With the U.S. women’s water polo team virtually perfect this season, and the U.S. men’s team coming of age, the 2015 Pan American Games that begin this month in Toronto offer each a sound opportunity for success.
Both teams won gold medals at the last Pan Am Games, in 2011 in Mexico, before the women went on to win the gold at the London 2012 Olympic Games, while the men, full of veterans and Olympic promise, fizzled and finished eighth.
The Pan Am Games have traditionally been a qualifier for the Olympic Games, and it remains so for the U.S. men’s team. By winning the Pan Am Games, the U.S. men can earn a berth as one of the 12 teams at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. The men’s other chance to qualify this year is with a top-three finish at the world championships in late July. There is also one more qualifying opportunity for the men next year.
The Pan Am Games, however, do not serve as an Olympic qualifier for the U.S. women. Their lone qualifier is tentatively set for March 2016 in the Netherlands.
“The field in the Olympics for the women is smaller with eight teams, so because the Brazil women are playing in the Pan Ams, it takes the continental qualifier away from us,” said Adam Krikorian, coach of the U.S. women’s team.
With Brazil hosting the 2016 Games, its teams get an automatic berth. Should the Brazil men win in Toronto, though, then the men’s second-place finisher qualifies for Rio.
The U.S. women enter the Pan Am Games as the top-ranked team in the world, a standing they have held for two years. The team has won 16 consecutive games this season, taking the top spot in all three tournaments played.
“We are fortunate to have a wealth of talent in the program and in the pipeline,” said Krikorian, who, since becoming coach in 2009, has led the team to Olympic and Pan American Games gold medals, a world championship, two FINA World Cups and five FINA World League Super Finals titles.
“We have created a culture in which competition is the norm, hard work is celebrated and perfection is what we strive for. We are all responsible for the team … and when you have a culture like that, success follows.”
The women’s Pan American team will include 2012 Olympians Maggie Steffens, Kami Craig, Courtney Mathewson and Melissa Seidemann. Steffens, from Stanford, was recently named the 2015 NCAA Women’s Player of the Year, and was joined on the NCAA’s first team along with three U.S. teammates: Sami Hill, Ashley Grossman and Rachel Fattal.
The women opened play at the Pan American Games in Group A against Mexico, winning 25-3, and will next play games against Cuba and Argentina. Moving on from pool play, the team’s major competition would be against Canada and Brazil.
The U.S. men’s team is ranked sixth in the world, and has been reworked since the arrival in 2013 of coach Dejan Udovicic, the former head coach of Serbia. He has made significant progress melding a team of young players with a few veterans.
Heading the Pan Am roster is Tony Azevedo, the four-time Olympian and team captain, as well as Olympians Jesse Smith, Merrill Moses and John Mann.
“When you are on this roster there are no veterans or youth players,” Udovicic said. “Everyone on the national team must feel the same. From the players who played in the past, I am expecting them to reach a higher level in their game that they have ever played, while at the same time changing to help younger players grow faster by using their past experience.”
This season, Udovicic struggled with getting the national team together to train, because there are so many college and some high school students on the team. Since June 1, though, the men have played 14 games in three countries. Their best success came early in June, with a four-game sweep of Serbia. After that, the team stumbled some, playing close games but not pulling them out. In the men’s most recent tournament, the FINA World League Super Final in Italy, they lost the bronze medal to Brazil 24-23 in a shootout.
“I am very impressed with the level of talent that we have and the overall commitment to winning and playing together,” Azevedo said.
The U.S. men’s team opened pool play in Group A against Ecuador, winning 27-0, and will follow that by playing Cuba and Argentina, with the latter being its toughest competition in the group. Beyond pool play, the U.S. team’s major challengers are Canada and Brazil. The men’s record against Canada this season is an 11-11 tie and a 10-9 loss.
Maryann Hudson is a freelance writer from the Houston area. She was previously an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2012 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.