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If Walls Could Talk

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NOVEMBER 17, 2016

On the west side of the Spieker Aquatics Complex pool, through a set of heavy doors and surrounded by the smell of chlorine, is Kirk Everist’s office. Though unassuming from the outside, the room itself bears evidence of 15 years of consistent occupancy by a successful head coach of the Cal men’s water polo team, with his own extensive list of accomplishments.

Piles of paper cover Everist’s desk. Above them is a collection of water polo books, because even a man who has played the game for as long as Everist can learn something new.

“Fidel Castro is coming out of the stands, and I’m getting a picture. I’ve had classes about this guy, classes about the whole thing (Cuba-U.S. relations). I’ve written papers about it. I’m getting a picture.” – Kirk Everist

Dozens of photographs line the walls, and a few more rest upright on the floor, leaning against file cabinets and furniture. It’s like a museum of Everist’s life — his entire water polo career and beyond depicted through the stills and mementos that plaster the room.

The largest of the pictures is a well-worn portrait of the legendary former Cal water polo head coach Pete Cutino. Everist played under Cutino’s tutelage — a man he remembers with unmistakable reverence and appreciation — when he himself was a Bear, beginning in 1985.

Cutino was a large man, intimidatingly large, with a clean-shaven head. And his habits only made him more formidable. His nails were immaculate because any dirt that accumulated under them was scraped out by one of the many knives in his collection, whose blades regularly carved divots that lined the edge of his desk.

For their entire relationship, Cutino gently, and not so gently, egged Everist on. And Everist took it all in stride, even thriving off his coach’s goading.

This dynamic began the moment the two first met. When Everist walked into Cutino’s office as a high schooler on a recruiting visit, the meeting was unlike any other.

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff
Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

“He sat me down and said, ‘You know, we’d like you to come to Cal.’ He goes, ‘You know what, I’m not sure if you’ll ever play here.’ And I sat there and waited for the ‘but,’ and … he goes, ‘But we like you, and we’ve got a spot for you. I’ll help you get into school.’ And that was it.”

When Everist left, Cutino’s comment stuck with him and followed him for the remainder of the recruiting process.

“He knew exactly how to get under my skin before I even knew he was coaching me. He was already manipulating me. ‘I’m just gonna tell him he can’t play for me, and based on his personality, he’ll be back shortly saying, “Yeah, I’m coming, and I’ll show you how I’m going to play for you,” ’ ” Everist says. “And I dropped everybody else and went, ‘I’m going there because that guy doesn’t think I can, and I’ll prove him wrong.’ ”

And so began the collegiate water polo career of a future Olympian and national championship-winning coach.

Centered above Everist’s long desk hangs a pair of photos depicting young men with wet hair dressed in very ’80s red vinyl sweatsuits with thick blue and white parallel, diagonal lines extending from the edges of their sleeves and down their sides. It’s all very patriotic — as it should be. These men are members of the U.S. National Team, posing directly after the ’91 Pan American Games, in which they lost to Cuba in the championship.

Also prominently featured: Fidel Castro, dressed in forest green.

These pictures are some of the only photographic documentation of the medal ceremony that followed the event. And Kirk Everist is single-handedly responsible for them.

Despite explicit instructions that no cameras were allowed when Castro distributed the medals, Everist grabbed his little Kodak disposable.

“As a good Berkeley student, I did not listen to the rules,” Everist laughs. “Fidel Castro is coming out of the stands, and I’m getting a picture. I’ve had classes about this guy, classes about the whole thing (Cuba-U.S. relations). I’ve written papers about it. I’m getting a picture.”

He was the sixth player in line, and as the Cuban dictator began to hand out medals, Everist, hiding the camera behind his leg, began hitting the shutter button as surreptitiously as possible — not an easy feat, considering he had to loudly wind the film after every shot. He hoped that at least one of the photos would come out clear and in focus. From across the pool, he could hear shouts coming from Castro’s military servicemen. They were approaching him, determined to confiscate his camera.

But Castro commanded they back down, return the camera and let the young and daring Everist take photos. After making his way down the line of players, Castro posed proudly for a photo with the entire U.S. team — his boys had just beat them, after all.

Water polo took Everist all over the world. Some competitions were far away, both geographically and culturally, such as those in Cuba and the Eastern Bloc. Others were closer to home. And twice, in 1992 and 1996, water polo sent him all the way to the Olympics.

Everist’s Olympic goals were a long time in the making. When he was 13, he watched the U.S. National Hockey Team beat the Soviets in the 1980 Winter Olympic Games.

On that Feb. 22, the world stopped for him and his family, just as it did for many others. They sat with their dinners in front of the TV and watched as the underdogs representing their country upset the best hockey players in the world. A young Everist went crazy with excitement, his eyes glued to the screen that was broadcasting the unbelievable game unfolding a few thousand miles away in Lake Placid, New York.

“I think it was the first time that I kind of looked and went, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing what these people are doing,’ ” Everist reminisces.

Shortly after, Everist found a sport that would allow him to experience, first hand, the marvels of being a top-tier international athlete. Multiple members of his Orinda community had played water polo in the Olympics, so that high level of accomplishment had never seemed too far out of reach. He had shot basketballs in the local pool with some of them. He knew them, or at least he felt like he knew them, and this perceived connection made Everist feel as though he could have his own “Miracle on Ice.”

Playing in the Olympics himself, then, was simply the natural culmination of years of work and visualizing that one day, he would walk with his fellow Americans behind their flag and compete for his country in the most elite sporting event in the world.

“Opening ceremonies is this kind of bubble where nobody has fallen down or false started or got hurt or met their wildest dreams or had them fall short,” Everist says. “It’s just hope. And happiness. When I walked in, I was an athlete. I was a water polo player. And then all of a sudden, I am an Olympian. And you can’t take that away.”

Unfortunately, one of the most amazing experiences in Everist’s water polo career is also the source of one of his only regrets as an athlete. To this day, the final match of his first Olympic games in 1992 haunts him. He wonders if he could have done anything to change the result of the U.S. team’s disappointing loss to the Unified Team in the bronze-medal game, during which his teammates were still all-consumed by the previous day’s semifinal defeat by Spain.

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff
Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

“We gave it away, and that is super disappointing,” Everist recalls. “The regret for me is that I think I saw it happening, but I didn’t have the guts at that time or that age to grab a 32-, 33-, 34-year old with kids and tell him, ‘This does matter. It will matter when we are 50. You can take that bronze medal and chuck it in the sea if you want after the game is over. I don’t care. But let’s go win that thing.’ ”

Looking at the awards that line his office walls, it is difficult to believe that Everist initially resisted playing water polo.

He played tennis, baseball and basketball for much of his childhood, switching sports with the seasons. In high school, Everist had every intention of playing two of the three — baseball and tennis are the same season. Although the winter and spring seasons would be filled, Everist still had nothing to do during the fall. Knowing this, a few of his friends who had begun playing water polo asked him to join the team.

But Everist did not want to play. That is, until he realized that he would have to take physical education class if he didn’t. So, the future water polo Olympian reluctantly joined his high school’s team and, essentially by accident, began playing the sport that would become his life and livelihood.

Everist was not a star player when he first began. Although he had a feel for strategy because of water polo’s similarity to basketball, and he could throw the ball with great accuracy because of years of baseball, he was not at ease in the water the way a water polo player must be.

“My first coach basically told me that I’d be pretty good at the sport if I ever learned how to swim,” Everist remembers.

He took this to heart, choosing to forego baseball season in the spring in favor of swimming after his first water polo season. This decision ultimately paid off, as Everist would eventually be known for his swimming and even competed at the collegiate level.

Almost three and a half decades later, it is clear that Everist is one of the best. The list of his accolades seem endless: multiple MPSF titles as a coach, several NCAA titles as both a coach for and player on a team that has consistently been one of the best in the nation for decades, multiple international tournament victories and two Olympics.

But when asked what has been the most gratifying part of this experience, Everist doesn’t point to the medals on his wall or mention any of the games he has played. Rather, he talks about the men he’s played with and the men he’s coached.

“It goes to the coaches and to the environment and to the cultures that they’ve built for us that 30, 35 years after you’ve graduated from college, that those guys are still the first ones on speed dial when you think the world is coming to an end or you need help,” Everist says.

Earlier this season, almost all of the 2006 National Championship team returned to UC Berkeley to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their title. The only two former players who did not show were understandably occupied elsewhere — one, a doctor, was on-call, and the other, a coach himself, was recruiting. Everist watched these men, whom he’d met as boys and whom he had watched grow and mature, come back to Cal. They are all a little bit older, some have families now, but all are still Cal water polo players.

“It’s pretty special to see,” Everist says. “It’s satisfying and gratifying as a coach to know that you were part of building that little fraternity that will last forever.”

Sarah Goldzweig covers men’s water polo. Contact her at [email protected]

NOVEMBER 17, 2016