A Splashing Success

by Richard M. Romney

Editorial Associate

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    Indio High School’s water polo team was surprising everybody. The Southern California 3-A championship game was half over, and they were thrashing the El Dorado Hawks, 7–3. Indio’s Rajahs were considered a Cinderella club, strong on teamwork but lacking the polish and size necessary to pull off an upset. Yet somehow they were winning the game!

    Calvin Lowell, 17, braced himself at the edge of the pool, ready to sprint to the center. (In water polo each quarter begins when the referee tosses the ball to the middle of the water, and players swim toward it in a scramble for possession.) He knew El Dorado would come out fighting.

    Cal looked up at his father, Dr. John Lowell, who was standing near one of the diving boards, ready to shout encouragement. It wasn’t just another case of a proud spectator cheering on his boy. Cal’s father is the Indio coach.

    The whistle shrieked. Waves foamed and churned. One blazing shot after another skittered into the net, despite flailing arms and lunging defensive maneuvers. Two of Indio’s top players fouled out. The lead narrowed to 8–7. Each team scored again quickly. Then with two minutes and 36 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, an El Dorado forward slapped the ball from the goalie’s hand and it floated into the net to knot the score at 9–9.

    Coach Lowell bowed his head. Ignoring thousands of screaming fans, he said a silent prayer. He knew the Lord couldn’t promise a victory, but he hoped that each player would perform to the best of his ability. A new strategy came into his head, and he called a time out.

    He gathered the players around him and counseled them to avoid the congested area just in front of the goals, concentrating on outside shots. Play resumed. The tactic worked perfectly, but the man who wound up free with the ball was the team’s poorest marksman. “Not him,” Coach Lowell wanted to shout. “Anybody but …”

    The ball slammed into the goal’s canvas backing. Indio led again, 10–9. The same play worked twice more with other Indio shooters, while the Hawks tallied only one more point. The seconds timer read zero. The championship game was over, and the Rajahs had won, 12–10!

    The CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) victory over El Dorado was the culmination of a lot of struggle and practice for the coach and his players. But more than that, it was the realization of a goal shared by a father and a son. Cal Lowell and his father, both active members of the Church, have been working together to build water polo in Indio for a long time.

    The Lowell family came to the community under unusual circumstances. Brother Lowell had just finished his doctorate degree at BYU and was searching for a job. “I knew I wanted to coach swimming because Cal was in swimming. He showed talent as a youngster, and all I really wanted to do was help him develop it. I wanted to find a job that would allow me to spend time with my son.”

    But after graduation Brother Lowell was 50 and unemployed. He’d been fasting and praying about finding a job and worrying particularly about his older son Ron who was still on a mission. As he sat at the kitchen table reading a swimming magazine, a small classified ad caught Brother Lowell’s attention. It described a coaching position available in a desert town 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Every detail seemed to be describing him. “It was like a hand came down on my shoulder, and I had to get up and call the number. I figured that an ad in a national magazine would already be filled, but I knew I had to call just the same. I told the man who answered the phone, ‘You may think I’m crazy, but I think the Lord wants me to come to Indio and coach swimming. I’m a Mormon, and I think that I’m being told that that’s what I should be doing.’ The man said, ‘I don’t think you’re crazy; I’m a Mormon, too!’” Brother Joe Rile, the man Brother Lowell had phoned, was on the board of directors for a private swim club in Indio. Soon the whole Lowell family was relocated.

    When they arrived in Indio, there were good facilities, but there was no solid program for water polo. Brother Lowell started talking to community leaders, and Cal and his friends started “recruiting” potential players. The combined community and high school effort they initiated for both swimming and water polo has produced an enviable record.

    Four boys formed the nucleus of the original team. (There are seven players per team, counting the goalie.) They played a summer of AAU league water polo in eighth grade before their freshman year in high school. In their first high school season they won athletic letters and started on the varsity polo team. In swimming they won the CIF freshman-sophomore 6-by-50-yard relay (freestyle). Then they captured the national Junior Olympics water polo crown (15 and under) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and six of the players on that trip, including Cal, were named to the All-America team.

    The next year Indio’s high school team won the league water polo championship and made it into the second round CIF playoffs. Then during swimming season they won four out of seven events in the CIF freshman-sophomore relays, setting three records, including one national record that beat the previous time by three seconds. Cal was the anchor (final) swimmer on all the relay squads and qualified for the state championships in all four strokes on varsity time standards as a sophomore.

    Brother Lowell also arranged for the team to travel to Australia and to the Church College of New Zealand and to play several exhibition games en route. To help fund that project, the polo players swam 7,000 laps in a hotel pool, with people pledging money for each lap completed. During the tour they stayed part of the time with LDS families and were impressed by their friendly attitude, high standards, and enthusiasm for life. “They made us feel at home,” Guy Baker, one of Cal’s teammates, said. The team gained enough recognition with its 13–1–1 record during the tour to receive tentative invitations to Japan and Cuba next year.

    But the team members feel the high school championship over El Dorado in 1977 still tops their list of achievements. No team outside the Los Angeles area had ever won the 3-A water polo title before. (And incidentally, all of the starting Indio players were named to the all-CIF team, and Brother Lowell was named coach of the year.) It’s indicative of the growth water polo has made since the Lowells arrived in Indio. So is the formation of the Indio Aquatics Club, an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) organization founded by Brother Lowell, which stars the same swimmers in tournaments against amateur teams.

    Both Cal and his father are quick to point out, though, that their success hasn’t come without effort. “When we organized our first summer polo program here,” Cal said, “we didn’t even know what the tournaments were. We called up team after team, but they wouldn’t practice with us. Mira Costa (150 miles away) was the only team that would play us, and that was at seven in the morning.” So Sister Lowell and the players got up at 4:00 A.M., drove for three hours, played the game, and drove home. (Brother Lowell had to work at the high school and couldn’t leave.) They lost 14–2. They battled through the rest of that initial AAU season, too. In nine of the eleven final games, they won by only one point. (But then they battled on in championship playoffs to the Junior Olympic title mentioned above.)

    Since then the team has faced nearly year-round playing schedules. “We played for almost two years straight until this last break,” Cal said. “A lot of us were getting tired, but afterwards we looked back at it and decided it was maybe kind of worth it after all.”

    Part of the struggle is the daily workout schedule. “It’s a lot more demanding to train for water polo than swimming,” Cal said. “You have a lot of swimming practice, then a lot of practice with the ball—drills, plays, and shooting. It takes at least three to three-and-a-half hours a day, as opposed to two to two-and-a-half for swimming. You swim just about as much training for water polo, plus you have the other drills as well. In the game you’re not supposed to touch the bottom or the sides. It takes endurance just to tread water for 24 minutes (a game consists of four six-minute periods), let alone swim as fast as you can go. You can’t just stop and rest when you get tired.”

    Talking with any member of the Lowell family (there are six: Mom, Dad, Ron (24), Cal, and two older married sisters, Lauri and Stephanie), it’s easy to see firm evidence of the importance of gospel principles in their lives. Home evenings are regular, and Brother Lowell visits his home teaching families on a weekly, not a monthly, basis when needed. Calvin, a priest in the Indio Ward, Palm Springs California Stake, often muses about his role as one of only a few LDS examples in his high school. “I’ve had friends who have done bad things because they wanted to be part of the group. I’m not the group, so I just take off and do other things. I try to remember that I have something better. I know what’s right and wrong.

    “The student-body president, Matt Morris, is LDS, too (see FYI, February 1978). He’s a priest and a good friend of mine. I talk to him a lot. And I have another friend who’s not LDS, and I really like him. He understands what I believe.” The second friend is an artist, and Cal likes to draw, so they often share ideas about art. That’s typical of Cal’s style—not pushy, not forward, but confident. He figures if he lives gospel principles others will see a difference in him. “I’m not so much worried about setting an example,” he said. “I just do what I believe in. Then if other people want to notice, they will.”

    Larry Hammers, another nonmember on the team, said Cal has impressed him in two ways—by his unselfish playing attitude, assisting other players instead of always trying to score himself; and by his dedication to the Word of Wisdom. “He doesn’t smoke and drink and stuff like that like a lot of the other kids do. A lot of people know who he is. You have to look up to him. He’s a great guy.”

    Cal himself feels the responsibility. “At first it was really hard, but now people know what I believe in, and they don’t even ask me to do wrong things anymore. They don’t want me to do it; they’d be disappointed in me if I did. If anybody else tried to talk me into it, my friends would tell them no before I would.”

    In his bedroom, trophies line Cal’s bookshelves, gleaming with inscriptions such as “swimmer of the year.” Other banners boast Olympic symbols, divulging one of Cal’s distant dreams—to someday play on an Olympic polo team. But before that, “I want to play in college, and I want to go on a mission, too. It may be hard, but I want to do both.” He’d also like to try for a spot on the 19-and-under U.S. Junior Olympic team.

    He has to lie down to relax because his neck brace makes it difficult to sit. That’s been part of his struggle, too—illness. A disease in the bones of his neck has hampered him with the brace for two years, and he’s also fought off pneumonia twice. He told about swimming in CIF finals after only one week of training and missing first place by a single stroke. “I swam better than I have all my life. I couldn’t have done it by myself. I needed the Lord to help me because I was three or four months out of shape.”

    He talks about improving: “I’ve got to think about it all the time, or I’m not going to be good. I wish I had more time. I don’t think I’m as good as I should be. I wish I were practicing right now.”

    And about losing: “Naturally you hate it, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Just try to do better next time; go home and work on your mistakes. I try to remember new moves other players use on me and practice them with the team. Then the next time, we’re all prepared to defend against them.”

    And about his father and his example: “We’ve done a lot of things together—he’s always been the coach; I’ve always been the player. Some of the kids think he gives me special consideration or something. It’s hard for him not to. But I won’t take anything special from him, and he’s not allowed to give me any awards or anything.”

    Other players recognize Coach Lowell’s dedication to family, team, and church. “The other two coaches are part of it, too, but Coach Lowell has a lot to do with our success,” one player said. “He has us give a team yell in Hawaiian. Instead of giving awards, he has his wife bake pies for players who do a good job. And he always has little success formulas written on the blackboard, like CIF = pi 2 U. Maybe it’s silly, but it helps us set goals.”

    A young girl he coached made a memento box for the coach. Inside it he keeps souvenirs, among them a letter from another former swimmer. It reads: “This page literally states what I’m trying to say. You have indeed enriched my life beyond explanation. I’ve seen a man who dreams and pays the price to achieve those goals. This in itself has inspired me to realize that I can, too, dream dreams that can come true. Thanks for being the good man that you are. I love you. And I’m richer just because I know you.”

    Coach Lowell’s eyes cloud up as he reads. “My patriarchal blessing says I will lead young people and that my words will influence them,” he says. “I often wondered about that while I was in the army and playing sports there myself. But since my retirement, almost all my callings in the Church have been as a Sunday School teacher for teenagers or as a priests quorum adviser. My life’s been tied up in the kids I coach, too. You’ve got to relate what the person learns in sports to life. If you don’t then when you blow the whistle for the last time, you’ve left nothing with them. I hope I leave them with the idea that they can have visions beyond what everybody thinks they can do, that if they dream big and work hard, they can achieve things far beyond what people normally expect them to do. Don’t be second-rate all your life. Reach! You’ve got to reach!”

    Maybe that’s the attitude that’s brought success to Indio. Or maybe victory was lured there by the amiably gruff man in the surfer’s cap and sneakers, growling as his swimmers paddle through lap after training lap in the pool. Perhaps the prayers before each game help, since even the boys who say they don’t believe in God voluntarily join in. Certainly training, desire, and talent like Cal’s have their part.

    But most likely it’s a combination of all those ingredients, exemplified in the love John Lowell and Calvin Lowell share. The most important lessons learned in Indio aren’t about swimming or training or passing plays or endurance. They’re lessons about relationships, like those of player to coach, member to nonmember, and father to son.

    Editor’s note: Since this story was written, the Indio Aquatics Club has continued winning, taking second place in its division at this year’s national Junior Olympics. Cal Lowell was named first team All-American in the competition.

    Photos by Richard M. Romney and Tony Freeman

    At Indio High, water polo and the Lowell family are synonymous. Both Coach Lowell and Cal spend hours each day at the pool

    Though her husband’s Hawaiian hats keep his swimmers in stitches, Sister Lowell knows who really sews up the headgear

    Cal (number 4) maintains his calm (and control of the ball) during Indio’s startling win in the state finals

    Water polo’s a lot like basketball. There are (top photo) one-on-one maneuvers for ball control … defenders trying to block shots on the goal (center photo) … and even dribbling (bottom photo). Players must never touch the bottom of the pool

    Just before the final state game, the Indio team gathers for its traditional cheer: “Imua!” (the Hawaiian word for forward)