The Mettle in Medal


Dylan Graff

If there’s one thing to know about Johnny Hooper, it is that he lives for the uphill battle. Although touted as one of the top young water polo players in the nation growing up, Hooper was cut from a national team as a senior in high school due to his size. Hooper was told that he would never be able to make a national team because he “just wasn’t big enough.” At 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, Hooper is undersized for a water polo player, but he didn’t let the coach’s words stop him. Instead, he took them as a challenge.

“I don’t expect things to be given to me,” said Hooper on a recent Zoom call with the Harvard-Westlake Japanese-American Affinity Group. “I expect having to fight for them at all times. . . If I wasn’t gonna be the tallest, maybe not have the best shot, when I got in the pool, I was gonna be the fastest.”

Hooper’s competitive edge is something that he brings to every aspect of his life. Hooper attended Harvard-Westlake for high school, earning All-American honors in all of his four years, even pulling HW to an undefeated season in his senior year. Hooper wasn’t just a one-dimensional student at HW, as he also excelled in the classroom. Growing up, his mother Mimi stressed the importance of academics and encouraged Johnny to be as competitive in the classroom as he was in the pool. While attending HW, Hooper also found a passion for business, something that he took with him to Cal Berkeley.

“Having an undergraduate business program is probably one of the main reasons I ended up going to Berkeley,” said Hooper.

Hooper took on his time at Haas Business School as a challenge. One of the top business schools in the nation, Haas has an application process, which meant Hooper was not guaranteed to get into the school. Hooper recalls skipping parties and making sure that his priorities were in line so he could dominate his education. In addition, Hooper’s desire and drive to gain experience in the business world was so strong that he would even wake up early to work at his friend’s startup before attending a grueling water polo practice.

“Water polo is gonna end one day,” said Hooper. “This isn’t the NBA, this isn’t the NFL. Maybe one day, maybe not in the near future but in the long term it will get there, but at the moment and for many years, there is going to be life after water polo.”

Hooper also continued to excel in the pool, racking up 245 goals and delivering Cal the 2016 NCAA title. Although Hooper had achieved the highest level of success at the collegiate level, Hooper was once again cut from a national team in the very same year. Many water polo players might see this as a crushing defeat, but Johnny viewed it as a mere setback. Hooper didn’t complain or drop out, but vowed to improve.

HW water polo coach Brian Flacks, who coached Hooper from the age of eight through high school, said this was typical of Hooper and remembers one such instance vividly.

One summer Hooper was trying out for a 15 and under cadet team. He had played for hours on end all weekend and into Monday morning, but on the last day of the tryout he was cut. The very same day, Flacks (who was coaching Hooper in a club team at the time) held a practice, but made it optional because he knew that most players would be exhausted from the long weekend of tryouts.

“Johnny was the only player that ended up coming that night,” Flacks recalls. “I said, ‘Johnny you’re here, what’s going on?’ He answered, ‘I clearly need to get better.’”

Whether it comes to being cut from a national team, or being told he was too short, there have been many times in Johnny’s career where most people would consider quitting. The feeling of getting rejected or told you aren’t “good enough” is a common one, but it is rare to see someone deal with these feelings gracefully. In Japan, the word to describe this is Gaman, which means “to endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.”

A dual citizen in the United States and Japan, Hooper has a very strong connection with his Japanese heritage. Hooper’s mother was born in Japan, and his grandmother still lives there. Hooper says he appreciates his Japanese heritage, for it has helped him understand the value of balance. This summer, Hooper hopes to represent the United States at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics with his grandmother in the stands.

“I’ve waited a long time to play in the Olympics,” said Hooper. “I’m excited to go back, and hopefully she’s excited to see her only grandson compete at the highest level he can and hopefully win a gold medal for Team USA.”