Jim Wagner ’93 Gives To Water Polo & Aquatics
Men's Water Polo faced many challenges on its way to becoming 1990 NCAA Champion.

Jim Wagner ’93 Gives To Water Polo & Aquatics

Men's & Women's Water Polo Share Scholarship; Team Room Named At Legends Aquatic Center

BERKELEY – Jim Wagner '93, an All-America water polo goalie as a Golden Bear who won three NCAA Championships between 1988-91 and a fourth as a student assistant in '92, and his wife, Anne, have made two significant gifts to Cal Athletics with an endowment to support a water polo scholarship and the naming of the team room at Legends Aquatic Center.
 
The Anne and Jim Wagner Water Polo Scholarship will alternate annually to assist the education of a male and female student-athlete, while the Wagner Champions Room at the aquatic center, which also serves the swimming & diving teams, will be dedicated to the 1990 NCAA Champion men's water polo team and its head coach, the late Steve Heaston.
 
Steve Heaston
Steve Heaston

"On behalf of Intercollegiate Athletics and the University of California, thank you to Anne and Jim Wagner for their generosity," said Director of Athletics Jim Knowlton. "The spirit of these gifts, to celebrate our great teams and coaches while creating world-class opportunities for student-athletes, is as meaningful as the resources they provide."
 
As the parents of three daughters, the Wagners are excited to support the inclusive mission of the University. "We want to keep water polo sustainable and viable for both men and women," said Jim, who received his BA in History from Cal in 1993 and serves as Chief Executive Officer for Roland Foods. "This scholarship will give both male and female student-athletes the opportunity to attend the greatest University in the world and create their own journey."
 
Jim Wagner and family
Jim and Anne Wagner with their three daughters

Wagner, who also competed for the Junior U.S. U-18 team, got the opportunity to attend Cal after finishing his high school career as the Los Angeles Times 1987 Player of the Year out of Corona Del Mar High School in Orange County following the Sea Kings' sectional state title. An injury to reigning NCAA Player of the Year Jeff Brush took Wagner from a potential redshirt to the starting goalie position for the Blue and Gold, allowing him to compete for one season under Pete Cutino on the 1988 NCAA title team before the legendary head coach passed the reins to Heaston, his assistant.
 
Heaston's first year at the helm fell one goal short of the 1989 championship. His second season was a transformational team experience en route to the 1990 national title, making that season – and the memory of coach Heaston, who was named NCAA Coach of the Year – the inspiration for the team room's dedication.
 
"The 1990 team included a number of tremendous athletes and some very intense individuals," said Wagner, who made three clutch saves in the final 90 seconds to preserve the Bears' 8-7 championship win over Stanford that year. "The way Steve handled that season is still remarkable, and something I draw upon every day."
 
The 1990 season began with a weekend tournament in Fresno. That Friday night in Berkeley, three people died when a fire burned down the Phi Kappa Sigma house, where Wagner and 11 other players lived. The team won its three matches but returned to campus set adrift by the tragedy.
 
Wagner and some of his displaced teammates relocated to the Hotel Durant, where, less than three weeks later prior to the team's departure for its next tournament, a gunman took the entire ground-floor bar room hostage. After killing one, injuring nine and firing many shots through the ceiling into Wagner's room, the gunman was killed by Berkeley police.
 
"Had we been home, I'm not sure what might have happened," said Wagner. Lucky again to go unscathed, he and the rest of the team struggled to stay focused on academics and athletics while sleeping on friends' couches the rest of the semester.
 
As coach Heaston helped his players navigate uncharted waters with remarkable empathy, the wins kept coming. A one-goal loss to Pepperdine was the only defeat in their 29-1 season after the Bears beat Stanford for the fourth straight time that year to emerge as 1990 national champions.
 
1990 Men's Water Polo NCAA Championship trophy
1990 Men's Water Polo NCAA Championship trophy

"We dedicated our season to the people who died," Wagner told Sport Illustrated in its Dec. 31, 1990, issue. "We wanted this for them, and for us."
 
Heaston told SI that Cal "had to learn to play without any emotion at all, because they had no emotion left." Drained spirits made it even harder to fathom that Heaston was also battling skin cancer. Doctors believed they had caught it in time, but the disease traveled to his brain, killing him nine years later at the age of 51.
 
Heaston is a key figure within a cadre of coaches and mentors whom Wagner credits with making the biggest impacts in his life, a group that includes high school coach John Vargas.
 
Wagner said that coach Vargas, also an Olympic athlete and coach who has helmed the Stanford men's program since 2002, "really felt that Cal was where I should go to play for Pete, another individual with very strong guiding principles."
 
Vargas considered Wagner's physical talent and mental mindset to be perfect matches for the Cal water polo program. "Jim was a water polo player equivalent of a gym rat, a student of the game and super competitive," he said. "He's a good man for giving back to a great institution."
 
Wagner recalled "integrity, focus and discipline" as Vargas' core tenets, which created a strong foundation to play for another coach with deeply held principles in Cutino.
 
"Principled leadership directly comes from Pete," recalled Wagner of Cutino, who died in 2004 at the age of 71. "He was trying to win championships for sure, but he was also trying to build great young men. He knew that a framework of principles could help us grow. That has influenced me constantly and been a big part of any success I've had."
 
Wagner also called Heaston "an incredibly principled guy" who created structure amid uncertainty: "Steve really taught the discipline of routine. He often said, 'If you work the system, the goals will come.'"
 
While superlative mentors made a lifelong impact on Wagner, the commitment he and Anne have made to Cal will have an impact on generations to come.
 
"It's a fantastic show of commitment and a great testament to the coaches that came before us that players think so highly of their experience that they want to give back to current and future generations," said current men's water polo head coach Kirk Everist.
 
A two-time U.S. Olympian and three-time national champion as head coach for the Bears, Everist was an All-America senior leader on his way to being named 1988 NCAA Player of the Year when he met Wagner as a freshman. "It didn't take us long to realize that Jim had something special," Everist said. "He was super smart and had a ton of confidence. Some may have second-guessed him because of his size, but one thing Jimmy always did was win."
 
Wagner, shorter than most goalies at 5-10, understood his doubters. "There weren't many people who thought I would play at the collegiate level" he said. Long-time Cal goalie coach Jesse Figueroa was an early supporter and made sure Jim was prepared for the challenge. Everist said Wagner ranks as "one of the best goalies to ever play at Cal." But that's not the legacy this proud Golden Bear hopes to have.
 
"I was incredibly fortunate to be a part of some amazing teams, but the overall Cal experience has so much to offer, if Anne and I can do anything to let student-athletes focus on becoming great thinkers and get the most out of their time at Cal, in addition to remembering our great teams, that's what we want," Wagner said.
 
The Cal Athletics family is grateful to the Wagners for these gifts, which support the sustainable future of the department and the ongoing excellence of Cal's aquatics programs.
 
"Giving to Cal Athletics is an opportunity to support and better our student-athletes' pursuits of excellence," said women's water polo head coach Coralie Simmons. "The Wagner Scholarship will directly impact our Golden Bear athletes' ability to train and study at the highest level. We thank Jim and Anne for generosity and desire to make a difference."
 
To learn more about how to support Cal Athletics, visit calathleticsfund.com.
 
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