Johnny Hooper during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
What was supposed to be bit of a homecoming for men’s water polo attacker Johnny Hooper and family this summer in Tokyo wasn’t meant to be. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting protocols, the family, including his Japanese-born mother Mimi, weren’t able to be in Tokyo to watch Hooper and the U.S. go for gold.
Fortunately for Hooper, he feels the support from family both far and near and knows he can lean on his water polo family, too.
“We travel with our family as in the water polo guys around me, they’re my family in the pool and I know that each and every one of us has our family back home rooting on,” Hooper said from Tokyo, where he and the U.S. men started off their tournament 2-0. “So it’s a great experience and great knowing that we have so many fans and supporters and family back home supporting Team USA so it definitely keeps me going.”
Hooper also can take comfort in feeling somewhat at home in Japan, a place where his grandmother still lives and he spent significant time in growing up. Grandma Tomiko will be watching from her retirement home, Hooper said, while Mimi is back in the U.S.
“I’ve been coming to Japan for a long time, since I was a young kid, since I can honestly remember,” Hooper said. “… So I’m very familiar with the Japanese culture and I’m in love with it as well. I’m representing Team USA here, but I do love Japanese culture and I have a lot of respect for the people here. My grandma is actually, I guess she’s my local fan here.”
With athlete movements restricted due to protocols, Hooper likely won’t get to make a lot of use of his Japanese language skills, which he describes as, “nothing too crazy.” He can understand a little more than he can speak, he says, but mentioned the word ganbatte which means “good luck.”
The U.S. men will hopefully be relying more on skill and talent than luck in Tokyo, as there’s plenty of reason for optimism the team can bring home its first official Olympic gold medal. Team USA won gold way back in 1904, but water polo was a demonstration sport. The team has won three silver medals, most recently in 2008, and four bronze medals in official competition. The U.S. is fresh off winning a silver medal in the FINA World League, something the team hopes to use as motivation in the Olympic tournament.
“We had some momentum coming off the World League Super Final silver medal against Montenegro, hopefully we get another crack at them again,” said Hooper. “But … being present is the most important thing for me right now and our next game is against Italy on Thursday so hopefully everyone can tap in and hopefully support us and hopefully we can win that game and move forward and look to the next game. Right now I’m looking one game at a time to hopefully win a gold medal.”
Living in the present and not looking too far ahead informs Hooper’s outlook on life and his water polo career. Hooper was a standout at Harvard-Westlake High School in Los Angeles, then went on to a national title-winning career at the University of California. It was during his early years at Cal that he began training with the national team and started to look at the Olympic Games as a real possibility.