Every time he dives into the pool, senior water polo captain James Walters carries his brother, Jon, with him.
Jon’s initials, JDW, are emblazoned on James’ cap, suit and sweats. A plaque memorializing Jon, a 2-meter who was key to the Trojans’ national championship victory in 2013, hangs on the wall alongside the supporters’ section where James’ parents, Jaque and Bill, sit in the stands.
Jon’s name is engraved in the NCAA championship ring that hangs on a chain around Jaque’s neck. She clutches at the pendant, running her thumb over the letters, when a game comes down to the wire.
Bill has a ring of his own, as do Jon’s older siblings. It’s one of their favorite memories of Jon — a true freshman, still recovering from an elbow injury, who squared his jaw to lift USC to a victory.
James is the only one without a ring. When his family ordered them four years ago, he refused to accept one of his own. He didn’t want to take Jon’s ring. James needed to earn his own.
For three years since, James has been looking to redeem his brother’s championship. For three years, his team fought its way to a No. 1 ranking, to an MPSF title, to the national championship title game. And for three straight years, the Trojans have fallen just short.
This weekend is his last chance to change that. And for James, this weekend means more than just redemption. Because four years ago, after winning the national championship, Jon fell into a coma after a New Year’s party. He battled pneumonia and a series of heart attacks before dying eight days later. He was 19, a freshman and a national champion. He was also James’ best friend.
This weekend, James will captain his team in its final national title run. But he’ll play for more than just a title or a trophy. He’ll play for his brother, for the final time. And he’ll play for a ring of his own.
“I think, at the end of it, I want to make him proud,” James said. “I know he’s proud of me, but I still want to do this for him. I want to finish what he started.”
Arm in arm
For most of their lives, it was always assumed that Jon and James were twins.
They had the same strong frame — broad shoulders, long arms, square jaws. Jon wore glasses, and James was an inch shorter. They were separated in age by a year, yet it was rare to see them apart.
In and out of the water, Jon and James were the perfect pair. Jon was hot-headed, stubborn, quick to act first and think later. Despite being younger, James was the mature one. He woke Jon up in the mornings and reminded him to not forget his glasses or notes on the way to school. They lived in a four-bedroom house and insisted on sharing the same room. Neither one really seemed to make sense without the other.
Even their positions were complementary: James played utility, the polo version of a point guard, feeding the ball to Jon down low in the 2-meter slot. They never felt the need to compete because their roles in the pool were a perfect fit — designed to assist one another.
Sometimes, James remembers, he didn’t even have to look at his brother when they were in the pool. He knew where he’d be, how he’d move, which play to run. In three seasons together at Mater Dei High School, the pair never lost a game.
“You had to be on their team because if you weren’t, you were going to lose,” said senior goalkeeper McQuin Baron, who has played with the Walterses since freshman year of high school. “If Jon and James were on a team, they were winning. They were unstoppable together.”
They were on each other’s teams from the start, although their athletic careers began on the football field. Bill played defensive line at the University of Kansas, so he signed the boys up for Pop Warner, hoping they’d follow his love for the game.
They took to it immediately, as most little boys do, except for one problem — Jon’s size. He was a stocky kid, tall for his age and thick around the middle, and he needed to drop 35 pounds to play in his own age group. Bill knew it was impossible, so he walked the boys home, determined to find something else.
The answer came in that short walk, as the trio walked past water polo practice at the pool of their recreation center. Jon pointed at the splashing players and asked if they could join. Within a week, Jon and James were water polo converts.
They grew up in the game, spending every afternoon in the pool, reeking of chlorine and gobbling down sandwiches and In-N-Out between swim and water polo practices. James never considered being on a different team than Jon, so he played up an age group for the next five years.
Bill and Jaque knew the boys would always be good at whatever they tried, and it was true from the start. The pair joined a club team that soon traveled the country and secured a national title. They won state championships in high school and declared for USC together during Jon’s junior year. For both of them, water polo just made sense.
“We just got so caught up with it from the beginning,” James said. “When I think of growing up, I just think of the pool with Jon. It was our everyday, and it just never got old. It still hasn’t.”
Jon’s freshman year both started and ended with tragedy. He injured his elbow within weeks of the first game, grinding a promising start to the season to a halt. As Jon warmed the bench and recovered from his injury, James adjusted to life without his brother. They saw each other on the weekends and talked on the phone, but the distance made things different.
Without his brother by his side, James lost the first game of his high school career. But it was alright, he said, because next year he would be at USC. They’d play together and win a championship. Just as planned.
Jon recovered in time for postseason play, netting 2 goals in an NCAA semifinal to push the Trojans into the final game. On Dec. 8, James was in the stands watching as Jon won the national title in an overtime thriller over Pacific. It was the sixth straight national championship for USC.
Afterwards, Jon hugged his brother, grinning widely as they celebrated the first of many trophies. The celebration continued weeks later, on New Year’s Eve back in Newport Beach. Jon, who struggled with insomnia for years, took Xanax before heading to a party with his brother. They drank champagne and fell asleep, like always, side by side. But that morning, Jon didn’t wake up.
For a week, Jon remained in a coma. On the third day, he contracted pneumonia. On the eighth day, he suffered a series of heart attacks. He died on Jan. 8, at the age of 19, exactly a month after winning the national championship.
“It was devastating for all of us,” Bill said. “It’s like a fog. It fills you and surrounds you, and you don’t know how you’re going to get out of it. I think we’re just waking up now. Years later, I think we’re still just waking up.”
For James, the weeks following Jon’s death felt hollow. He forgot, almost every day, that his brother was gone. Remembering again was the hardest part. When James graduated that spring, Jon wasn’t there to see it. He wasn’t there to help him move into his college dorm, or to shove him underwater in his first practice as a Trojan. And in the weeks following his brother’s death, James became accustomed to firsts without Jon.
With the last of her children away at college, the house was too quiet for Jaque. James knew that, so he called his mom every day, letting her know how his day was going. It wasn’t quite enough to fill the space that four children left in her home. But it helped.
In the time that passed, water polo allowed the Walters to heal. The team dedicated its season to Jon, emblazoning his initials on every piece of official polo gear. Head coach Jovan Vavic promised Bill and Jaque that the team would treat James like family. To memorialize Jon, he hung a plaque permanently in the Uytengsu Aquatics Center.
The family dove into the game again with a new sort of passion. Bill and Jaque refused to miss a game, cooking dinner for the players and their families after every match. And James quietly followed in the promising steps of his brother, scoring 34 goals as a true freshman.
“I think that’s when you need the game,” James said. “There’s a comfort to it, you know, to it being something that has always been here for me. I found so much comfort in my team and in the pool, especially in that first year when I needed it.”
Four years later, the Walters love to talk about Jon.
Not in public. That freaks people out, Bill says. It’s awkward. Other people don’t know what to say, how to act. There’s nothing for a friend or a stranger to say when a family casually brings up their boy who died too soon.
But when they’re alone together, the Walters talk about Jon. What he would say or think in a situation. A joke he would probably crack, the line he would probably fall for, the advice he would probably give.
“I don’t go an hour without thinking of him,” Bill says, and Jaque shakes her head in agreement. “Not an hour.”
They moved several years ago, to a lavish house overlooking the ocean by Crystal Cove. Jon never lived here, but it’s hard to tell. Pictures of him and James cover the wall of a hallway. Family portraits, awkward poses after water polo games, a faded picture of the pair back before they lost their baby fat. Jon’s obituary, which filled the cover of the Daily Trojan four years ago, hangs in between.
“There’s no new pictures, so we have to cherish all the old ones,” Jaque says, running her hand across a framed picture of Jon when he was young, his curly blonde hair falling into his eyes. “He died, and there’s no new pictures. It’s just memories.”
Moving forward, not moving on
James never planned for a life without Jon.
He knew, in detail, what he wanted from life. He wanted to play in the Olympics alongside his brother. He wanted to graduate USC, start a real estate business with his siblings and father. He wanted to buy a house with Jon living right next door, so the pair could eat dinner, get married, raise their children together. When he thought about the future, he thought about ending each day of work by going home with his brother and best friend.
For the first 20 years of their lives, Jon and James were two halves, two pieces of a puzzle. Now, it’s been three years and James is still getting used to being on his own.
It’s amazing, Baron says, because if you meet James now, you’d never knew what he went through. He’s warm, friendly — the type of guy who is quick to help and easy to laugh. In the pool, he’s still the same as before, fierce on defense and calculating on offense. He’s a true captain, Baron says, the guy everyone else wants to follow.
James is still living the life he and Jon had dreamed. He’ll graduate this year as a two-year captain and go into business with his family, just as planned. He’ll still buy a house and raise a family, just without his brother next door. But there’s one dream that James won’t let himself live.
When they were young, Jon and James were expected to become a star duo for the U.S. national team, natural athletes who traveled along with Baron with the Olympic development teams throughout high school. Now, James turns down any invitations to the team. Baron now plays for the U.S. on his own, the final remainder of the trio from high school.
After college, James will leave water polo behind. The Olympic team might have allowed him to play for years into the future, but now, he’s OK with his time in the pool coming to an end. That was their dream, not his.
But for now, there’s still a few more games to play. If James has his way, his career will end on Sunday, in the pool dedicated to his brother.
Most of this team didn’t know Jon. For them, this weekend is a chance at redemption for their seniors, at revenge against Cal and UCLA teams that have upset them in the past. But for the team that has become a family for James, every player knows the weight that a championship would hold.
Win or lose this weekend, James will play for his team and his family, for his brother and for the ring he feels he still must earn. And win or lose, Jon will be watching from the best seat in the house.
“There’s still days where it hits me in waves and I’m not sure how I’m going to do it,” James said. “But you just keep doing it. You move forward. You don’t move on.”