By Scott McDonald | May 04, 2017, 4:55 p.m. (ET)
Johnny Hooper helped lead Team USA to silver at the FINA Men's Intercontinental Tournament in Gold Coast, Australia.

 

Johnny Hooper didn’t mean to turn people’s heads. It just happened.

The sophomore water polo phenom at Cal has plateaued to an impressive 2017, and things keep getting better.

This year the 6-foot-1, 182-pound attacker led the Golden Bears to an NCAA championship in December, and last month he made his U.S. men’s national team debut at the FINA Men’s Intercontinental Tournament in Gold Coast, Australia.

Hooper led the silver-medalist Americans with 23 total goals, including six against both China and New Zealand. He was the top goal scorer in each of Team USA’s six games.

His rise to national stardom has people taking notice, which was never Hooper’s intention.

“It’s not my goal to turn heads. My goal is to do well and make people around me better,” Hooper said Tuesday night after studying late in the library. “I don’t play to see how many goals I can score, whether in college or the national team.”

Hooper oozes California life in just about everything he does, even down to the way he talks. The laid back 19-year-old from Los Angeles swims, surfs and has roots engrained in a volleyball hall of fame. But his meal ticket to college was water polo.

His journey began at 6 months old when his father tossed him into a shallow pool. Human instinct kicked in, and Johnny’s head surfaced above the water so he could breathe. Then about a month later Johnny’s father tried the same thing, but in the ocean. The youngster again showed resilience.

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Johnny’s father, Gary Hooper, is a member of the CBVA Beach Volleyball Hall of Fame and was a 1978 pro beach world champion. He was also a standout pole vaulter and tenacious surfer, and Johnny naturally picked up surfing as well.

Gary and his wife, Mimi, wanted their son to take up sports and excel, but not in just any sport.  Johnny took up water polo at a young age and showed promise from the start. After a crushing defeat in his first match, Hooper pressed on.

He trained around 300 days a year, he said, and rose the ranks among his peers. He knew he would never grow into a tall, physically imposing body. So instead of getting bigger, he got better. He added his own wrinkles to training techniques. And when he didn’t get selected for the men’s national team for the Olympic Games Rio 2016, he didn’t let it bother him.

“I have no idea of the standards or expectations to make the Olympic team,” Johnny said. “I just try to meet the standards on my end. I always try to overcome adversity and obstacles in both life and sports.”

Hooper played in the national circuits until his junior year of high school, but he stepped away from the national circuit and concentrated on high school and club play while focusing on school and trying to get into college.

He began working with USA Water Polo prior to team selection for Rio, and he said it made him a better all-around player and person.

“It wasn’t an expectation to make the Olympic team, but I tried to make the best of the opportunity,” Hooper said. “I learned a lot training with those guys, some of them I admire because I grew up watching them.”

Hooper said his specific style of water polo hasn’t changed, and that he plays the same now as he did in middle school, club and high school.

“Everybody’s got their own way to play, and I do things a little different,” he said.

He said the next goal — after attacking his finals next week — would be to continue training and hopefully punch his ticket to the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

“Not making the team last year has definitely given me a lot of motivation,” Hooper said. “Making it in 2020 would mean the work has paid off.”

Hooper could still make Tokyo even if he doesn’t make it with Team USA, as he has dual citizenship with United States and Japan, though he said he’d prefer to be in red, white and blue in Japan, which is where his mother was born.

While at Cal studying as a business major, he’s also an ambassador for Ocean Recovery Alliance, which uses technology and creativity to help reduce ocean pollution.

“I just want to be as well-rounded as I can possibly be,” he said, “and that’ll make me a better person in life.”

Scott McDonald has 18 years experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.