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The Journal Gazette

Friday, July 12, 2019 1:00 am

Trip to Tokyo motivates US water polo player

JAY COHEN | Associated Press

Long before Johnny Hooper starred at California and started playing water polo against the world, his biggest competition was his father, Gary.

They played different sports, and Johnny lost all the time at first. Gary Hooper was an elite athlete, a Hall of Famer in beach volleyball.

While Johnny Hooper was competing against his dad, a spark turned into a flame, and a flame grew into a fire.

He does not like to lose. Ever.

“I guess it is a deep-rooted issue as well,” Hooper said in a phone interview. “I definitely always, always, whether it be in or out of the pool, I want to be the best in every single aspect or every single category that you can be in so that there's no doubt in anyone's mind that you're doing your job.”

Three years after he failed to make the 2016 Olympic team, Hooper is a key attacker for the United States heading into a big summer. The U.S. plays Kazakhstan on Monday in Gwangju, South Korea, in its first game at the world championships – a major touchpoint on the road to the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Playing in the Olympics would be a dream come true for Hooper, 22, and his family. This one, in particular.

Hooper has dual citizenship with the U.S. and Japan. His mother, Mimi, was born in Kumakura, and his grandmother, Tomiko Nagatani, lives near Yokohama.

“My grandma is definitely patiently waiting,” Johnny Hooper said with a chuckle. “She wants to see me in the Olympics very, very, very badly.”

Hooper's mother knew little about water polo when a firefighter friend of Gary's recommended the sport for Johnny, who took to swimming at a very young age.

Looking for a place for Johnny to play, Mimi, 55, called Pepperdine University and got connected to then-coach Jack Kocur.

“They kept saying 'So is he an eighth grader?' And I said 'No, he's 8 years old.' They kept saying 'So is he in high school?' And I said 'No, he's 8 years old,' ” Mimi said. “So the guy started laughing and said 'Let me give you the number of a friend of mine who runs a water polo club.'”

Kocur directed Mimi to Los Angeles Water Polo Club. Brian Flacks, who coached Hooper from his first team all the way through his prep career at Harvard-Westlake in Los Angeles, said it was obvious right away.

“You just don't come across athletes at that young of an age that move that well in the water,” Flacks said. “This kid's been that good for that long.”

Hooper was a four-time All-American at Harvard-Westlake, and he helped power the University of California to the 2016 NCAA title.

“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.”