Water Polo Olympic Hopeful Johnny Hooper Says Team Is a 'Family': 'You're Not Playing for Yourself'

"At the end of the day, how badly do you want it? And that's my motto," he says

Johnny Hooper
Johnny Hooper. Photo: Harry How/Getty

Two years ago, the ground fell away beneath Johnny Hooper's feet.

The water polo player and Olympic hopeful was in South Korea, in a crowd on a balcony in a nightclub that July, when it collapsed. Two men died. Sixteen other people — including Hooper — were injured. (His left hand needed stitches.)

"Definitely someone was watching over me that night," he told PEOPLE in an earlier interview during his Olympics training. "I'm the luckiest person on earth to have gone now pretty unscathed."

The experience reminded him of this lesson: "You live life, you cherish every moment moving forward from that. You give your mom a big hug and give your friends a big hug. And you take a step back and you realize what the important things are in your life."

Hooper, who just turned 24, knows what is important to him. In fact, he has the ink – literally — to prove it. He has two tattoos: One is mom Mimi's name written in Japanese; the other is an anchor — "which signifies staying grounded and living in the moment," he has said.

Mostly, living in the moment has meant preparing and then continuing to prepare for the Tokyo Summer Games, set to kick off next month. Hooper, a Los Angeles native, speaks with the easy directness of an athlete on a mission.

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Athletes
Johnny Hooper.

"Anything's possible and sometimes it's okay to go against the grain and do things out out of the system," he told PEOPLE. "Because a lot of people fall in, in anything. In life, in general, outside of sports, they follow the grain, and the ones who are really successful, they do it their own way. And that's the most important thing for me is being the most authentic me that I can be. And pushing myself to the limits that nobody else does."

"Physical stuff, we're going to get there. Mentally, we got to be in our A-game at all times," he said. "So hydration, mental preparation, team psych. Of course there's the physical side, like weight room, pool. You got to get your yards, you got to get your weight up no matter what. But at the end of the day, how badly do you want it? And that's my motto."

And, for the record Hooper said, "I'm the most competitive person you'll ever meet in the world."

"Ask any of my friends — that's where I am," he said.

The game of water polo then, which requires great swimming and great speed and great hand-eye coordination, is about what you can do beyond yourself.

Johnny Hooper
Johnny Hooper (center) competing in 2016. Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty

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"I love my teammates. It's a family out there. So you're not playing for yourself," Hooper said. "You're playing for the 10 other guys that are on the team with you. You're playing for your coach, you're playing for your family, you're playing for honestly the guy that [spent] blood, sweat and tears right next to you."

Where Hooper fits into that squad is "I'm a high energy player."

"I got to stay the most fit on endurance-wise to sprint for the ball," he said. "So four times a game, I'm going zero-to-100 quicker than anyone. That's what I bring to the team." (He's also, he said, the "smallest guy" – quote-unquote — at 6-foot-1 so "I want to be that guy who did it differently and I got to play differently than the bigger guys.")

At low moments, he can lean on his mom.

"She does everything for me. She's been my biggest fan since day one," he said. "She made me the person that I am today, so that's definitely the person I emulate, and I try to be the most."

And, at other moments, he dreams of the podium in Tokyo.

"As a kid, you see guys like Michael Phelps, guys like Tony Azevedo in our sport. They get up there and they get a medal," Hooper said. "So that's the coolest thing ever to watch. And I'm so excited to be able to have the opportunity, and I'm going to try it, get a gold medal for the U.S."

To learn more about all the Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics beginning July 23rd and the Tokyo Paralympics beginning August 24th on NBC.

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