By Maryann Hudson | Oct. 22, 2015, 1:50 p.m. (ET)
Tony Azevedo looks to pass the ball during the men's water polo preliminary round match between the U.S. and Croatia during the 15th FINA World Championships on July 22, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain.


In the plodding desperation of an emergency surgery room, with time eluding their grasp, doctors worked furiously to restore life to a young boy who lay helpless on an operating table, flatlined.

Only shortly before, 4-year-old Tony Azevedo was busy in a playful backyard adventure. He was pretending to be He-Man and stood on top of an upright rabbit cage. But the cage in an instant gave way, and Tony caught his chin on its side, severing his throat and lungs. Doctors said it was equal to a child riding a bike into a clothesline. 

His chances of survival, doctors told Tony’s parents, were 1 in 10.

Air could not get to Tony’s lungs, instead filling his skin cells and causing him to bloat like a balloon. During surgery, his lungs had no room to expand. His heart stopped. Doctors said he died from a collapsed lung.

Doctors speared his chest with stainless tubes to release the air inside his lungs and, four long minutes later, Tony began breathing.

“Doctors said Tony would likely have brain damage … and have to live with an oxygen tank for life,” said Libby Azevedo, Tony’s mother. 

Doctors also said Tony would never be able to play sports.

***

Next summer in Rio de Janeiro, Azevedo, now 33, is expected to become the first five-time Olympian in U.S. water polo history. That’s nearly a 20-year span of being in over-the-top condition, working out nearly every day — playing nearly year-round. Taking no breaks. 

It’s not common. There are approximately five Americans in various sports hoping to compete in their sixth Olympic Games in Rio, and around 11 who hope to get there for the fifth time.

In a grueling sport such as water polo, at Azevedo’s level, 20 years is a lot of time in a pool. 

“Water polo has been called the toughest sport in the world, but I think most of its toughness is mental,” Azevedo said. “The ability to stand up to pressure, eight-to-nine hour training days, little money, body exhaustion and, of course, the referee, are all the things that separate great players from the rest.”

Azevedo, who is captain of the U.S. senior men’s team, is arguably one of the great players in the world.

Last week, the Pacific-12 Conference named him the Water Polo Player of the Century for his four-year standout performance in the sport at Stanford and in the Games.  

It’s a huge award from a powerhouse water polo conference that was founded in 1915 and annually features many of the best players in the country. Stanford has competed in men’s water polo since 1969 but has been sending players to the Games since 1924.

With 332 goals, Azevedo still holds Stanford’s all-time top scoring award. For four consecutive years, from 2001-2004, he won the Peter J. Cutino Award, water polo’s college version of the Heisman Trophy. He graduated from Stanford in 2004 with a degree in international relations. 

Before college, there was Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, where Azevedo led his water polo team to four state championships and was the MVP all four years. He’s been playing since he was 8 and has received more awards than walls and shelves in a room can hold.

And then, there is his nearly two decades on the U.S. men’s national team. 

And his 10 concurrent years playing professionally in Europe and Brazil. 

Now, what were those doctors saying about the young Tony never playing sports?

“Ricardo (Tony’s father) and I believe in visualization, so we told Tony to see in his mind his injuries in his throat and lungs and rub them together to heal them,” Libby Azevedo said. “Two weeks later, he was out of intensive care and walked home with nothing attached.”

Tony Azevedo said he doesn’t remember much about his accident, except this: “I told my mom that I saw a lady in white,” he said. “Right after that I walked with her and I woke from my coma.”

***

Somewhere in Azevedo’s storied water polo career, he earned the nickname “The Savior.”

“I think for me to live up to that nickname of ‘The Savior,’ I need to bring back a gold medal to this country,” Azevedo said. 

The U.S. men haven’t won an Olympic gold medal in water polo since 1904, when the sport was a demonstration game. Since then, the team’s best finish in the Games has been silver, which it won in 1984 in Los Angeles, in 1988 in Seoul and again 20 years later in 2008 in Beijing. The latter was Azevedo’s third Olympic Games.

The current team is a mix of few veterans and mostly young players still in college, which has made it difficult to find time outside of school to train together. That will change next year, when the team will come together in Costa Mesa, California, for seven months of training before the Games.

“I am really surprised as to how well we have come together in such a short time,” Azevedo said. “With really only four veterans on the team, we have made a point internationally that we are a team no one wants to face. Our younger players are very talented, and I believe these seven months training nonstop together could make the difference.” 

Now the undisputed elder statesman of the team, Azevedo has expanded his influence outside of the pool as well, recently signing on as a proponent for the new Team USA App presented by Smucker’s. The app, available for free on Android and iOS platforms, offers exclusive content to fans in the run-up to the Rio Games.

“The Olympics is always popular for a month in the summer, with only some athletes names sticking around months after,” he said. “Now people have a chance to get excited leading up to Rio, and stay connected year-in and year-out.” 


Yet it’s Azevedo’s strong family roots to Rio that have added the storybook level to 2016. He was born in Rio to a Brazilian father, Ricardo, and to an American mother, Libby, but moved to Long Beach when he was a couple months old.  

He and his sister Cassandra made summer visits to Rio to spend time with his grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins, playing until dark and taking long walks along the magic of Sugar Loaf Trail. 

Azevedo now lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with Sara, his wife, and Cruz, their 2-year old son. He plays water polo professionally for SESI, a team in Sao Paulo, and helped lead it to its first Brazilian championship in 2014. Several of his relatives and friends still live in Rio.

Azevedo’s father played for the Brazilian national water polo team. Now Ricardo Azevedo coaches the China’s women’s national water polo team.

“I love Rio,” Tony Azevedo said. “It is the most beautiful city in the world, but what makes it really special are the people. Everyone is so laid back and happy. In Rio, you work to live life, not live to work.

“Long Beach will always be my true home, though. That is where I became the person I am today.”

Said Libby: “He’s truly a miracle.”

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.