When Tim Shaw was a world champion swimmer, and a Sullivan Award winner, he nevertheless looked forward eagerly to the three months each year when he played water polo, first in high school and then at Cal State-Long Beach.

Now, Shaw is playing polo year round, and enjoying it even more, as he attempts to win an Olympic berth in that sport. Here at the National Sports Festival, he has scored at least one goal in every game, and Olympic Coach Monte Nitzkowski calls him "definitely a strong candidate for the Olympics."

"I've always loved water polo and I'm glad to get the chance to play it full-time," Shaw said. "I want to give it a chance and see just how well I really can play, without any distractions. I'm hungry again."

Shaw was hungry in the pool in 1975, when he captured three gold medals in the World Aquatics Championships. But injury and illness hampered his Olympic bid in 1976, although he managed to qualify in the 400-meter freestyle, in which he captured a silver medal. He was an Olympian again in 1980, when his swimming career ended with the boycott.

Swimming was a simple thing, more a matter of putting in time than anything else. Now, as a full-time polo player, Shaw is finding the sport is more than the fun game he played before.

"I played on my high school and college teams during the three months I was off from swimming, because it was fun and a good way to stay in shape," Shaw said. "Water polo did a lot of good for my mental outlook on swimming. I was able to stay in shape and play while totally separated from what was going on in the world.

"It's a very strenuous sport and you never know how much you'll play, but you know it will be seven minutes at a time, at least (polo has four seven-minute periods). That's where my advantage is. I can go for a long period of time, and still get free, because of my stamina."

Besides his endurance, Shaw benefits from his speed. During a 7-4 loss to the unbeaten West team Wednesday night, Shaw was able to retreat on defense quickly enough to neutralize an opponent's breakaway, and he was able to obtain possession when the ball was dropped at midpool for the start of each period.

Although the United States won a bronze medal at Munich in 1972, it has experienced problems internationally, particularly when it has had to face the world-champion Soviet team. The U.S. was fourth in the recent FINA Cup, which Shaw missed because of an eye infection, and Nitzkowski feels that what is needed is a greater scholastic and national participation.

"Since 1960, every Olympian has come from the state of California," Nitzkowski said. "The only reason for that I can see is because there is more flexibility in California to let water polo players swim and swimmers play water polo.

"I think the resistance in the rest of the country from swimming coaches is caused, first, because they are not prepared to coach water polo and, second, because they fear a negative effect on the swimming program.

"I started as an Olympic swimmer and I've coached four Olympics at water polo, and I can tell you water polo is a lot more fun than the pain, agony and laps of boredom of the pool.

"I think we've reached the point of a mileage myth in the pool. We can't keep hammering these swimmers, expect them to swim 20,000 yards a day. We're wearing out the kids physically and emotionally. As soon as they lose the lure of an Olympics or an NCAA scholarship, they're leaving the sport. It's just not enough fun, and this is where water polo comes in . . . I think a marriage of water polo and swimming may be the hope of the future."

Helping to make Nitzkowski's point was Shaw, product of a high school and college marriage of swimming and water polo, now at age 25 enjoying it more than ever.