How a California high school keeps cranking out Olympians

When you spend your childhood just a five-minute drive from an aquatics complex as famed and friendly as Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool in Long Beach, California, chances are you strapped on swim goggles even before you slid on your first backpack.

That’s how Maureen O’Toole grew up, churning through the water on a near-daily basis, first as an age-group swimmer in this seaside city, and later as the greatest women’s water polo player in the world.

It’s a childhood many have experienced on the southeast side of this global maritime hub, a way of life that’s catapulted some — like O’Toole — all the way to the Olympic Games.

Woodrow Wilson Classical High School has been the biggest beneficiary of the lifestyle that comes with a proximity to the diverse waterways of Long Beach, and Belmont Plaza in particular. The indoor pool there was the site of the 1968 and 1976 Olympic swimming and diving trials and numerous other high-profile meets before it was demolished in late 2014 due to earthquake retrofit deficiencies.

Stunningly, Wilson has placed at least one alum in every Summer Olympics since 1952 (save for 1980, when the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games). Of the school’s 29 Olympians in that span, 16 were swimmers, divers or water polo players. Tony Azevedo stretched Wilson’s consecutive Games streak to 16 this summer by qualifying for his fifth straight Olympic men’s water polo team.

“There’s something in the water,” joked O’Toole, now 55.

And it’s not just the local freshwater tanks that have played a key role in sending athletes to the world’s biggest stage. Five other Wilson graduates have qualified for the Summer Olympics in rowing, triathlon, sailing or windsurfing.

Of course, having the Pacific Ocean at your doorstep and a consistent westerly breeze certainly helps with development and preparation in those sports, but Long Beach can brag of another unique training venue: one of the few marine stadiums in the U.S.

Long Beach Marine Stadium was the first man-made rowing course in the U.S. when it was carved out of Alamitos Bay in 1925. It was expanded for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and has hosted U.S. Olympic trials in 1968, 1976 and 1984. It was at the 1968 trials that John Van Blom qualified for the first of his three Summer Games.

When Van Blom was at Wilson, he and his family lived on a boat in the Long Beach Marina, and he would row a dinghy across the bay to catch a ride to school. He never thought much about competitive rowing until an announcement in the morning bulletin caught his attention. A coach was looking to form a high school rowing team down at the Marine Stadium boathouse.

Van Blom quickly discovered his tall, lanky frame was ideal for long, powerful strokes.

“It was just serendipitous that the boathouse was there and there was somebody who wanted to coach high school kids,” Van Blom said.

Land-roving athletes from Wilson have delivered their share of success as well. Volleyball player Bob Ctvrtlik single-handedly kept the streak alive as the school’s only Olympian in 1992 and 1996. Ctvrtlik, who competed at three Games, helped the U.S. win gold in 1988 and bronze in 1992.

Like most other Wilson graduates who moved on to international fame, Ctvrtlik’s introduction to his sport came on city property. Part of the Bayshore Playground featured blacktop volleyball courts, where local high school player Len Julian provided instruction and organized matches.

That was the first time Ctvrtlik noticed something: Athletes liked to give back in those neighborhoods, and it often paid off.

“There were 10 of us that started playing volleyball on asphalt,” Ctvrtlik said. “Out of the 10, four ended up getting collegiate scholarships.”

Ctvrtlik is the only volleyball player from Wilson to qualify for the Olympics, however. The school also has sent six track and field competitors to the Games and one baseball player, Sean Burroughs in 2000.

Aquatics have always dominated this side of town.

Wilson’s Olympic streak began, triumphantly, with Pat McCormick in 1952. She won two golds in diving that year and repeated the feat four years later. She remains the only female diver to accomplish that double-double. Her daughter, Kelly (not a Wilson alum), later won silver in 1984 and bronze in 1988. They remain the only mother-daughter duo to win Olympic medals.

Tim Shaw was another Wilson graduate who made Belmont Plaza his second home. It was there that he qualified for the 1976 Olympics, where he would eventually win silver in the 400-meter freestyle. Shaw returned to the Olympics in 1984, four years after the Moscow boycott, as a member of the men’s water polo team, helping the U.S. win silver and becoming one of four Americans since 1976 to medal in two sports.

Then there’s O’Toole, who as a sophomore at Wilson was encouraged to try out for the boys’ water polo team by then-coach Bob Gruneisen. She more than held her own, even emerging as one the team’s best players her senior year.

O’Toole had joined the inaugural U.S. national women’s team in 1978 but continued to compete with her male counterparts, even spending two seasons on the men’s team at Long Beach City College under three-time Olympic coach Monte Nitzkowski. O’Toole spent 21 seasons overall with the women’s national team, earning World Water Polo Female Athlete of the Year honors six times.

She retired from the national team in 1994 but returned three years later after the IOC voted to add women’s water polo for the 2000 Games. At the age of 39, O’Toole scored the first two goals in a 6-5 semifinal victory over the Netherlands. The U.S. would lose in the gold medal match on a last-second shot by Australia.

O’Toole began giving back to the Long Beach community even before her first retirement. One of her first trainees was Azevedo, then about 6 or 7 years old. O’Toole said that’s another element that ties into the success of Wilson: great athletes returning to coach the next wave.

A perfect example is Azevedo’s father, Ricardo, who moved to Long Beach from Rio de Janeiro as a 16-year-old in 1972 and enrolled at Wilson. He played water polo for Brazil at the 1976 Olympics and then began one of the sport’s premier coaching careers.

One of his coaching stops was at Wilson from 1990-98, when he led the Bruins to four top-division championships.

“It’s just like this big full circle,” O’Toole said. “Everybody gives back what was given to them.”

The community is hoping to give back even more with a new and improved municipal aquatics center.

The city council passed through an Environmental Impact Review draft for the proposed Belmont Beach and Aquatic Center during a study session last month. Construction, however, is believed to be two years away, as the project still needs approval from the California Coastal Commission. The proposed design includes indoor and outdoor Olympic-sized pools, an indoor diving well, a recreational pool and other amenities.

Ctvrtlik’s brother Jeff was part of a group that pushed for the construction of a temporary pool alongside Belmont Plaza, providing local swimmers and water polo players a place to continue training and competing.

“That ended up being a real nice addition,” Bob Ctvrtlik said of the temporary pool. “Hopefully, they’ll be able to get that project through with Belmont Plaza. It’s kind of turned into something really big, but that would be another jewel to keep it going.”

Tony Azevedo won four high school championships inside the rickety Belmont Plaza facility. Bringing it back in state-of-the art form should help keep Wilson’s Olympic pipeline flowing.

After all, there’s no shortage of youngsters willing to make that five-minute trek.

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