To the rest of the Western Hemisphere, U.S. gold medal swimmers like Jesse Vassallo and Brian Goodell are heroic men of muscle bound for Moscow.

To the rough and rugged members of the U.S. water polo team - gold medalists in their own right - guys like the 145-pound Vassallo are just the runts who get sand kicked in their faces at the beach.

For seven days here, the water polo champs, ranked second in the world this year, played in the U.S. swimmers' wake - performing a sort of aquatic late show in the rapidly emptying Piscina Escobar after the last swimming race of the night.

More bemused than resentful, the polo team merely chuckles. After all, when you have to carry a club to keep the Latin ladies at bay, you can afford to be generous.

"The U.S. swim team?" said U.S. water polo official Bill Frady. "Oh, you mean the scraway guys who just left.

"Most of those swimmers are kind of puny, to tell the truth, aren't they," Frady said. "If one of 'em cut in front of you in a gas line, you'd probably stuff him in his glove compartment without thinking much about it.

"On the other hand, if one of these guys (pointing to the water polo chaps) got behind you in that line," said Frady, "you might ask him, "Sir, are you sure you wouldn't rather get in front of me?'"

Some says selecting the U.S. water polo team in simple.

Just get every lifeguard in California who's taller than 6 feet, throw 'em in the same swimming pool, then yell, "Drown each other!"

The 11 left make the team.

This false idea shows how misunderstood the poor water polo player usually is.

True, every U.S. water polo player is a frighteningly fit Californian, usually disgustingly tall. And it's true their game resembles a mass homicide, interspersed with purely accidential near-drownings.

With only their glistening skull caps above the water, polo teams look like a phalanx of medieval ax executioners fording a stream.

However, water polo - the way the brilliant young U.S. team plays it - is far more than incredible stamina, strength, savvy and brutality. It's also kicking, gouging and strangling.

"We must play the least-understood of all U.S. Olympic sports," said Monte Nitzkowski, the head coach. "People ask us constantly, some of them seriously, 'How do you guys get all those horses into the swimming pool?"

Actually, water polo is a simple game, a spectator's first-time delight - once you get those horses out of the pool.

Imagine a swimming pool (water well over the players' heads) with a small goal (three meters by one meter) at either end.

Now imagine tow teams - with one goalie and six swimmers each - swimming madly back and forth, passing the ball to each other and trying to throw it into the goal.

Strategy resembles basketball with full-court man-to-man defense, pivot men who make passes to cutters and swimmers setting picks to free each other from defenders.

Obnoxious water polo buffs point out that, at a subtle level, tactics probably resemble lacrosse most, but equating water polo with lacrosse is like translating Chinese into Greek: pretentiously correct but not much help.

The game has one basic rule: you can't hold, sink or touch a player who doesn't have the ball. What's so rough about that?

"Well, once you do touch the ball, all those things happen to you, plus all the stuff that goes on under the water that the refs can't see," said Dave Heart, the Canadian coach.

And what does go on underneath the water?

"All the things you'd think," Heart said. "Anything's fair,"

Unfortunately for water polo the game is played amid constant whistle - none of which spectators need to listen to..

"The average fan has no idea what the hell is going on." Heart said. "He thinks play stops with the whistle. In water polo, the game never stops."

The central defensive idea of the game - the element that makes it so barbarous and charming - is that the instant any man touches the ball the best defensive ploy is always the same: down him, dunk him, strangle him.

This constant mugging is called a "minor penalty" - surely a misnomer, since the peanlty for mayhem usually helps the defense.

Once the man with the ball has been attacked, he is allowed three seconds (once he resurfaces and regains consciousness) to make a free pass. In that three seconds he cannot shoot.

During these three free seconds - when nobody is allowed to touch anybody - all the game's significant action takes place as swimmers, freed of the possibility of sudden beheading, set picks, cut for the goal, go back door and generally try to get open for a lightning pass and score.

Naturally, most crowds don't know this and are confused. They ignore the game after whistle - and are even more confused when somebody scores an instant later.

The result is the numb spectator thinks he is watching a brutal game of nonaction that is constantly delayed and tangled by whistles and minor fouls, while in fact, it is a brainy game of constant action in which the chorus of whistles impedes nothing.

Despite its enormous popularity in Eastern Europe and Russia, water polo need not expect its first $100 million TV contract too soon. The game is a video disaster.

"It's just like water polo's luck that we've got about the ruggedest sport on earth with maybe the best set of bodies of any sport, and 90 percent of it is hidden under water," Frady said.

So, water polo remains perhaps the ultimate cult sport, one accessible only to an elite in almost inhumanly good shape.

"You can play water polo without being in good shape, but you can't enjoy it," Nitzkowski said. "The game is essentially one hour of continuous swimming in water over your head with three two-minute breaks, while 200-pound guys are constantly climbing all over you, kneeing you, dunking you.

"At the international level, it's not a dirty game because all the most effective tactics are actually legal," said U.S. star Gary Figueros, who scored five goals in an 8-6 championship game victory over Cuba (A typical water polo score).

"Broken ear drums used to be common, but not with the new caps. [There are] broken fingers, fingers in the eyes, bloody noses and a lot of kicks in the groin," Figueroa said. "But [it's] nothing much, really."

Ironically, the players who endure this "nothing much," are not beach bums but well-educated men in their 20s, many of them holding jobs in teaching, engineering and the like.

Their sacrifice extends beyong the pool. Half the team lives in Los Angeles and half in San Francisco, more than 5/ miles away. "One weekend half flies north, the next weekend the other half flies south," Nitzkowski said."In 30 hours, we can fly both ways and get in four heavy workouts . . . eight months a year."

"You gotta be kind of a weird dude to play this game," said superb goalie Harpo Hamann, whose powerful "eggbeater" kick allows him to rise out of the water until the middle of his bathing suit is visible and hold that dolphin-like position for three seconds while he waves his arms to block a shot.

"Hey," Hamann said, his exuberant, snaggle-toothed face the emblem of his wild and uncharted game, "what damgae would a ball do to this face?"*