I despised him, and him me, or so we thought. He was a nemesis without my ever defining him as such. All because of a game. And yet, given a few years and unique circumstances, he became a dear friend, even standing next to me years later at my wedding. All because of that same game.
I attended Stanford, recruited as a water polo goalie. Sean Nolan was a year ahead of me, at UC Berkeley, also a recruited goalie. Upon arriving to campus, Stanford and Cal freshmen are indoctrinated with the meme informing them of their mutual dislike—one of those evolutionary vestiges of us versus other. It’s even more so for athletes playing out this drama on the stage of the athletic fields. Our games against Cal always seemed about much more than scoring goals: it embodied something bigger, along the lines of public versus private, East Bay versus Peninsula, good versus evil.
I discovered this in my first game against Cal as their fans set up camp directly behind our goal, with a bag of beer and many a heckle. I’d love to say it didn’t affect me but one can only take so much, having to turn into the goal to retrieve the proof of one’s recent public failure, only to hear from a frat guy what an embarrassment of a goalie he thinks I am, or from his female cohort as to how I look like a child with my rosy cheeks and should go back to the playground.
My close friends saw this and, while not so much their style, returned the favor to Sean at our ensuing games. Some of these same close friends would also stand next to me at my wedding years later and joke about what a strange human endeavor that all was. They admitted to Sean that they never really thought he “sucked,” not that his multi-All American awards didn’t already demonstrate this.
This ill-founded animosity between us persisted throughout our entire college careers. Sean recalls his irritation, to say the least, as he saw me on Cal’s campus repeatedly, as I’d frequently venture over the bridge to see various bands gracing Berkeley’s campus for lunchtime concerts. They always seemed to attract the cool bands. He claims having come close to approaching me and asking me to leave at one point. Sean still proudly asserts that he owns no Stanford-red clothing.
School affiliation is territorial. Goalkeeping, too, is territorial. Both Sean and I take that seriously, neither of us allowing a ball to even rest inside of the goal during training. Water polo goalies have a 2-meter line protecting us, much like the crease of an ice hockey goal, and we like it that way. It’s ours.
After my senior year, the U.S. Olympic Team invited me to train through the 1996 Olympics. While the team had two exceptionally strong goalies, teams of this caliber typically carry four goalies, primarily for training purposes, though also in the case of injury to a traveling goalie and, in this particular case, to prepare younger goalies for the 2000 Olympics. It was an honor, to say the least. As I arrived on the pool deck Day One, imagine my dismay as I encountered the fourth goalie: Berkeley Sean.
For the next six months the team trained twice per day, two to three hours at a time. While the first half of a training session typically involves an intense focus on conditioning and skills, the second half nearly always consists of scrimmage and game-type training. Two goals in a game. Two goalies. As for the backup goalies, they sat together, for three hours each day, running the clocks.
I wish I could accurately recall what those first days were like. I truly don’t remember them. It would make for a better story if I could say we sat with our backs to each other, or trash-talked, or some other Hollywood-style nemesis behavior. If that did happen, it is clouded by something entirely the opposite. My earliest memory is of Sean and I inventing a way for water polo players to utilize their towels as a device for improving posture while sitting on the bench: the athlete sits on each end of the towel and wraps the middle across the lower back, pulling the ends taught, forcing a straight back. We developed amazing posture. We both wanted to get something out of those three hours per day as our pay was relatively little and we were yet unaware of the priceless friendship commencing. It came to be the running joke of the team—Sean and Jack, yucking it up in the bleachers, with perfect posture.
We sent the team off to the ’96 Olympic Games, as planned. New friendship in tact. A few short months later, the team reported to Stanford University—advantage, Bowen—for Day One of the next quadrennium, under new head coach, John Vargas. Vargas had been the assistant coach of the ’96 team and so knew us well. And I remember the following moment quite clearly: We sat in the locker room—the same locker room where I’d celebrated numerous victories over Cal as a Stanford player—John, Sean, and I. John said to us, “One of you will go to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.” He walked out of the locker room leaving us together, allowing the words and their weight to float about in our midst.
From that day forward, an ideal competition transpired between two athletes striving for a singularly attainable achievement. Sean and I pushed each other in our training, recognizing that the stakes and demands, both emotionally and physically, had become much greater. We would repeatedly celebrate the other’s saves in a way that I began to realize was sincere. Two great goalies who care deeply about the art of goalkeeping, celebrating good goalkeeping.
I have always held somewhat of a romantic view of goalkeepers in any sport. I’ve bought into the great Russian Olympic ice hockey goalie Vladislav Tretiak’s famous comment, “There is no position in sport as noble as goaltending.” The position demands a strength of self and an unflappable demeanor while also, by its very nature, a sense of humility. Built into the position is public failure. It’s impossible to perfect. Goalies know this and can best empathize with the plight of other goalies.
During the next two years, Sean and I took turns traveling on international trips, and playing in tournaments. Every other month, one of us would have two weeks off while the other experienced some great new place—Greece, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Australia—meeting new players, making big saves, allowing goals. We’d report back to the other how well it had gone, and it typically went well.
At one point in the travel calendar, the two of us ended up on the same trip. It’s rare that a team travels with three goalies due to cost and space, but there we were: a glitch, maybe? Some sort of test? It was for the Goodwill Games, hosted in New York the summer of ’98. After Russia ran the table for the gold medal, we spent a week training at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, home of the 1932 and 1980 winter Olympics.
Just being a part of the Goodwill Games is a powerful athletic experience in and of itself. But getting to train where goalie Jim Craig led the U.S. Hockey team to their Miracle on Ice—which I remember, fondly, watching with my mother as my love affair with goalkeeping was beginning—made it all the more special. At one point during this trip, during an afternoon off, Sean and I strolled through the quaint downtown, bought the same book at a bookstore to read together, sat by the lake and tackled life’s biggest issues. I was getting my graduate degree in philosophy at the time, and it turns out that goalies tend to be somewhat philosophical by nature, likely due to the countless hours spent alone in the goal, pondering.
A few weeks following this adventure Coach Vargas called me into his office following training one afternoon at Corona Del Mar High School. He and the Assistant Coach welcomed me in and I knew, immediately, what it regarded, and what the outcome would be. I don’t remember a single thing they said to me, but they cut it straight and let me know they’d decided to go with Sean as the goalie for the 2000 Olympics. In line with that adage, “It’s not what you tell them but how you make them feel,” they ended my career about as well as one can.
After we shook hands, I exited the room and saw Sean standing there, clearly at the directive of the coaches. He was on deck: same meeting, different outcome. I sat in my car in the parking lot for the next five minutes. I know I must have felt sadness. But I also recall feeling some semblance of something uplifting.
Amidst my stirring, Sean emerged from the office and into the parking lot. An admittedly delicate situation for him, as one might imagine. I must have been one of the few people he truly wanted to celebrate this news with—the one, above all, who could really know what this meant—yet, obviously, the least ideal candidate for sharing in Sean’s joy. We hugged. I’m pretty sure I cried a bit on his shoulder. It was a telling embrace, one not worth trying to force poetically into words. One of us suggested dinner. And we spent the remainder of that evening over a great meal together, rehashing so much of what we’d experienced together on so many levels.
The details of this all seem somewhat foggy. But there’s a feeling that has remained. It honestly could be a feeling resulting from something clichéd, as if being your best and giving it one’s all is all that counts—that the intrinsic value experienced in pursuit of a goal matters the most. No doubt that’s a part of it. A large part of it, certainly, was the friendship forged in such a rich and genuine manner. Pursuing a sport with all your heart truly does yield uniquely profound fruits, adventures, and intangibles unlikely to transpire in any other venture. When I push my own athletes, this is what I hope for them.
It was just two weeks ago Sean sent me an email, attaching a photo of a pool deck with a banner featuring a relevant quote from NBA shot-blocking legend Bill Russell: “The idea is not to block every shot. The idea is to make your opponent believe that you might block every shot.” Since then, I’ve replayed this entire experience. Part of me wants to find a way to thank sport in general, clearly a metaphysical impossibility. Another part, to thank all of my coaches, and teammates, and USA Water Polo. Most of all, I thank Sean, for also pouring his heart into his goalkeeping, for taking the risks he did as an athlete and a friend, and for making me better at both of those. I just realize my one regret: I missed an opportunity to force him to wear red at my wedding.
Jack Bowen, a philosophy teacher and water polo coach at Menlo School, writes a weekly blog for The Institute of Sports Law and Ethics at Santa Clara University. He has published three books including If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers (Random House) and The Dream Weaver: One Boys Journey Through the Landscape of Reality (Penguin). A two-time All-American water polo player at Stanford, he was also the MVP of the 1994 NCAA Championships. He currently conducts one of the premier goalkeeper academies in the country, and is working on his next book exploring value and virtue in sport. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @1jackbowen.