When the Daily News profiled the U.S. Water Polo Team on July 3, the writer noted that Jesse Smith will lead the way “in his record-tying fifth Olympics.”
In addition to Smith, a 38-year-old Pepperdine alumnus, four other players are returning from the 13-man team that finished a disappointing 10th at the Rio Olympics.
New team members include former Palisades Highlands resident Johnny Hooper, 24. His parents are Mimi Nagatani (the daughter of a WWII kamikaze pilot, who survived) and Gary Hooper, who was inducted into the CBVA Beach Volleyball Hall of Fame in 2009. They are now divorced.
Hooper attended Village School in the Palisades and Harvard-Westlake, where he helped the water polo team win the Southern Section Division I championship against defending champion Santa Ana Mater Dei.
L.A. Times sports writer Eric Sondhiem profiled Hooper in 2014 and quoted Hooper’s long-time coach Brian Flacks:
“He’s very confident in his abilities and is probably the most competitive person I’ve ever met,” Flacks said. “He’s a freak of nature athletically. He could be a big-time swimmer. He could play volleyball. He lives and breathes water polo.”
When Hooper started playing at age 8, Flacks was his first coach, and continued to work with him through high school. While growing up here, Hooper, a natural athlete, played most sports.
In a 2019 Swimming World article (“On the Deck with Cal Berkeley’s Johnny Hooper”), Hooper noted that he liked to surf and “I play pick-up basketball, pick-up volleyball, pick-up baseball, almost every sport. It keeps my coordination up.
“I think playing a bunch of sports enables you to be a better player in your specific sport because of your coordination, feeling the ball a different way.
“There are so many things that you can add to your game when you play other sports.”
A 6-1 offensive player, Hooper attended Berkeley on a water polo scholarship and was a four-time All-American. He scored 245 goals during his career and ranks second on the school’s career list behind three-time Olympian Chris Humbert. After graduation, Hooper attended Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, while continuing to play water polo internationally.
Hopper, who is fluent in Japanese and also has a citizenship in Japan, was quoted on the USA water polo site: “I competed in almost every sport growing up, but I knew I wanted to be a professional athlete at a very young age. The Olympic Games have always been a dream of mine.”
A 2021 People magazine story (“Water Polo Olympic Hopeful Johnny Hooper Says Team Is a ‘Family.’ You’re Not Playing for Yourself”) detailed a near disastrous experience. Hooper was in South Korea, on the balcony in a nightclub, when it collapsed. Two men died, 16 others were injured, including Hooper, who needed stitches on his left hand.
“Definitely someone was watching over me that night,” he told People. “I’m the luckiest person on earth to have gone now pretty unscathed.
“You live life, you cherish every moment moving forward from that. You give your mom a big hug and give your friends a big hug. And you take a step back and you realize what the important things are in your life.”
Hooper is one of the smallest men on the USA squad, but as a 2019 Seattle Times story noted: “Listed at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, Hooper is on the smallish side for an elite water polo player. But he makes up for his lack of size with superior athleticism. He rises so high out of the water at times that it looks as if he is climbing some stairs.
“‘He’s a human fish,’ said U.S. center Ben Hallock, who also played with Hooper in high school. ‘There’s a couple pictures of him out there where literally you can see his thighs are out of the water when he gets up. … He’s a next-level athlete.’”
The USA’s first game is against Japan on July 24, then South Africa on July 26, Italy on July 28, Hungary on July 30 and Greece on August 1. In order to advance to the quarterfinals on August 4, the Americans will need to place in the top four.
The USA hasn’t won a medal in water polo since capturing a silver at the 2008 Beijing Games.
Will Hooper take the penalty shots? He did so at Harvard-Westlake and Cal Berkeley. In the Swimming World article, he was asked, “Do you think of anything in particular when you shoot?”
He replied, “I usually have a place where I am going to shoot, but at the last second, I try to read the goalie. I switch it up at the last second depending on what the goalie does. I stay up as long as I can before I release. It’s all about holding the ball for as long as you can while watching the goalie. You’ve got to have a fast twitch and make a decision based on what you see in the goalies and their tendencies.”