RIO DE JANEIRO — On the eve of the 2016 Olympic water polo tournament, the Team USA women — the defending Olympic champions — arrived at a press conference in Rio without their head coach, Adam Krikorian.
Krikorian flew home from Rio to be with his family after his brother, Blake, passed away suddenly on Wednesday. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Blake Krikorian was 48. News reports said he was surfing near San Francisco when he suffered an apparent heart attack.
Before he left Rio, Coach Krikorian gathered the team and told them to go out and enjoy the moment.
“To know that he wants us to enjoy this, enjoy the Olympics, and have fun and be how we are every day, that is telling about how strong of a person he is,” said team captain Maggie Steffens.
Krikorian plans to return to Rio in time for the U.S. women’s first match against Spain on Tuesday, Aug. 9. As the reigning world, World Cup and World Super League champions, the U.S. women are heavily favored to win their second straight Olympic gold medal in Rio and become the first team to win back-to-back women’s water polo gold.
In fact, the U.S. women’s water polo team has not lost a major international tournament in over two years.
But they are not resting on their laurels.
“We go into every tournament as if it’s a new tournament,” said Kami Craig, the only three-time Olympian on the 2016 team. “After every game, it’s on to the next game. It’s one at a time. We don’t carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. We are not granted anything or gifted anything. We know that this is going to be a battle. It doesn't matter where we were ranked yesterday or today. Everything we’ve done is to prepare for this moment, for six strong physical games, and we’ll be ready.”
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The 2016 Olympic team features a mix of four Olympic veterans — compared to six on the 2012 team in London — and nine first-time Olympians, including goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson.
The Olympic veterans are Steffens, the 2012 Olympic tournament MVP; Craig, who helped Team USA win silver at the Beijing Games; Courtney Mathewson; and Melissa Seidemann. First-
timers include Ashleigh Johnson, who was named top goalkeeper at the 2014 FINA World Cup and top goalkeeper and gold-medal-match MVP at the 2015 world championships.
“It’s a great balance of girls who have experience and have been in high-pressure situations and played in big tournaments and also has a handful of girls where this is the biggest tournament to date that they have played in,” said Courtney Mathewson, a 2012 Olympian.
While the women have dominated their competition for over two years, one loss is not far from their minds. At the 2013 world championships, they finished fifth — a startling result just a year after winning their first Olympic gold medal.
To keep them focused, Coach Krikorian frequently reminds the team that they are only as good as their last game and only as good as their next game.
“Both of those are almost the same because what you did the day before, you can take success from, you can take confidence from,” explained Steffens. “But unless you repeat that or are better the next day, then you’re never going improve. That’s what we strive to do and have done since 2013.”
While the pressure to become the first women’s water polo team to defend an Olympic gold is high, Steffens sees the benefit of this situation.
“It’s important to remember that pressure is a privilege,” Steffens stated. “That’s what it’s all about being on Team USA, to rise up to the challenge, rise up to that pressure.”
The Americans have won medals in every Olympic tournament since women’s water polo made its Olympic debut in 2000. In addition to gold in London, the team has claimed two silvers and one bronze.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn is in Rio covering her fourth Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.