Written by KYLE JORREY Portrait by IRIS SMOOT 

In 1982 Terry Schroeder, then attending chiropractic school in Northern California while he trained with the U.S. men’s Olympic water polo team, received a call at his Sunnyvale home.

The woman’s voice at the other end of the phone was unfamiliar.

“She said she was the secretary for Robert Graham—and I had no idea who Robert Graham was—and she said, ‘Robert is interested in you being the model for his gateway statue,’” Schroeder recalls.

olympics_Athlete_SchroederThe soon-to-be captain of the U.S. team was caught completely off guard. “She went on to tell me it’s a naked statue, and I said, ‘I don’t think so.’”

Graham, as Schroeder would later learn, was at the time one of the country’s most respected sculptors, a man whose towering works would later be seen by tens of thousands of people each day in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

Later known for his public commissions of famous figures, including boxer Joe Louis in Detroit and musician Duke Ellington in New York, Graham was tapped to create a sculpture for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, the first Summer Games in the U.S. in 52 years. The piece was to be unveiled in front of the L.A. Memorial Coliseum three months before opening ceremonies, a symbol of the spirit and tradition of the games.


Photo Courtesy of Terry Schroeder
Schroeder modeled for artist Robert Graham’s Gateway to the Coliseum sculpture, unveiled at the 1984 Olympic Games in L.A.

Urged by family and friends to reconsider, Schroeder accepted an offer to visit Graham’s Venice Beach studio to hear the proposal from the artist himself. The gateway sculpture would be two headless figures, one male, one female. Graham assured him the models would remain anonymous.

Although the thought of his body being captured in bronze forever for the world to see still unnerved him, Schroeder reluctantly agreed. He soon discovered that the prolific sculptor was a fervent perfectionist.

“It took about 60 hours of me standing there, naked—not all at once, of course. I would fly down . . . and he’d spend hours working on some body part. After about 20 hours of working, he told the (sketch) artist, ‘I don’t like this’ and had him completely start over,” Schroeder says.

Despite Graham’s promise of anonymity, the identity of the model for the male figure was leaked to the press before the Olympics even began. Schroeder suspects the late Robert Helmick, then head of USA water polo and later of the U.S. Olympic Committee, might have been responsible. “He was hungry for water polo to get some press,” Schroeder says.

“When they unveiled it (before the games), it was a shock,” Schroeder says. “To be there and, oh my gosh, I’m 9 feet, naked, in front of everybody. I felt like crawling under my chair. Of course the Olympics were in L.A. and we stayed at USC. We trained at the Coliseum pool, so we’d walk by the statue every day. My teammates gave me such a hard time. It was rough.”

Almost 30 years later, Schroeder, now 55, views the statute with a feeling of pride, something he can tell his future grandkids about. It’s also a source of motivation to stay fit two decades after he played in his last competitive water polo match. The Westlake Village resident and full-time chiropractor says staying committed to a regular exercise regimen—even for someone once considered the model of perfect fitness—can be an Olympic-size task.“When I stopped playing in 1992, it was really difficult for me to transition into health and fitness because all of my physical training had been for a goal—and the goal was the Olympics, to reach that pinnacle and go for that gold medal—so it took me quite a while to transition to a different place where I would work out and exercise and eat right just for my own health,” Schroeder says.

Juggling marriage, his chiropractic business and his job as head coach of the Pepperdine University men’s water polo team, the one-time elite athlete failed to find time to exercise regularly. When it was a choice between working out and sleeping, Schroeder says he’d opt for extra rest.

“I think what happens to a lot of Olympians, we get so focused on that goal that life really does get out of balance. My identity was definitely wrapped up in being an Olympic athlete. That’s who I was,” says Schroeder who went on to coach the U.S. team in 2008 and 2012. “So when I stopped playing, it was a little bit of a train wreck for me. I came to a crossroads and it was like, ‘Now what?’”

Eventually Schroeder found himself back on the right path, but not without the help of his wife, Lori, a fellow chiropractor and fitness expert. At her urging, the three-time Olympian began jogging and working out three days a week and swimming laps another two. His fitness struggles, he says, taught him lessons that apply to all people.

“You’ve got to find (a form of exercise) that you like, and it’s really helpful if you find someone to do it with because you hold each other accountable. To go out and do it yourself is really challenging,” he says. “Sometimes that alarm goes off in the morning and you think, ‘. . . I’ll stay in this warm bed a while more.’ But if someone is there to say, ‘Get up, get going,’ it really helps.”

Nowadays, in addition to swimming, running and lifting weights, Schroeder has discovered a passion for Pilates.

“Pilates is, to me, the closest thing to swimming on land,” he says. “It’s super gentle on the body, the movements flow, there’s kind of a peace and tranquility to it. You can say that about yoga, but yoga is a lot more stretching and flexibility, where Pilates kind of intertwines the flexibility and the resistance exercise. . . .

“I used to do 2,000 sit-ups a day when I was really in shape. . . . When I started doing Pilates, Pilates worked muscles I had never worked before. Itasdf works really deep core muscles. It’s a really great exercise.”

The father of two girls—one a freshman at Pepperdine, the other a seventh-grader at Oaks Christian in Westlake Village—says good fitness isn’t about having the perfect statuesque body.

“Quality of life when we get a little bit older is super important to me, and it should be super important to us all because enjoying our kids, enjoying our grandkids and being able to have fun together with family and friends—your health and your fitness level is a big part of that.”