Usually when a major sports figure in Long Beach retires from their work, it leaves a hole. If that’s a professional athlete, it means local fans won’t look forward to Sunday afternoons quite as much, if it’s a legendary coach, it means the next generation of players may not receive the same level of guidance as the previous ones. It’s harder to say what effect the retirement of Rich Foster from his career in international aquatics will have—but it’s certain to be far-felt.
Foster’s career spans three decades, as the Long Beach native ascended to the top political positions in American and international aquatic sports. Most recently, he’s been the vice-chairman of FINA’s Water Polo Committee, since 2009, helping to run international water polo tournaments and sitting on the committee that picked the officials for the Olympics. He’s ending his career in water polo this summer. “My last day will be the last day of the world championships, in Barcelona,” he says.
In the 32 years he’s been involved in the sport, Foster says he’s amassed over 2,000,000 travel miles while traveling to 25 countries. He’s helped shape the future of the sport in ways both local (helping get the facility at the Air Force Base in Los Alamitos built) and international (as an early advocate of adding women’s water polo as an Olympic sport).
But as a quick trip down his resume shows, his impact is as unique as it was significant.
Foster began his career in the pool in the late 60s, as a student at Wilson, where he played water polo and swam. He was an All-Moore League water polo, who moved on to Long Beach City College to play for the legendary Monte Nitzkowski; Nitzkowski was a three-time Olympic head coach who won six state championships.
His freshman year, the Vikings lost in the state finals by one goal, and rebounded to defeat the same team in 1970, by a score of 9-4. After that, he played for his third school without leaving the city limits. “I was recruited to some of the bigger schools, but my family didn’t have any money, so I stayed local,” he recalls. He took a small scholarship to Long Beach State in the fall of 1971 and started both years, serving as the 49ers’ top defensive player. After serving as a captain his senior year, Foster graduated, and could easily have finished his career in aquatics at that point.
While he was getting his law degree from USC, however, a former Long Beach State teammate told him if he passed the bar, he’d help him get a job on USA Water Polo’s legal committee. In 1981, after nearly a decade away from the sport, he joined the organization, and would end up serving as their general counsel from 1981-1990, actually serving as their head counsel while just a first-year attorney. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he laughs.
In 1990, he ran for president of USA Water Polo with the endorsement of then-Olympic coach Bill Barnett. In 1996, he was ousted in an election, largely because his opponent turned people against Foster’s proposal to build the aquatic facility in Los Alamitos. Had his tenure ended there, his effect would already have been successful, and its impact still felt with Foster’s founding of the Speedo Cup, which remains one of the top youth water polo tournaments in the nation—his intent was to encourage development of young water polo players throughout the country, a major focus of his tenure.
After leaving, Foster continued to work with Los Alamitos to get the pool set up—in 1999, he was asked to run again, and after some trepidation, he decided to do so, ending up winning re-election as USA Water Polo president largely because of the success of the same pool that had cost him the position. The year he took over also ended up being the first year that women’s water polo was contested as an Olympic sport, something he had successfully pushed for.
“Most countries didn’t want it because it would have taken resources away from the men,” he says. One of the reasons it ended up going through was to help protect water polo from being eliminated—the theory being that sports that competed in both genders would be safer, a point that has to be considered salient with the recent elimination of wrestling.
When his term expired in 2006, he moved up to become the president of USA Aquatic Sports, and in 2009, he became the vice-chairman of the FINA Water Polo Committee, the body responsible for changing and monitoring rules in international play, and selecting officials.
Along the way, Foster was also elected the Long Beach Century Club’s youngest president (at the time) in 1987, he co-founded Shore Aquatics in the mid-1990s, and he published a well-received biography of Mark Spitz in 2008. He founded the Long Beach Sports Council, and was also instrumental in bringing the Olympic swimming trials to Long Beach in 2004. At one point or another, he also served as a youth coach and, early on, as a CIF official for one season. Throughout, he’s also dedicated a portion of his law practice to sports law, representing everyone from Spitz to Aaron Piersol to Dara Torres to Jessica Hardy. He’s even represented non-aquatic athletes like Apollo Ohno and Nastia Lukin.
That part of his life he’s not retiring from—he jokes that he doesn’t know what he’d do with himself if he retired from everything all at once. But the international involvement in aquatics he’s ready to put aside, in part, he says, because of the corruption at the highest levels of the sport. “It’s absolutely sickening the politics that goes on,” he says, particularly citing the manipulation countries try to apply to getting favorable officials assigned to their games.
Despite that ugliness, Foster says the three-plus decades he spent involved in the sport as a volunteer on the national and international level were deeply rewarding. “The trappings of a high position in sports was a factor,” he says, “But I really loved the sport. I loved the people in the sport and I loved being the United States’ international advocate in the sport.”
And don’t be surprised if Foster ends up using his practice and his ability to help as a lawyer to take up another cause. “I’ve spent 32 years volunteering for elite athletes,” he says. “I don’t know what I’m going to do next but I want to work on a local basis for not-so-elite athletes. There are other people who need more help.”
So Foster’s retirement may be leaving a hole in the aquatics community—but true to form, his departure from the international scene may end up meaning he’s even more of a positive influence in Long Beach.