Passages: Jorge Gonzalez, A Giant of Puerto Rican Water Polo, Dies at 75

1989_PR_Masters_FEB21
Puerto Rican Water Polo at Escambron Pool, 1989: Standing: Jaimie Velez, Chopi Torres, Carlos Gonzalez, Carlos Cintron, Rafi Gonzalez, Manfredo Lespier, Jose Rivera, Tony Rios, Mariano Fort, Carlos Steffens, Jorge Machicote, Eduardo Mayor. Kneeling: Fernando Salabarria, Jr., Jorge Gonzalez, Manuel Marcial, Victor Osland, Almeneiro, Emilio Betancourt, Paco Orabric.

In a devastating blow to the tight-knit community of water polo players on the island of Puerto Rico, Jorge Gonzalez passed away last Friday at the age of 75.

Among the first players to be recruited by Head Coach Harry Hauck to compete on the island’s nascent men’s team, Gonzalez was notable as one of the most accomplished athletes during the formative years of Puerto Rico’s polo program.

[Harry Hauck: Polo Pirate of the Caribbean]

J_Gonzalez_old

Jorge Gonzalez (right) in an undated picture. Photo Courtesy: Edwin Purcell

“Jorge was my mentor and my hero,” said Carlos Gonzalez—no relation—who was himself a key figure in the island’s second wave of national team players. “Water polo in Puerto Rico started with Harry Hauck and Jorge, [who] was the best player we had.

“He was an excellent human being and one of the fathers of water polo in Puerto Rico,” Carlos Gonzalez added.

in 1965 Gonzalez was on Hauck’s very first squad to compete in international play. In that inaugural match—a 19-2 loss to Jamaica—he was one of the squad’s youngest players, having just turned 21. Unlike many of his teammates, who were drawn from Puerto Rico’s swimming programs, Gonzalez had polo experience, a result of playing for the Condado Hotel’s team, one the island’s first.

When we started playing at Condado, the Puerto Rican Swimming Federation did not want anything to do with water polo,” Gonzalez said in an interview last summer. “Nor did the swimming coaches, because [they] saw water polo taking away their swimmers.

“[In] water polo, you play but you don’t notice that you’re swimming, so you enjoy it. To tell you the truth, swimming is boring. It’s back and forth, back and forth in the pool.”

A centerpiece of Hauck’s teams that developed over the second half of the Sixties, he was on the squad that advanced Puerto Rico to its first ever Pan American Games men’s water polo tournament, achieved by a win over Barbados in the 1970 Central American and Caribbean Games.

1965_Roster_PR_Jamaica

Scoresheet, 1965 Puerto Rico – Jamaica match

Due to an injury, Gonzalez did not join the Hauck-led squad that was swept in all four games during the 1971 Pan Ams held in Cali Columbia. Being outscored 44 to 17 in those matches not only cost Hauck his job, it represented Gonzalez’s last opportunity to represent his country in international polo play.

When the Puerto Rican Swimming Federation, which oversees all aquatic sports on the island, replaced the program’s first-ever coach with Fernando Salabarría, it signaled the end of Gonzalez’s tenure with the national team. Salabarría launched a youth movement which hastened the departure of the program’s early generation of players, including Gonzalez and Edwin Purcell—athletes who had helped establish Puerto Rico as a regional power.

According to Purcell, who was also on the 1970 team that competed in the Central American Games, Gonzalez was a physical marvel and virtually unstoppable in the water.

“We all remember Jorge because he had a very muscular body,” Purcell said in an email. “He was affectionately called “El Monstruo”—”The Monster”—because of his physicality … [He was] a force to be reckoned with in the pool.”

Purcell enjoyed a life-long friendship with Gonzalez, starting with the program at Condado.

“I not only played with Jorge on the PR National team but with our local water polo team at Condado Hotel, the Condado Tritons,” he said. “We passed the time together at the hotel playing sand volleyball, surfing, life guarding, etc.

“Those were carefree days. I never saw Jorge being spiteful, malicious, or showing ill will towards anyone—in the water or out.”

In comments Thursday, Carlos Gonzalez spoke about the role the older Gonzalez played in the development of the players who formed the core of the team in the 1970s, generally acknowledged to be the greatest in the island’s history.

“Jorge was our role model. We—and when I say we, I’m talking about Papo Betancourt, Eddy Purcell, Tony Rios—Jorge was our guardian in the pool,” Carlos Gonzalez said. “He made us a better team at that time—getting the best out of us and taking us to that next level.”

J_Gonzalez_Masters_FEB21

Jorge Gonzalez (white shirt) with local masters & age group players. Photo Courtesy: Edwin Purcell

Alfonso Fernandez, who knew Gonzalez both through the Puerto Rican national team program and also through their mutual association with San Juan’s Natatorium Water Polo Club, called him a “tremendous athlete. I played with him as a young man in the Colonia Hispanoamericana Club with the Franco brothers [Alejendro and Edwin] and the Permuy brothers [Alberto and Victor] and others from Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola.”

In addition to representing his country in polo, Gonzalez also swam, wrestled and sailed under Puerto Rican colors.

Born in New York City, Gonzalez moved to San Juan as a teenager, where he attended high school in Santurce, then college at the University of Puerto Rico. Even though he left the national team in the early 1970s, he remained involved with local water polo, playing well into this century, when he was 65.

Gonzalez is survived by his wife, Naydi Ramirez-Gonzalez, two sons and a daughter.

“In the water he was one of the fiercest [players], but outside [of it] he was like a priest—one of the most delicate and gentle people you could ever meet,” said Carlos Gonzalez.

CORRECTION: The article incorrectly stated Jorge Gonzalez’s age as 74. He was born on December 25, 1945 and passed away on February 16, 2021, making him 75 at the time of his death.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Jorge Gonzalez

    Hello,
    My name is Jorge Gonzalez i am the oldest son Jorge Gonzalez. First of thank you for this article, reading the quotes from my fathers teammates brought me to tears because they described exactly who my father was and his love for sport that marked his life and mine.