On those sweet, summer mornings in Rio de Janeiro, a young Tony Azevedo would wake at 6 so he could walk with his grandmother on the Sugar Loaf trail. He loved the wildlife.
Azevedo was born in Rio and raised in Long Beach, California. On his vacations to visit his father’s side of the family in Rio, he spent his days on the beach with tons of cousins, trying every juice drink possible and eating grilled cheese. He took weekend trips to his grandfather’s vacation home in the mountains, a big villa with a pool, barbecue and basketball court.
“My fondest memories are visiting and feeding the goats at a nearby farm, getting killed in soccer by the neighborhood kids and eating tons of chicken hearts, which is still my favorite and now my son’s,” said Azevedo, now 34.
On his walks with his grandmother, Azevedo would watch as the locals put bananas in bottles to catch monkeys. They would tie a string to the bottle, then the monkey would reach in to get the banana and not be able to get its hand out unless it dropped the banana.
“No way that monkey was going to drop the banana,” Azevedo said.
Azevedo, a four-time Olympian, captain of the U.S. water polo team and arguably one of the best players in the world, seems to embody that same spirit. At the London 2012 Olympic Games, with a roster full of returning veterans, the U.S. team won its first three games, then lost the next four to finish eighth. The dismal finish only inspired Azevedo to look forward, to the 2016 Games in Rio.
“2012 was a disappointing finish for us, which made it even more necessary to continue,” Azevedo said. “No way could I end like that. It has only fueled me to train harder every day.”
Azevedo’s father Ricardo is from Brazil; his mother Libby is from the United States.
“I remember watching when they were going to pick between the U.S. and Brazil to host the Olympics,” Azevedo said. “I remember saying to myself, ‘Wow this is a win-win.’
“…I have a heart for Rio and Brazil, but I am American. My whole life has been in the USA, and especially my water polo career is with the U.S. I have already played Brazil many times, and it will be even more fun at an Olympic Games. But emotionally, I am an American trying to win a gold for the USA.”
Azevedo is one of a few veterans on a fairly young U.S. team, which began play today at the 2015 FINA Men’s Water Polo World League Super Final in Bergamo, Italy. Winning this event is one of four ways the team can qualify for the 2016 Games in Rio.
The team’s second chance to earn an Olympic bid will come at the Pan American Games, which will be held this July in Toronto. The third comes at the 2015 world championships, held the end of July in Kazan, Russia, from which the top three teams qualify for the Games. And next year, there will be one more chance for the final Olympic bids.
“Tony is important for the team with his winning mentality and knowing the game at high level,” said coach Dejan Udovicic, who joined the U.S. team in 2013. “I spoke with him several times, and he is willing to change his style of the game from the past to help the rest of the team to reach their potential faster.
“To do this you must be one of the best players in the world who has ever played water polo. This is a proof that he belongs to that group. He is playing on a higher level than two years ago, and in same time he has become one of the key players in our defense.”
The U.S. team is coming off a four-game series sweep of Serbia in June, a team the Americans last beat in the semifinals of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games before moving on to win a silver medal. The U.S. team, which struggled with training together during the school year because several young players are scattered across the country in colleges, has been able to train together this summer for a month.
“Our coach has really done a great job getting this team prepared,” Azevedo said. “He believes in us and has focused on teaching us the game and making us students of the game. … We are young, but we have heart and all the tools.”
Azevedo lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with his wife Sara and son Cruz, 2. He’s a quick flight from Rio, where he still has family. He plays professionally for a Brazilian team, and at this point plans to keep playing water polo beyond 2016.
“I’ve always said that the moment I don’t love showing up to the pool everyday is the moment that I retire,” Azevedo said. “So far, I still love that moment.”
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 and USParalympics.org since 2012 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.