Even as a young man, Tom Hermstad always knew he loved the water.
In the 1940’s of his youth, Seal Beach was indeed like Mayberry by the Sea. With less than 2,000 residents, Hermstad needed only the ocean to keep him content.
He was a kid from aross the channel. He discovered the waves and soon began to ride them.
Now in his eighties, Hermstad, like his friends, said he always felt at ease on the sand and at home on a surfboard, even as primitive as they were back when he was a boy.
From his love of water and sport, his abilities grew. He was there as the surfing industry began to grow. He became a witness to history, standout surfer, athlete, water polo player, award winning college coach and eventually, he made it to the Olympic Hall of Fame.
Even today, he can hardly believe it.
“I pinch myself and ask myself how the hell did this happen,” says Hermstad? “I was just a kid hanging out in Seal Beach.”
Among Hermstad’s small circle of beach friends, decades ago, were fellow surfers like Jack and Mike Haley. They, along with many others, have emerged over the years as legendary surfers, surfboard makers, and even famous surf photographers.
Back then, however, they were just kids; young adults who made the most of the incredible paradise in which they found themselves growing up.
For years, he said, they gathered on the sand near 13th Street in Seal Beach, then, he says, home to the some of the best surfing waves in all of California.
“Once in a while, there is that special wave,” he notes, as he explains how surfers must “claim a wave.”
“You get a peak here and a peak there. You’re right on that peak. Then, you may make the drop or maybe you get a break over your head,” says Hermstad.
Over many years, Hermstad has traveled the world to ride the ocean’s waves, having visited many of the modern world’s best-known surf locations.
Before Seal Beach’s growth prompted the addition of sand and other mitigating factors (which he said ended the blockbuster waves), Hermstad says surfers everywhere, including the Haley brothers, paid homage to 13th Street waves in Seal Beach.
Their collective passion for surfing helped fuel and frame much of what we recognize today as the surfing industry.
Though surfing is said to trace its roots back centuries, to Polynesia, the technologies (glues, adhesives, etc) emerging from World War II prompted a boom in new age surfboards as the industry began to flourish on the California coast.
Hermstad and his surfer friends were only to eager to oblige. He and the Haley boys were out on the waves most every day.
According to the Surfing Walk of Fame, Jack Haley, among the most renowned local surfers, actually perfected his surfing in the waves of Huntington Beach, not far as the seagull flies from Seal Beach.
Also, Haley holds the title of the first-ever winner of the West Coast Surfing Championships held at Huntington Beach in 1959. His brother Mike Haley won the event the following year, said Hermstad.
Known to friends as “Mr. Excitement,” Haley was extremely successful in many facets of life — he opened Jack Haley Surfboards in Seal Beach in 1961, and four years later opened the still-popular restaurant Captain Jack’s in Sunset Beach, claims the Surfing Walk of Fame and vowed to by Hermstad.
Haley, he says, “was a mythological type of figure who helped pioneer surfing in Orange County during the 1940’s and 1950’s.”
For Hermstad, Haley was all that and more.
“When I found out he passed away in 2000, after losing his battle with cancer, I jumped on my surfboard and rode,” said Hermstad (see photo). Kim Carey, his friend (and former student), who became a world-renowned surfing photographer, followed him to the beach and snapped a famous photo of a devastated Hermstad’s tribute surf to Jack.
Like the Haleys, however, Hermstad became a legend, but not in the way he could have ever imagined.
Hermstad took a different path.
Always loving the water, he developed skills not only as a surfer, but as a water polo player. He was a standout at Wilson High School in the 1950’s and later, at Cal State Long Beach. He played in the Pan American Games and was a U.S. Olympic team finalist.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in ’61 and a master’s degree in 1964, both in physical education, at CSULB.
Hermstad was an assistant water polo coach for four state titles. From the start of his career, it became clear that Hermstad understood the game very well. He was named all-city beach water polo player in 1957, co-captain at CSULB in 1960, and California Community College Coach of the Year in 1979.
He began as head water polo coach at Lakewood High School in 1963 and moved on to coach at Golden West College from 1966-85, where, under his leadership, the Rustlers won eight state championships, had two undefeated teams, 20 conference titles and 7 southern California titles.
Hermstad enjoyed a remarkable water polo coaching career, also establishing friendships with the likes of UCLA basketball coach John Wooten, and basketball wonder Michael Jordan, among many others along the way.
Always a friend of the Haley family, Hermstad befriended Jordan when he came to California to participate in basketball camps arranged by Haley’s son, Jack, Jr., who played for several NBA teams, including the Chicago Bulls.
“I got a handwritten copy of Coach Wooten’s Pyramid of Success,” smiles Hermstad, pointing to the diagram sketched out long before Wooten’s book became a bestselling motivational book.
Throughout his career, greatness always seemed to find Ol’ Tom Hermstad.
His experience playing and coaching water polo made him a contemporary of the late and legendary U.S. Olympic water polo coaches Bob Horn (UCLA) and Monte Nitzkowski (Long Beach City College).
These two water polo titans were coaches and U.S. Olympic officials in their day, and Hermstad said one day they asked him to referee a practice game.
“Do you think you could referee our practice,” Hermstad remembers Horn asking him? “I had never done it,” said Hermstad, somewhat surprised at the request, but then again, why not?
That simple request, however, put Hermstad of yet another path, one that would ultimately lead him to the U.S. Olympic Water Polo Hall of Fame.
Hermstad said he accepted the request, gave it try. Very soon, he became a water polo referee.
“I never really read a rulebook,” he said honestly, having known the game so intently as a player and a coach. Having played the game, however, Hermstad apparently knew what to look for, even if deciphering the action below the water line “sometimes make infractions very difficult to call.”
“We can only see about one-tenth of what’s going on. It gets a bit rough out there,” said Hermstad, and referees have to rely on intuition to fairly arbitrate a game.
As his skills and reputation grew in the sport, Hermstad was invited to become an Olympic referee. At that point, said Hermstad, “I did eventually read the technical sections.”
Hermstad would go on to become an outstanding water polo referee, a passion he enjoyed for the better part of two decades. Through this career, however, it is perhaps the drama, and tragedy, of one event in his first Olympics that he will never forget.
Long before the internet, during the heyday of global satellite television, the eyes of the world were focused on the 1972 summer games in Munich, Germany as Hermstad prepared to officiate his first Olympic competition.
Although the Munich games made swimmer Mark Spitz a household word, these Olympic games would long be remembered for something far more sinister.
Hermstad found himself 6,000 miles from home about to be put to test as an Olympic referee.
“We (USA Men’s Water Polo team) had just received the bronze medal in water polo and the head of USWP had a very nice party at Dantebod (pool/eating facility) in Munich,” said Hermstad. So, he and his friends decided to attend.
Early the next morning, about 2 a.m., Hermstad said he, Bruce Bradley, outstanding player during those Olympics and Eric Lindroth decided to walk back to the Olympic Village.
“There was a fence around the entire complex,” he said, and the fence was lined with barb wire everywhere except for the gates.
When they approached the gate, “it was locked,” said Hermstad, “so we climbed over it.”
The next morning, the world came to its knees; the “Munich massacre” had just begun.
Just before dawn on September 5, a group of eight members of the Palestinian Black September terrorist organization broke into the Olympic Village and took eleven Israeli athletes, coaches, and officials’ hostage.
The games were halted as two of the Israeli team members, now hostages, resisted and were immediately killed.
Hermstad, like many other athletes did not know yet what had happened, but when he and a friend walked to the parking lot the next morning to bring an athlete (Art Lambert) to the Munich airport, they noticed something odd.
“As we approached the parking area, we saw Mark Spitz, who is Jewish and had won 7 Olympic gold medals, surrounded by 10 or so men in suits with rifles,” said Hermstad.
“What is going on,” thought Hemstad?
“We took Art to the airport and returned to village, and it was ‘locked down,’” said Hermstad. “We could not get in and still had no clue what had happened. Early that afternoon, I finally got into Olympic Village and returned to my room,” he said.
“I noticed men with masks/guns/rifles on top of the building. More men with rifles were located on balconies of rooms on different floors. The TV news in Munich was, of course, all in German and it was being ‘filmed’ but I still did not know what exactly had happened.”
Suddenly, Hermstad said word began to spread throughout the Olympic Village that the games were halted. Gazing across to the next building, it was then that Hermstad could see the blindfolded Israeli athletes being led away by the terrorists.
Buses filled with athletes and coaches began making their way toward the airport. Hermstad booked a ticket and made it home safely, only learning along the way the extent of what had happened and that he had been a witness to history.
Moreover, what makes it an even more strange experience is the fact that the terrorists had apparently jumped the same fence that he and his buddies had jumped to get back into the Olympic village, just a couple of hours after them.
“When I eventually saw the movie (about the terrorist event),” said Hermstad, “I realized that me and my buddies had crossed that same fence not long before the terrorists. Made me think.”
Saddened by the tragic events, Hermstad nonetheless did his job as an Olympic referee, and apparently, had done it well. In fact, he’d built a career of excellence and fairness as an Olympic water polo referee.
In 1995, Hermstad was inducted to the U.S. Olympic Water Polo Hall of Fame as a referee.
Even while traveling the world as a water polo referee, Hermstad maintained local relationships as a coach and humanitarian. He served as head of aquatics in Seal Beach from 1966 -81, providing leadership in water sports for four months each summer.
For Hermstad, it’s been a long and unbelievable journey since the days of his youth. Although opportunities to leave the area presented themselves many times over the years, this standout athlete said no to any offer that would have taken him away from Seal Beach.
“I love Seal Beach. I love my wife, Lynn. I love my kids and it was just not worth going anywhere else,” said Hermstad.
Most afternoons, up on the “hill” in Seal Beach, you can see Tom and Lynn sitting outside, enjoying that wonderful sun, that very same sun that shone on them as beach hanging surfer kids back in the day.
Hermstad does not surf much anymore, yet he still loves the sport. He points to three shiny surfboards that still neatly hang from the ceiling above the family car parked in his garage.
“When you surf, you smile,” said a smiling Hermstad. He has been smiling, and surfing, for a very long time.
Hermstad really doesn’t need to surf any more. Already, his life has been one amazing ride.
Mahalo, Ol’ Tom, and keep paddling.