Peter Hudnut

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I love speaking with former Olympians, because being a former Olympian is a beast.

Think about it: You had this thing. And it was shiny and lovely and glowing. Everyone wanted it, but it was yours. You were an Olympian. A star. A man in his athletic prime, representing his country on the world’s largest stage.

And then (poof!) it’s over. And you’re one of us.

Peter Hudnut is a three-time member of the U.S. Olympic men’s water polo team who truly grasps the highs and lows of sports. In 2008 he was a key member of a squad that shocked Serbia en route to the silver medal. Four years later, hobbled by injuries, he was a bit player on the unit that found itself fighting for (glub) seventh. He looks back at his water polo career with bliss, but also a sense of “What if?” In short, he is an Olympian.

These days, Peter is a project manager and acquisitions analyst at the Ratkovich Company in Los Angeles. He digs Lake Tahoe, has no use for Third Eye Blind and goes down as one of the greats of American water polo history.

Peter Hudnut—to hell with another medal. You’ve got the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So since we’re in the midst of the Rio Games, I have to start with your experience. You were a member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team that earned a silver after very few experts had you in the medal round. And yet, you’ve expressed dismay, sadness over not winning gold. I don’t totally get that. Please explain. And where’s the medal?

PETER HUDNUT: Honestly, I still have sadness from Beijing. I am clearly extremely proud of our team, our effort, and it was an event that truly changed and enhanced my life.

It is sad, because we worked so hard, overcame so many obstacles, had so many people doubt us, that seeing it through to the end would have been one of, if not the, greatest team journey in recent history. When you think about that semifinal game against the Serbians, I would say—with full belief—that this was a greater upset than the 1980 U.S. hockey team beating Russia. We had played them more than 25 times and won twice—both times in the United States during team fundraisers while the Serbians brought a young team and were on vacation. And in the Olympics we crushed them.

At a team event before that Olympic Games one of our athletes, well into his 30s at the time, said, “Let’s prove everyone wrong and win our bracket.” Our bracket was Serbia, Hungary, Italy, Germany, Croatia—a tough, tough bracket. And we did it. We simply hoped to win gold for each other, for all of those who sacrificed for us, for those who believed in us and for the country we love. Falling short hurts.

J.P.: You were in third grade when you wrote this poem:

I wish I was an Olympian.

I would run, jump and do the softball throw.

If I won, I would proudly carry my flag.

I wish I was an Olympian.

Sweet, cute—but why? What was it about being an Olympian, as opposed to, say, a Major Leaguer or an astronaut? And does being an Olympian live up to the hype? Was it what you’d dreamed of?

P.H.: That was right around the 1988 Olympic Games and I think it was then that I learned—most likely from my parents—that the Olympics is about constantly pursuing excellence and becoming the very best you can be.

I had been held back in school for learning disability and felt very dumb. My family members are crazy accomplished and smart, and I think I needed something to focus my passion and my insecurity. The Olympic motto—Citius, Altius, Fortius (swifter, higher, stronger)—taught me to simply push forward and become better. Shortly after 1988 I met Rich Corso, who handed me a baby blue bag. In it was a Speedo, a water polo hat and water polo ball. Coach Corso said to me that by becoming a student of the game, by working harder than everyone else and by never giving up, water polo could get me to the Olympics. That was it. Locked in and focused. At 13 I started playing and since age group wasn’t quite big yet, I was thrown in with older kids and then an ‘old man’ group and they only increased my passion for the sport. I was very very lucky to have great mentors and teachers in the sport. Jim Toring—one of the greats. Ricardo and Tony Azevedo, and Coach Corso. They all taught me the passion for the sport in my early teens and with it the four Ds (Desire, Determination, Dedication, Discipline).

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J.P.: You’re an all-time great American water polo player. You’re from California. You play a sport that depends on large amounts of water in pools. We’re in the midst of a crippling drought that is rendering the state dry. Am I wrong in finding it sorta, eh, messed up that we’re filling up all these pools when parts of the state have, literally, gone dry?

P.H.: Ha! It could be seen that way I suppose! If being serious, I would argue that having the pools recycle water, or even filtering water through gray water recycling systems so schools can recycle all water used to water their sports fields, or water fountains, or sprinklers, etc. I think these concepts need to become more efficient going forward.

 J.P.: I never knew much about water polo until moving to California two years ago. Then my daughter started playing—and I friggin’ LOVE it. Like, love love. It’s exciting, fast-paced, engrossing. So I ask, Peter, why isn’t it more popular here? It feels like a fringe American sport, even though it has many components the prototypical American sports fan loves.

P.H.: This is a great question and most everybody who watches a few games falls in love with our sport. My own mother ended up playing for a few years after she watched me play for a long time and met Tony Azevedo’s mom, Libby, who started a women’s team. The short answer is probably TV. In the United States, we are behind Hungary, Italy and many other European nations that have learned how to best shoot/film water polo over years of trial and error. Light reflecting off of the water long plagued good TV perspective. Also, much like hockey, the environment is half of the contagion. Feeling the tempo, the force, the power of the shooters is truly impressive in person and might not translate. Sadly I think there is a slight stigma still regarding men in Speedos, which is ridiculous and ancient or immature thinking ….

J.P.: So I’ve covered many athletes from many genres, and one thing that always strikes me is the difficulty of adjusting in the aftermath of a season. Yet, with the Olympics, it seems 1,000 times more harsh. All this buildup, hype, buildup, excitement, nationalism, the Village, flags—then, pfft, it’s done. Over. What’s that like? How did you handle it?

P.H.: Adjusting post-Olympics is tough, no question about it. Being so solely focused for so long makes you unsure of what’s next. For many athletes, finding your passion and drive and next goal is quite hard. I wanted to join the Navy after 2004, then my coach got a job for me playing in Italy and since I was only an alternate on that team, I jumped at the opportunity. After 2008, age, injuries and a desire to become a ‘grown-up’ turned my focus to real estate and business school. Given the state of the economy in November of 2008, I hoped for b-school, and was truly lucky to land at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

Then in 2012 I was fortunate to be reconnected with the boys, as I had a few injuries right before London. Five days after London, I was in New York City training for my job at Goldman Sachs. I definitely was a little depressed after all three ventures. It’s hard to explain because you feel so lucky and blessed to have had such a beautiful and unique opportunity … I mean, representing your family, your friends, your country … that’s truly an amazing experience. Yet you still are haunted by results and the tyranny of what-ifs. With team sports especially, you lose the gold. Pure and simple. It could be your best game ever but you still, as a unit, were beaten!

One more thing. In the Olympic village you feel like you are floating in the clouds for a few weeks. Imagine, 10,000 athletes all at their very best—the energy is electric, palpable, invigorating. It is truly amazing thing. Leaving is hard, and many athletes go through a little depression after such a high. I did. Water polo players tend to be a little older as well, which I think makes it even harder. At the end of the day you miss the mission, the bonding and the fun.

J.P.: My son refuses to even consider water polo because he says the Speedos look ridiculous. I’m gonna be honest—sorta agree. Do you? And is there any possible way for water polo to go Michigan Fab Five ’91 and break out a baggy shorts-esque fashion statement? Or is it athletically unrealistic?

P.H.: Let’s face facts—Speedos are weird! I don’t like them, especially now with my more robust physique! Water polo is about speed, wrestling, positioning. Truly, baggier, less-tight clothing allows for your opponent to potentially grab and gain advantage more easily. So, sadly, baggy is athletically unrealistic. If board shorts were aerodynamic, less heavy, and hard to grab, we would switch in a heartbeat.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

P.H.: There are so many great moments. My first time representing the U.S. overseas; the first time I learned to shoot a Hezi; the first time we won NCAA with such a special group of guys in 2001. But the best moment was that semi-final game in 2008. It was individually probably the game I am most proud of. I had to get out and duct tape my face to cover up a wound on my eyebrow; there was another cut on my lip in the last seconds; our team was the most selfless I’d ever experienced in that game. No one wanted to count his goals, or cared about anything but winning. It was amazing.

The lowest game was the end of the last Olympics in London. I had lost my front teeth two months before the Olympics, I tore my ulnar-collateral ligament three weeks before the Olympics (Tommy John surgery is the fix); and our Olympics didn’t go as we planned. I am blessed to have been there to compete with my brothers, but I wasn’t quite able to help my team as I hoped, which broke my heart. The last game—fighting for seventh place—is a terrible place to be in.

On top of that I was sad that it would be my last time representing the USA as a player. I didn’t get much run in that game ,which just made the fight in me stew. I cried at the end and tried to take in the moment for the last time. That was a hard few days and that is the sadness that is hardest to move beyond.

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J.P.: You had a very close relationship with Jim Toring, a former UCLA water polo player who died in 1998 at age 23. I was wondering how his passing impacted you? Short term? Long term? What did you learn from him? How did he influence you? How often do you think of him?

P.H.: Jimmy and his dad used to drive me down to national team practice to watch and study when I was 14 and 15. That was such a lucky time for me and one I thought would never end. His passing was such an incredibly hard time for me. The last time I spoke with Jimmy he said that he hoped we could play on the national team together one day. My jaw dropped and I stood there just looking at him like he was crazy.

The morning he died I can vividly remember my father entering my room at about 5:45 in the morning. He rested his big mitt on my back and whispered, “Pete, Jimmy’s gone. He died this morning.” I don’t remember the rest. That day at school some of the teachers who knew him, as well as Coach Corso and I, had a wonderful moment of remembrance. But it was difficult time for all who knew and loved Jimmy.

J.P.: OK, I’m going off the farm with this one. Your last name is “Hudnut.” That strikes me as a toughie as a kid. No? Yes? Details, please …

P.H.: Hudnut as a kid SUCKS! Even as an adult. Our Olympic team had a plethora of nicknames for me, especially because they knew it would sometimes fire me up. The lucky thing is that I was always big and never minded standing up for myself. So it could have been worse. Some of my nicknames I didn’t mind. Like Nut, Bignut, Nutter. Those are fine.

But Butt-Nut, Nutter-Butter, Thudnut, No-Nut, Numbnuts. No thank you.

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• One question you would ask Mario Chalmers were he here right now?: I don’t know who that is so—”Who are you?”

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Roger Clemens, Sebastian Janikowski, Lake Tahoe, cigarette smoke, Herman’s Hermits, Third Eye Blind, golf, Malcolm X, “Catch Me If You Can”: Lake Tahoe, golf, “Catch Me if You Can,” Malcolm X, Roger Clemens, Sebastian Janikowski, Herman’s Hermits (I know they are a band but I don’t know their music), Third Eye Blind, cigarette smoke.

• Three memories from your first date: I don’t remember my first-ever date. But here are three from my first with my wife: 1. I was late; 2. I cooked a terrible meal and only had vanilla vodka and cranberry juice. Gross; 3. Though it was a blind date, I was almost immediately head over heals.

• Five greatest water polo players of your lifetime: Revaz Tchomakhidze (Russian 2m man. He was simply phenomenal); Petar Trobojovic (One of the best players, friends and teachers I had in the sport); Dusko Pjetlovic (He was a dominant center in 2008 and a great player); Manuel Estearte (Great player. Tiny guy, who proved that will, technique, and understanding the game can overcome any size delta); Tony Azevedo (I think what he has accomplished is incredible and having seen his growth as a player for over 20 years has been a pleasure).

• Let’s say we take Bo Jackson in his athletic prime, or someone like Aaron Rodgers or Serena Williams. Can we presume they’d be able to be excellent water polo players based purely on ungodly athleticism?: Interesting question. At the highest level, water polo is a selfless, hyper-physical team sport. Many people can’t manage the level of training required for water polo. You make no money, get no meaningful glory and have to train 8-10 hours per day if you want to be competitive (that includes the studying and video time before a season or Olympics). These people could do the hours, but the type of physical and mental demands, along with many peoples discomfort with the water, are what drive people away. It is a hard sport. I would love to see such natural athletes like Bo in our sport. That would be awesome.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: We dropped hundreds of feet—but never quite enough to make me think we’d die. I remember when we dropped, I cursed. Then laughed. And then I thought that I haven’t accomplished enough, nor done enough, for the greater good yet …

• Sometimes I have to sneeze, and I use my forearm to catch it. If I don’t have a tissue nearby, what should I do with the lingering snot?: Own it. Everyone sneezes; its gross; but what are you gonna do? If I’m at a pool, I’d probably grab a towel whether its mine or not—shouldn’t admit that, but it’s true. Otherwise, own it and apologize to those who notice.

• Seriously, the drought. What to do?: Make gray water mandatory for all future development; all showers must be timed and tracked; utilize ocean water; penalties for over consumption. And if all else fails, we need to find another place to steal it from. After all, LA only exists because of that.

• Why do you think sooooo many athletes have tattoos? I’m sorta inclined to believe it’s linked to ego and self-worship, but I’m probably wrong: So I have the Olympic rings next to my heart on my side-rib cage. For me it is a link to the principles that helped form who I am today as a man. Also, after the accomplishment it seemed like a nice goodbye.

I think for many it is ego, for many it is simply a product of this day and age. Tattoos for many are expressive and speak to the core of who they are. For others it’s a look-at-me thing. But who am I to judge? I believe in why I got mine and am happy with it. If you do it, make it meaningful and part of who you are, not what you are.