Inducted June 23, 2016
Monte Nitzkowski was a two-time All-America swimmer and water polo player at UCLA and member of the 1952 U.S. Olympic team swimming the butterfly. He coached water polo at Long Beach City College from 1955 to 1989 winning 32 conference championships. He served as the U.S. National water polo coach from 1967-1984, coaching in four Olympics. He also coached in five Pan American games where his teams won four gold medals.
Water Polo Pioneer
By Steve Bodnar
Macomb Community College
Teacher. Innovator. Olympian.
These words describe America’s preeminent water polo coach, Kenneth “Monte” Nitzkowski—the newest member of the NPASHF.
Monte was “shocked and thrilled” and very proud of his Polish heritage when he heard of his election. But his career as a champion—in and out of the water—speaks for itself.
Growing up in Pasadena, California, Monte was always close to water, swimming and playing water polo at Fullerton Junior College before transferring to UCLA—where he got to know legendary basketball coach John Wooden—and earning All Coast honors in water polo and All-American honors in swimming.
After graduation, he joined the Navy, working with swim coach John Higgens. He decided to enter the 1952 Olympic Trials and—though other swimmers had better pre-trial times—made the Helsinki team, swimming the butterfly and breaststroke.
Walking into the stadium and hearing the crowd cheer wildly for the U.S. team transformed his life. The rush, he said, was incredible, and he’d devote the rest of his competitive life to getting back to the Olympics.
He would do so not as a swimmer—but as a coach.
His Olympic quest began at California State University, Long Beach, earning a masters in teaching. When asked if his love of teaching contributed to his coaching success, Monte quickly replied, “I really believe that.” His Long Beach City College teams won 32 conference water polo championships and 12 swim titles from 1954-1989.
Monte began coaching water polo internationally when he was named Assistant Pan American Coach in 1967, the U.S. winning gold. To compete for Olympic gold, however, the U.S. had to keep improving in and out of the pool. Monte said, “We grew the sport as teachers. We had to develop a (total) program: athletes, refs, young coaches.”
Monte finally found his way back to the Olympics, sixteen years after his initial appearance, as an assistant coach in 1968 (Mexico City) and then Head Olympic Coach for the 1972 Olympics in Munich. The team took home a surprise bronze medal, the first U. S. Olympic water polo medal since 1932.
But it was Monte’s style of play that caught the world’s attention. Ever the innovator, he revolutionized the game with fast-paced movement and a deep-strike, relentless counterattack. The Europeans enviously called it “Space-Age Water Polo.” “We had the greatest counter attack the world had ever seen,” said Monte. “We took the Europeans out of their game. We went there for the gold!” Monte’s style made it fun for players and spectators. Water polo, he once said, “should be basketball and soccer in the water.”
That’s why Monte got into the sport in the first place, the “innovation and excitement I could bring to water polo . . . this is what athletes and fans love!” His love of aquatic tactics brought a dimension to the sport that hadn’t been seen before
And it paid off. As national team coach from 1977-1984, Monte was responsible for the rise of the U.S. in the world rankings. His teams won gold at the 1979 and 1983 Pan American Games (where he roomed with Coach K) in addition to triumphs in the 1979, 1981, and 1983 FINA Cup Championships.
For his international success, Monte was again named head coach, this time for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Unfortunately, the games were boycotted by the U.S. It was a crushing blow; the team was favored to win gold. Being named head coach for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, in his own backyard no less, softened the disappointment. The team won silver even though they never lost a game, losing the gold medal to Yugoslavia on goal differential. “Every game was exciting,” said Monte. “It was awesome!”
That’s what Monte’s coaching career has been. Awesome! The 1952 and 1984 Olympics—Monte’s two most treasured sports moments—are bookends around a fabulous career. He was elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1991 and the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006.
To honor his many successes, the sport’s top coaching award is named “The Monte Nitzkowski Elite Coaching Award for Water Polo.”