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Wednesday, January 2, 2008 | Imagine LaDainian Tomlinson, Shawne Merriman and the Chargers practicing for Sunday’s AFC playoff game, then gathering at a San Diego landmark to greet fans for a fund-raising dinner to offset training costs.

I know. In today’s NFL world worth billions of dollars, it’s a ludicrous to suggest imagining such a picture.

But essentially that’s what the USA men’s water polo national team, with a 25-man roster that features four San Diegans from the 2004 Olympics and five that were on the 2007 PanAm Games gold medal team, did last week.

They christened Coronado High’s Brian Bent Memorial Aquatics Complex with a scrimmage before an enthusiastic crowd as part of Christmas camp organized by new U.S. coach Terry Schroeder.

Then players gathered down the street at the historic Hansen Mansion, a 110-year landmark. A waft of swimming pool chlorine was palpable as the 25 athletes — the 2008 Olympic team in Beijing will number 13 with two alternates — came through the doors in their blue U.S. jackets.

None of the players were grumbling about attending the camp, which included workouts led by a U.S. Navy SEAL instructor, or the dinner with fans.

“I think we’ve lost some of the luster and excitement in our sport that we used to have,” Schroeder said. “I think getting it back is important, which is why we’re here. Getting an Olympic medal would be a huge step.”

The U.S. hasn’t claimed a medal since a silver in Seoul in 1988, when Schroeder was a player. Since then European water polo has grown in popularity and European teams have surpassed the Americans.

The U.S. was seventh in the 2004 Olympics and is currently ranked ninth in the world. The water polo team faces a predicament similar to U.S. basketball against the world.

Basketball has grown internationally and national teams in Europe and South America train together more often than the American team comprised of NBA all-stars. The result is the U.S. gets whipped in Olympic competition by teams with superior teamwork.

“Our team has seven or eight of the best players in the world, and I fully believe that or I wouldn’t be stepping into this job,” Schroeder said. “Those players benefit from playing professionally in Europe, but we have to figure out how to benefit as a team. We have to find away for our No. 8 through 13 players to get that kind of experience. That’s the missing link.”

The Christmas camp was designed as team-building experience. Upcoming matches in Europe and a visit to the U.S. by No. 1-ranked Croatia also is planned before the Olympics.

Coronado High alums Layne Beaubien, 31, and Jesse Smith, 24, were among nine U.S. players that flew to San Diego for the camp from playing professionally in Europe.

“The SEAL training was amazing,” said Smith, a 6-foot-4 defender built like an NFL linebacker. “Our drills were kind of a mock situation, but (the instructor) was driving us. It was very difficult, but great for team building. I was just trying to get through without quitting.”

The five San Diegans on the national team include four with experience from the 2004 Olympics: Smith (Pepperdine); Beaubian (Stanford), a 6-6 defender; Genai Kerr (Coronado High/UC Irvine), a 6-8 goalie; and Brett Orsmby (Valhalla High/UCLA), a 6-2 attacker.

The foursome also were members of the U.S. team that won a gold medal at the 2007 PanAm Games in Brazil. A fifth San Diegan, Thomas Hopkins, a 6-1 attacker from Coronado High and Stanford, also played in the PanAm Games and is attempting to make his first Olympic team.

“They have a lot of experience and should play a big part on our team in 2008,” Schroeder said of San Diego’s four Olympians. “Hopkins is on the bubble to make the team, but to have five guys from San Diego on the national team is pretty amazing.”

Maybe you think that’s a stretch to compare the U.S. Olympic water polo team to NFL players, but that‘s only because television dollars and the respective popularity of the sports create separate worlds.

“Each and every one of our guys wants to win a medal and is giving it everything they have to make it happen,” Schroeder said. “It’s a struggle for us, because we haven’t been a team.

“But the Navy SEAL workouts is one of the best things we’ve done. I really thought some of them would quit, but they stayed with it. I asked them why, and they said they didn’t want to let down their teammates. I said, ‘You guys are getting it.’ “

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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