Three-time U.S. Olympic men's water polo coach Monte Nitzkowski recently died at age 86. He was remembered for his success along with his role as an innovator and ambassador for the sport.

Olympic water polo coach Monte Nitzkowski carved a lasting legacy

Three-time U.S. Olympic men’s water polo coach Monte Nitzkowski, a Huntington Beach resident known as a pioneer and ambassador for the sport, recently died at 86 after a battle with prostate cancer.

The Huntington Beach High graduate was the U.S. men’s coach for the 1972, 1980 (boycott) and 1984 Olympics, guiding the Americans to a bronze medal in Munich and silver in Los Angeles. Team USA was considered a gold-medal contender in 1980.

The bronze medal at the ’72 Games marked the United States’ first Olympic medal in men’s water polo since 1932.

Nitzkowski, an Olympic swimmer in 1952, was an innovator with water polo tactics such as the counterattack or fast-break and setting basketball-style picks. He also created the national team structure, said retired Newport Harbor coach Bill Barnett, who followed Nitzkowski as the U.S. men’s coach.

“Best water polo coach the United States has ever had,” Barnett said of Nitzkowski, whom he counted as a mentor. “Great motivator for the young men.”

Nitzkowski also built a powerhouse water polo program at Long Beach City College, capturing 32 conference titles.

But beyond the victories and medals, the Fullerton College and UCLA product worked hard to grow the sport, said his step-son, Rick Scott. Nitzkowski became an advocate for NCAA men’s water polo, hosted coaching clinics and supported the growth of high school girls water polo.

“He just loved the sport of water polo,” said Scott, who played for Nitzkowski at Long Beach City. “His whole life was (geared) toward advancing the sport.”

Scott said Nitzkowski prized his relationships within the sport. Former players such as Joe Vargas of Seal Beach carry on the legacy. Vargas, an Olympian in 1980 and 1984, said Nitzkowski positively influenced him in and outside of the pool, including areas such as fatherhood and business.

“Monte was the whole package,” Vargas said. “Great coach. Great mentor. Great advisor. Great friend.”

A celebration of Nitzkowski’s life is being planned for next month, Scott said. Nitzkowski is the second well-known O.C. water polo figure to die this summer. Barbara Kalbus of Newport Beach, the former president of the federation and rules expert, died in early June.

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