Tuesday, August 26, 2008 | Maybe if Jesse Smith grew up in a San Diego community other than Coronado, the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder built like an NFL linebacker would be preparing for another gridiron season.

Instead, he’s returning home from Beijing with a 2008 Olympic silver medal draped around his neck that the U.S. men’s water polo team won despite entering the Olympics ranked ninth in the world.

Similarly, maybe if Layne Beaubien wasn’t from Coronado, this past year he would have undertaken a much safer business venture at the age of 32 than playing for an under-funded program that defied the odds to earn the first Olympic medal since 1988.

But we’ll never know because both the 24-year-old Smith, who plays with the same nasty streak in the water of a linebacker on turf, and Beaubien, a 6-foot-6 all-around athlete with a Stanford education, encountered Coronado High water polo coach Randy Burgess in their formative years.

“To be very honest with you, these guys were very talented coming into the program,” Burgess said. “I’m just glad I didn’t screw them up.”

Don’t believe it. Burgess is an example of what a coach can do for athletes when he has the proper support from the community.

Do you think it’s just a coincidence a small school like Coronado turns outs so many water polo athletes — male and female — that go on and play in college, internationally, in the Olympics and professionally in Europe?

If you’re blessed with athleticism and you meet Burgess as a teenager, you’ll have the opportunity to take your ability to a national or world-class level.

“I’m glad we did something here to help them earn a scholarship to play in college and the opportunity to play for more coaches at another level,” Burgess said. “As a high school coach, I just hope I laid the proper foundation of basic skills and instilled a philosophy of hard work.”

In addition to Beaubien and Smith, among the last players cut from the U.S. national team roster for the 2008 Olympic team were two Coronado alums: Genai Kerr, a 2004 Olympian, and Thomas Hopkins, who, like Kerr, Beaubien and Smith, were members of the 2007 Pan Am Games gold medal team.

On the women’s side, Burgess believes Stanford All-American Katie Hansen would have made the USA women’s team that won a Beijing silver medal — led by University of San Diego High graduate Moriah Van Norman — if Hansen hadn’t decided to pursue medical school immediately after finishing her undergraduate degree in 2007.

“I’m happy for those guys (Smith and Beaubien), but I’m also thinking about other guys that came so close to that experience,” Burgess said. “I’m also thinking about Katie Hansen. I’m thinking about another player who was awarded a bronze star from Iraq as a Navy Seal. What is more important — a bronze star or gold medal? I have guys that have done better than gold medals as doctors, lawyers and teachers.”

Last winter I invited Kerr to the Hall of Champions (my day-job) to present All-CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) certificates to members of seven boys and girls sports teams.

When I introduced the coaches of the year, which included Burgess for Coronado’s 15th CIF San Diego Section title in boys water polo in his 27 seasons at the school, I tried to make a wiseguy crack for a laugh.

I asked Kerr if he thought there should be recount of the voting as Burgess walked up to join the coaches from other sports. Kerr smiled but didn’t go along with the gag.

He grabbed the microphone and began speaking about how influential a teacher and coach like Burgess is to a campus. Kerr said Burgess took him from being just another kid in the school to an Olympic athlete.

Burgess and the Coronado water polo team exemplify the value of funding extracurricular activities — sports, band, performing arts, etc.

Look at how San Diego’s North County high schools dominate San Diego high schools sports in CIF championships and All-CIF. This might be because North County districts fund freshman sports and have budgets for more coaches.

But judging by Olympic medals brought home, the best San Diego athletes aren’t necessarily from North County high schools.

If you look at the list of high schools representing the nine San Diegans with Beijing medals, only two are from North County high schools: Rachel Buehler (Torrey Pines, gold, women’s soccer) and Trevor Cahill (Vista, bronze, baseball).

Two others are from private schools: Van Norman and Brian Bardon (St. Augustine, bronze, baseball).

But David Lee (Granite Hills, gold, volleyball), Monique Henderson (Morse, gold, track and field) and Steven Strasburg (West Hills, bronze, baseball) are from schools that don’t fund freshman sports.

Those three succeeded, but how many kids at schools without the extra-curricular activities found on North County campuses were lost to the streets?

“I see too many lost souls that have nothing to do after school without an instructor,” Burgess says. “It’s the same with all the hours after school kids in Coronado’s performing arts program spend. Maybe one of them will end up on Broadway.

“It’s a shame that the first things we cut in schools are the things that have the strongest residual effect on the end of the day.”

Burgess isn’t measuring the success of such after-school programs by Olympic medals, although two of his former athletes now run them.

“I can’t wait until they get home,” Burgess said, “and they’re knocking on my door waving their medals.”

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