Peter Hudnut's 'last chance' at glory

When Peter Hudnut fires up his computer each morning, a photograph from the 2008 Beijing Olympics appears as his desktop image. And then it fires him up.

In it, Hudnut is sitting on the pool deck at Yingdong Natatorium, his feet in the water and his body slouched in a dejected posture of defeat. A few moments earlier, Hudnut and his U.S. teammates had completed an improbable run to become Olympic silver medalists. They arrived in Beijing ranked ninth in the tournament and were leaving with the first American medal in 20 years.

To their friends, family and the U.S. water polo community back home, Hudnut and his teammates were heroes. But when Hudnut, 32, looks at that photo, he sees something else entirely.

"A loser," he says. "In a sport like ours, you don't win a silver medal. You lose the gold-medal match."

Every day for the past three months, Hudnut has looked at that photo for motivation. It reminds him of a feeling he does not want to experience again; it reminds him why he returned to the sport in 2010, two years after retiring to attend business school at Stanford. When he looks at that photograph, he is filled with a willingness to do anything, "within reason, character and integrity," to win this time around.

"I didn't come back to be a tourist at the Olympics," he says. "I didn't come back for a silver medal. This is about our team's final stand together. This is our last chance."

'I wish I was an Olympian'

Hudnut was 8 years old when the U.S. Olympic team traveled to Seoul, South Korea, for the Games of the XXIV Olympiad. From the lighting of the flame to the closing ceremonies, Hudnut spent as much time in front of the television as his school schedule, and parents, would allow. Hudnut's father, Tom, talked about the Olympic motto of "faster, higher, stronger" and what it meant to be an Olympian. He also read him the Olympic creed:

"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

At the time, Hudnut played baseball and basketball, but he was big for his age. He was uncoordinated, and yearned to be a natural athlete and student like his older brother, Spencer. In first grade, he had been held back with learning problems, and sports seemed just as much of an uphill slog. Nothing came easy for Hudnut, so when he heard the Olympic creed, he connected with its meaning.

"The Olympics wasn't just about being the best," he said. "It was about the constant pursuit of your potential."

The Olympics became his obsession. He drew the rings on his arms in ballpoint pen and pretended they were tattoos. He imagined himself standing on a podium, gold medal around his neck and the national anthem playing in the background. He didn't know what sport he'd play; he just knew, one day, he would be an Olympian. The next year, in third grade, he was assigned to write a poem with the title, "I wish I was ... ." In his newly learned cursive handwriting, Hudnut wrote:

I wish I was an Olympian.

I would run, jump and do the softball throw.

If I won, I would proudly carry my flag.

I wish I was an Olympian.

"That's as much as I can remember," Hudnut said. "I think the softball throw was the elementary school version of the shot put."

Missing piece to the puzzle

Hudnut was born in Washington, D.C., and his family moved to San Francisco when he was 3. When he was 9, the family moved again, to Southern California, where his father had accepted a job as headmaster at Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City. The water polo coach at the time was Richard Corso, a goalie on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. When Tom met Corso, he told him about his son's obsession with the Olympics. Bring him to a practice, Corso told his new headmaster.

"At that first practice, Coach gave me a little blue bag with the Olympic rings on one side and 'USA' on the other. Inside it was a teeny Speedo, a tiny ball and a cap," Hudnut said. "It was a kid's set, but it was too small because I was a giant child."

Corso reiterated to Hudnut what his dad had told him about the Olympic spirit and invited him to practice with the junior high team. At the time, Hudnut didn't know how to swim, could barely tread water and, after his first practice, climbed out of the pool in tears.

"I was playing with eighth graders," he said. "The coach who was running practice didn't know I was in fourth grade because I was so big."

So, he waited and learned how to swim. By age 11, Hudnut was finally playing on the school team. He was still growing -- at age 12, he was already 6-foot-1 -- and getting fit. In 1992, Corso was named coach of the U.S. Olympic team and began taking Hudnut along on the two-hour drive from the Valley to Long Beach to watch national team practices. On many of those drives, Jim Toring, the 18-year-old star of the Harvard-Westlake varsity team, sat in the passenger seat doing his homework and answering Hudnut's ceaseless supply of questions.

"We were friends, but let's call a spade a spade," Hudnut said. "I idolized Jimmy. Our friendship was based on my adoration of him and on him being very generous with his time."

Hudnut watched the best water polo players in the country and envisioned himself practicing with them. At 14, he brought home VHS tapes of their matches and taught himself trick shots. He then told his parents not to worry about paying for college. They were already putting his brother and sister through college on teachers' salaries, and he didn't want them to stress about paying for a third tuition.

"I told them I was going to college on a water polo scholarship," he said. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in January of his senior year, Hudnut told a reporter, "I'm hoping to play four years for a Division I top school, win the NCAAs, more than once, play the next decade or so on the national team and in at least one Olympics. Then, maybe I can play professionally in Europe. I will get a serious job someday."

Later that year, his predictions started to come true. Stanford, Pepperdine, UCLA and Cal expressed interest. When Hudnut asked Toring, a recent UCLA grad, for his advice, he told him, "If you get into Stanford, go to Stanford." When he did, Hudnut realized he had taken the first step toward fulfilling the rest of his goals, including competing alongside his hero on the U.S. Olympic team once he graduated from Stanford. But he would never get the chance.

In April 1998, during a U.S. national team trip in Paris, Toring stepped from behind a parked bus and into the path of an oncoming bus while attempting to cross the street at night. He spent a week in a coma and died eight days after the accident at age 23.

"I remember my father coming into my room at 5:30 in the morning, laying his big ol' hand on my back and telling me Jimmy had passed away in the night," Hudnut said. "I was crushed. Just like every kid's hero, I thought he was invincible. He was supposed to pull through."

The next day, Hudnut wore sunglasses to school and kept his head down in the hallways. At practice, Corso pulled him aside and told him the torch had been passed.

"He said it was time to create my own destiny," Hudnut said. "I started taking everything more seriously, maybe too seriously at times."

Playing through the pain

At Stanford, Hudnut helped the Cardinal win two national championships. By the end of his senior year, he was training with the national team full time in preparation for the 2004 Games in a year and a half. But during a trip to Italy a few months before graduation, he turned awkwardly to climb out of the pool during a lightning storm and felt a click in his lower back. Then his left leg went numb.

Within a couple of days, the pain in his back was so excruciating he could barely walk. The trip home to the States was brutal; every movement made him feel nauseated or want to cry. After a series of nerve tests, X-rays and MRIs, Hudnut's doctors discovered multiple fractures in his L3 and L4 vertebrae, likely originating from a violent knee to the back he had sustained during a game against Russia 14 months earlier. Hudnut believes smaller fractures likely caused by that initial knee hit irritated his spinal column and caused a benign synovial cyst to grow on his spine.

"My L4 was almost broken clean through on the right side," he said. "The cyst had become so big, it cut off my sciatic nerve."

After surgery to remove the cyst and perform partial discectomies at the L3 and L4, Hudnut's doctors told him the nerve damage might be irreversible, he might never regain full use of his right leg and he could walk with a limp for the rest of his life. "They said I'd never play high-level water polo again," he said. But Hudnut had dealt with injuries before. He had shoulder surgery between his freshman and sophomore years at Stanford, and worked his way back into shape. He knew the formula. He knew how to work hard and could block out the pain. But it didn't take long for him to realize this injury was different.

He was bedridden for three weeks after the surgery, and when he was able to start rehab, he didn't have a specific injury to target like he did with his shoulder. His right leg was all but useless, his core was soft and his cardiovascular fitness was shot. But every day, Hudnut showed up to national team practice. While his teammates swam thousands of yards, lifted weights and worked on strategies, he pulled a mat next to the pool and performed crunches -- first 10, then 50, then 100 per day.

"The coaches didn't even look at me," he said. He was a hopeless cause. His Olympic dream was over, and everyone seemed to know it but him. "My first day back in the pool, I barely swam 500 yards, and I was telling everyone I was going to make the team," he said.

The Olympics were eight months away, but as far as Hudnut was concerned, he had a chance. When the improbability of his situation overwhelmed him, he thought about why he had fallen in love with the Olympics in the first place -- for the process -- and thought about Toring. At final cuts in July 2004, Hudnut was one of three centers remaining on the roster. "The coach sat me down and told me he couldn't believe how far I'd come," Hudnut said. "And then he cut me."

But his coach did something else: He found Hudnut a roster spot on a professional team in Rome, where he played for two years before joining C.N. Barceloneta in Spain in 2006. When training camp for the 2008 team rolled around, there was no question Hudnut, who used his time in Europe to switch from center to center defender, would make the team.

"When he came back in 2007, he was a different person," said Terry Schroeder, the current head coach of the U.S. national team. "A perfect center defender is an animal. He will get hit, elbowed, and has to be able to take blows and continue to fight, but be calm and focused while doing so. He has to be physically and mentally one of the strongest men on the team. Peter really is the perfect center defender."

In Beijing, he was a leader and consistent presence for Team USA as it made its improbable run toward the gold-medal game. After wins against China, Italy, Croatia and Germany, the U.S. men faced Serbia in the semifinals. The Serbs, consistently the best team in the world, had invited the U.S. to play in a tournament in Belgrade earlier that summer -- a huge sign of respect for their American counterparts -- and beaten them by nine goals.

But when they met again in the Olympic semis, the Americans were a different team. They were ready and won 10-5. "That was an incredible day," Hudnut said.

The 13 members of Team USA rode their confidence into the gold-medal game, where they faced a powerful Hungarian squad. It was a brutal game; Hudnut left the water three times to have cuts on his face closed up with blue duct tape on the pool deck. In the end, the Hungarians overpowered the Americans in the final quarter, beating them 14-10. The next day, on the front pages of the papers back home, Hudnut and his teammates were heralded as silver medalists. "But we felt like losers," he said.

The final comeback

After the Beijing Games, Hudnut decided to give his aching body a break and applied to business school. He sat out the 2009 season, but his retirement was half-hearted. He was still working out and hanging around the team while he completed his prerequisite courses. But by the middle of his first quarter at Stanford, he was overwhelmed.

"That was one of the hardest things I've ever done," he said. "I was unprepared. I started to get depressed."

He met with Schroeder and told him he was leaving the team in order to focus on finishing his MBA. He stopped working out entirely and added 35 pounds on his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame, "all in my neck and cheeks," he said. "While I was still in shape, I kept thinking about water polo, so I let myself get so fat that a comeback was out of the question."

But on July 4, 2010, Hudnut took his girlfriend, Lacy Houchen, to watch a match between the U.S. and Montenegro. She had never seen water polo played live, and he wanted to introduce her to the sport he had dedicated so much of his life to playing. He saw his teammates for the first time in nearly two years.

"I got really quiet during the game, and my girlfriend leaned over to me and said, 'You're not done, are you?'" Hudnut said. "I realized I wasn't ready to stop playing."

The following week, Hudnut borrowed a P90X video from his brother and started to transform his body. "I thought, 'I'm an Olympian, and this is what it's come to?'" Hudnut said. He knew getting back into water polo shape would not be easy. The sport requires the endurance and skill of a competitive-level swimmer, the full-body strength to throw a ball with accuracy at 50 mph while treading water, and the agility and grappling skills of a wrestler or judo master. But he had a road map. He had been here before. Sure, in the past, his comebacks were due to injury, but this wasn't so different. He was just dealing with a self-inflicted injury.

"He was fat and out of shape," said Dr. Marcus Elliott, director and founder of P3, an athlete training facility in Santa Barbara. "When he showed up, we had a lot of ground to cover. But after being on our program for less than a year, he's said he's so strong, he doesn't know how to control it. He's pushing people around and collecting fouls he wouldn't usually have made. But that's a good problem to be working through. It says a lot about his character that he's transitioned so smoothly from business-school student to world-class athlete in a handful of months."

On June 11, 2011, Hudnut graduated from Stanford with his MBA. The next day, he moved into a new apartment in West Hollywood with Houchen and then left for a tournament with the national team in Croatia. It was the first time he played a competitive water polo match in three years. "I wasn't game fit yet," he said. "But that's when I knew London was possible."

Since July, every day has been less of a struggle, but no less work. He's finally in game shape, and his spot on the team is secured. The team, which returns 11 of 13 athletes from Beijing, is training differently this year. Instead of coming together two months before the Games like in years past, every member of the team gave up his pro job overseas and moved to Thousand Oaks to train together for 10 months in pursuit of the program's first U.S. gold medal since 1904.

Although Hudnut did not have to sacrifice a pro water polo career, he did have to ask his new employer, Goldman Sachs, to allow him to defer his job for a year. The day after his final match in London, Hudnut will report to New York City for training before joining the company's private wealth management team in Los Angeles.

That's when he'll make good on the final promise he made in that interview as a high school senior: He'll get a serious job.