiate All-America selection process several years ago, and he still chairs the selection of our young athletes for this honor.

“Personally, he is so valuable to the American Swimming Coaches Association and to the American water polo scene that I would really hate to see him go overseas.  However, I am confident that he will make an outstanding contribution to the sport in India and to international good will.  I recommend him without reservation.”

Wow.  Wasn’t that nice!  But I didn’t go to India for two reasons.  First, I felt fairly committed to pursuing a professional career with the YMCA.  I’d already taken off one year to work with my wife Lee at the Beloit Lutheran Children’s Home, and I feared taking off for another two years would set me back too far in my Y vocation.  Second, and more importantly, Lee and I had been married for 10 years and had no children, which we wanted.  So with the help of Bob Helmick, an attorney, we adopted a little girl in November of 1965, just after we returned home from the AAU convention.  We named her Heather, and you’ll read more about her in this book.

The best trip our Des Moines YMCA water polo club took was to Miles City, Montana, in the summer of 1966.  It was for an AAU Junior National tournament.  In those days, players of any age were eligible for Junior competition, unless they had previously won a Junior or Senior National tourney.  This meant that I, at 33, and Bob Helmick, at 29, were okay to play.  The event at Miles City was headed by Dave Rivenes, who at that time was one of the leading sports figures in the entire country.  He subsequently became president of the Amateur Athletic Union.  Dave had an outdoor water polo “pool” built into the town’s lake, and that’s where we played.  Our Des Moines ‘A’ team, with Bob starring on defense and I being the high scorer on offense and with our high school boys providing ample support, had no trouble winning its category, beating the few other entries from Colorado and Montana and, I believe, one other state, plus our own ‘B’ team.  In the women’s competition, a club from San Leandro, California, coached by Dave Beaver, dunked the hometown Miles City girls for the tourney title.

For me, the highlight of the trip was meeting and dining one night with the guest of honor, Billy Mills, a Native American who had shocked the world by winning the men’s 10,000-meter running race at the 1964 Olympic Games.  Also, we stopped and visited Mount Rushmore in South Dakota while en route home, which was a good educational experience.

As the summer of 1966 came to a conclusion, the Des Moines Register ran a lengthy article about our YMCA program that was written by Bob Asbille.  There was a large photo of Bob Helmick submerging Terry Gates, followed by these comments: “Water polo is an aggressive game that seems to have as its objective the drowning of the seven players on the opposing team.

Des Moines YMCA’s All-American Bob Helmick was a defensive star in the 1960′s

“That may be a slight exaggeration, but Chuck Hines, player-coach of the Des Moines YMCA Water Polo Club, says fouling is a normal part of the sport.  He explains that players must learn to foul in a skillful manner and with finesse, adding that outright viciousness has no part in the game.

“In water polo, the referee walks up and down the side of the pool.  If he calls a foul, it can be minor, resulting in an uncontested pass given to the opposing team, or major, resulting in the expulsion of a player from the pool until one team scores a goal.  The referee has one handicap, though – it’s difficult to see all the contact below the surface.

“Someone has likened water polo to a group of sharks attacking a fresh piece of meat.  Nonetheless this sport is becoming increasingly popular in the United States and dramatically so in Iowa.  Much of its success can be attributed to the 33-year-old Hines and his assistant, 29-year-old Des Moines attorney Bob Helmick.  Hines, a youth program director at the YMCA, organized water polo here in 1962 and with Helmick’s help has spread the ‘gospel’ into five other Iowa towns and three other states.  Hines and the local club have helped organize teams in Burlington, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Fort Dodge, and Tipton.  On August 13, they will present a clinic in Storm Lake to create a club there.

“They’ve also helped form teams in Austin and Worthington, Minnesota, and Omaha, Nebraska, and at Northwest Missouri State College in Maryville.  The college team is made up entirely of alumni from the Des Moines Y program.

“Des Moines has over 40 men and boys on its roster, ranging in ages from 14 to 40 and from the follow-ing schools: East, Lincoln, North, Roosevelt, Tech and Valley high schools; Drake and Iowa Universities; Grandview Community College; and Still Osteopathic College.  A number of girls also are playing at the Y and have been competing against a team from Davenport.

“So far this year, the men’s varsity has an 11-1 record, while the junior varsity is 4-1.  They’ve won the Iowa and North Central States tournaments and placed second to St. Louis at the YMCA’s National Championships.  They also won a Junior National title earlier this month at the Montana Sports Spree in Miles City, Montana.

“Despite its newness, the Des Moines program has produced several All-America players, including Hines, Helmick, and Terry Gates.  But in the future, the club will have to get along without Hines and the 19-year-old Gates, who’s been inducted into military service.  Hines, who has written one book on water polo and has another due for publication next year, is moving to a new YMCA post in Canton, Illinois.  He attended the recent meeting of the U.S. Olympic Water Polo Committee in Washington, DC, where it was announced that water polo ranked third among 21 Olympic sports in its current national development.

“Hines said that any strong swimmer who liked to mix in a little mayhem is an excellent water polo prospect.  Endurance and toughness are essential.  But it’s a lot of good clean fun, he concluded, as he reached for the antiseptic to treat a long scratch on his arm acquired in a friend scrimmage.”

Water polo had become very important to me.  While family always came first and church second, it was water polo that often occupied my thoughts and my spare time.  I was busy, Busy, BUSY with the sport, perhaps too much so, and I felt I needed to devote more time and energy to my profession, to the YMCA.  I had worked at Ys in the larger cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul and Des Moines.  I figured I needed the small-town experience.  So Lee and I, with baby Heather in tow, headed down the road.

Remembrances of Bob Helmick

By Chuck Hines

It was 1962, and I’d been given the worst possible time slot for promoting water polo in the small four-lane, 25-yard basement pool at the Des Moines, Iowa, YMCA. It was on Saturday evenings during the autumn months … in the midst of the football season … and also, of course, a prime dating night. I had recently moved to Iowa from Minnesota, where I’d been playing and coaching Y water polo since 1958, and I was hoping to start the sport in Des Moines.  But on Saturday nights?

Four teenage boys and one college student showed up for the first practice, and we tossed our only ball around the pool and shot at benches placed on the deck. A few more boys started attending in the weeks that followed. In November, a lanky young man in his mid 20s walked into the pool and said, “Hi.  I’m Bob Helmick and I’d like to give water polo a try.” Although no one knew it at the time, this was a defining moment in American sports.

Bob had grown up in Des Moines, graduating from Roosevelt High School and then from local Drake University, where his dad was a physics professor. He’d attended the Drake Law School, graduating with honors at the age of 22, after which he went to work for one of the city’s most prestigious law firms. At 25, Bob was married and a young father himself.

Due to having severe asthma, Bob had never been an outstanding athlete. His best sport was swimming, which he’d done to improve his breath control, and he had a strong crawl stroke. Like everything he did, Bob pursued water polo with a passion, using his daily lunch breaks to come to the YMCA, where he diligently lifted weights and swam sprints. Gradually he filled out his 6-3, 185-pound physique. He never missed our Saturday night practices as our attendance grew to 12, 15, 20, and when our Y team played its initial games against the nearby Iowa State University Y team, Bob was in our starting lineup as a defensive stalwart. The local newspaper ran an article about the games, identifying me as the team’s player-coach and including a photo of Bob in his water polo cap and holding a ball in the Y pool.

When the summer of 1963 rolled around, I, as a full-time, professional youth program director at the Des Moines YMCA, arranged for us to use a large, deep outdoor pool on Saturday mornings, and our regular indoor practices were moved to Monday and Thursday nights at the YMCA pool, where we now had good homemade goals, official caps and a dozen balls. Bob, myself and two or three other adult polo enthusiasts were successful at recruiting more high school boys and the list of participants grew to 40. We also brought in a group of teenage girls, 15 in number, many of them from Bob’s Sunday School class, and this became one of the first girls’ teams in the entire U.S. in the modern era. They practiced in the Y pool on Tuesday nights and joined the rest of us in the larger, deeper outdoor pool in the summertime.

We conducted clinics at other Iowa communities including Burlington, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Fort Dodge, Iowa City, Tipton and Storm Lake. We held the first Iowa State Championships in 1964, with eight teams taking part. Des Moines defeated the University of Iowa for the men’s title, while Davenport, led by player-coach Ruth Johnson, dunked our Des Moines girls for the women’s crown. Our out-reach also produced new water polo programs at Austin and Worthington, Minnesota; Omaha and Fremont, Nebraska; and NW Missouri State College. We played against top AAU, YMCA and college teams from Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, Winnipeg and elsewhere, winning several tournament titles. Bob became an excellent defensive player, a “hole guard” as we called ‘em in those days, and he was selected as an AAU All-Midwest player and as a three-time YMCA All-America.

While this was occurring, Bob and I also became more involved nationally through the auspices of the AAU, or Amateur Athletic Union, which was the governing body for water polo and many other athletic activities. We attended AAU meetings from coast to coast, and in 1965, I was appointed by Andy Burke of California as chairman of the first-ever AAU Women’s Water Polo Committee. Bob became involved with the AAU Men’s Water Polo Committee, and we both worked with Dave Rivenes of Miles City, Montana, to conduct the initial AAU-sponsored Junior Olympic Championships at Des Moines in the summer of 1969. By that time, I’d departed from Des Moines for another YMCA assignment, and Bob had taken command. At the JOs, with a single division for 15-and-unders, his teams placed second to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in the boys’ competition and second to Portland, Oregon, in the girls’ category.

Also in 1969, Bob was elected as chairman of the AAU Men’s Water Polo Committee, and at the same time, thanks to some astute maneuvering by our friend John Spannuth, president of the American Swimming Coaches Association, Bob was elected chair of the U.S. Olympic Water Polo Committee for the 1969-1972 Olympiad. He immediately appointed me as secretary of the committee and of the U.S. Men’s Olympic Team, a position I occupied while continuing to serve as chair of the AAU Women’s Water Polo Committee.

It’s hard to comprehend ALL that Bob was doing in those days. He was practicing law. He was a husband and the father of four growing children.  He was a leader of water polo nationally. He was coaching the Des Moines YMCA boys’ water polo team which won the Y Nationals at Macomb, Illinois, in 1970, and at Lima, Ohio, in 1971, and at Bloomington, Indiana, in 1972. He and his adult assistants organized a Hi-Y polo program that served all six of the Des Moines high schools. Wait, there’s more. Bob took the Des Moines Y men’s team to play nationally from California to Houston to New York City, with international trips taken to Canada and Puerto Rico. Whew!

In 1972, the U.S. Men’s Olympic Team, with Bob serving as both Team Leader and Manager, earned the bronze medal at the Summer Games in Munich, Germany, and this propelled Bob into international stardom. He found others to direct the Des Moines YMCA program, and from the mid 1970s into the early 1990s, Bob served as (1) Secretary of FINA’s Technical Water Polo Committee, (2) Secretary and then President of FINA, (3) Vice-President and then President of the Amateur Athletic Union, (4) Vice-President and then President of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and (5) a member of the International Olympic Committee.

Eventually Bob dropped out of the international scene – frankly, he was exhausted – and after serving on the Atlanta Olympic Organizing Committee for the Summer Games of 1996, he “retired” from sports and concentrated on his law practice and other activities in Des Moines. You can read more about Bob on the web-site of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 2007. Go to http://www.ishof.org/international-swimming-hall-of-fame-honorees-by-class.html for a full bio including additional photos.

Sadly, Bob passed away unexpectedly from a stroke in April of 2003, at the age of 66. He was a special person, one of the smartest men I’ve known, a very successful attorney, an accomplished pianist, a lover of art, who did much behind the scenes to make Des Moines a better place to live. If you visit Drake University, you’ll find a place called “Helmick Commons,” named in his honor.

Yet many of us remember Bob for all that he gave to sports in general and to our sport in particular. He occupies a unique niche in the annals of water polo history.

About Chuck Hines: Chuck started out in water polo in 1958 and has been involved for over 53 years. An All-America player in 1960s, Chuck coached ten national championship teams in AAU and YMCA competition in the 1970s. He was the first chairman of the National Women’s Water Polo Committee, from 1965-1976 and an officer of the U.S. Olympic Water Polo Committee for the 1972 games where the team brought home a bronze medal. Chuck also coached the Asheville YMCA team that represented the East Coast in the first women’s international tournament in Montreal and Quebec City in 1977. During the 1980s, Chuck served as a national official and director of an Olympic Development Clinic. In the 1990s, he used his skills in directing a nationally-publicized program for inner-city youngsters. More recently, Chuck has been involved in serving as the supervisor for the local YMCA’s recreational water polo program each autumn and serves as a historian for the sport. He recently authored “Water Polo the Y’s Way,” a 240-page chronicle of his experiences in the sport that is available through Amazon and Authorhouse.    

 

Helmick NY Times obit

Robert H. Helmick, 66, Former U.S.O.C. President

By FRANK LITSKY

Published: April 16, 2003

Robert H. Helmick, a former president of the United States Olympic Committee who resigned in 1991 because of perceived conflicts of interest, died yesterday at a hospital in Des Moines. He was 66.

He had a stroke last Friday, his wife, Georgia, said.

While working full time as a lawyer specializing in public finance, Mr. Helmick served as president of the Amateur Athletic Union (1978 to 1980), secretary (1976-84) and president (1984-88) of the International Swimming Federation, president of the U.S.O.C. (1985-91) and member (1985-91) and executive board member (1988-91) of the International Olympic Committee. All were unpaid positions.

In 1991, news media reports said he had been a paid consultant to organizations that did business or hoped to do business with the United States Olympic Committee and other sports governing bodies. Mr. Helmick said that while that was true, he had previously made full disclosures of such private business to the U.S.O.C. staff.

He added: ”You should accept business only for valid business reasons. And that is what I did.”

While he denied conflicts of interest, he resigned from the U.S.O.C. position and the I.O.C., saying he did not want to be disruptive.

Subsequently, an independent counsel, Arnold I. Burns, a former United States deputy attorney general, made a 10-week investigation for the U.S.O.C. He concluded that while Mr. Helmick should have made other Olympic committee senior officials aware of potential conflicts of interest, Mr. Helmick had not influenced or attempted to influence any U.S.O.C. decision in connection with his outside work.

Despite his problems, Mr. Helmick was the chief architect at the U.S.O.C. in creating a corporate-style organization.

Mr. Helmick remained on the committee’s board as a past president after his resignation but did not participate in the organization’s affairs.

In 2001, he was named as a member of the U.S.O.C.’s international relations committee.

Robert Hanna Helmick was born March 5, 1937, in Des Moines and was raised there. He received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and music from Drake University in 1957 and a law degree from Drake Law School in 1960. He was a water polo player, and in 1972 he was manager of the United States Olympic water polo team.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by four children from a previous marriage: John, of Eugene, Ore.; Rob, of Denver; Stephanie Ormsby, of Crystal Lake, Ill.; and Suzanne Book of Englewood, Colo.; a brother, Bert, of Washington; two sisters, Ruth Lier of Los Alamos, N.M., and Lois Hobson of Englewood; Colo., and 13 grandchildren.

When Mr. Helmick took over the U.S.O.C. reins, no athlete received more than $2,500 a year toward living expenses, and many had to drop out or work part time. He changed that, but it started with an uproar.

In the middle of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, he appointed an overview commission to determine why the American team was not doing well and how that could be changed. The chairman was George Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ principal owner and a U.S.O.C. vice president.

It turned out to be a watershed event in the committee’s history. The commission’s work changed the way the U.S.O.C. directed financial support to athletes. Some American officials believed it had a direct impact on the Americans’ ability to win the medal count in Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000 and almost in Salt Lake City in 2002.

 

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