Members of Team USA pose for a group photo at the U.S. Olympic Men's Water Polo Team announcement onboard the USS Midway on July 7, 2016 in San Diego.
SAN DIEGO – Jesse Smith laughed as he was swarmed over by his three young children Thursday morning. He hugged and kissed them all, his smile as bright as theirs.
They had just watched the official ceremony announcing his selection to a fourth straight U.S. Olympic men’s water polo team, held on the deck of the Midway, the famed Navy carrier now docked in San Diego Harbor as a museum. The kids’ matching red-white-and-blue outfits were a perfect fit with the venue on a beautiful, sunny day, and their excitement almost equaled their father’s.
“This one, I’m fired up, man,” said Smith, a 33-year-old defender from nearby Coronado who’s the second-most veteran player on the 13-man team unveiled for the Games in Rio de Janeiro in August. “It’s a good group, we’ve got a lot of momentum going for us and there’s no time like the present to achieve your best.”
That same optimism and eagerness were echoed by everyone who spoke at Thursday’s team unveiling, from USA Water Polo CEO Chris Ramsey to coach Dejan Udovicic to team captain and soon-to-be five-time Olympian Tony Azevedo.
Azevedo and Smith are two of four returning Olympians on the roster, along with goalkeeper Merrill Moses (his third Games) and center John Mann (his second).
The nine newcomers on the team — which has been practicing in nearby La Jolla — are goalkeeper McQuin Baron, defenders Alex Obert and Alex Roelse, center Ben Hallock and attackers Thomas Dunstan, Josh Samuels, Alex Bowen, Luca Cupido and Bret Bonanni.
The U.S. team is going into the Games riding a wave of success. Under Udovicic, the former highly successful national coach of Serbia who was hired in 2013, the Americans recently won the silver medal at the FINA World League Super Final in China. It was the first medal of any kind for Team USA in a major FINA event since 2008. That year, the U.S. team won Olympic silver at Beijing and took a silver medal in the World League Super Final.
In addition, this team also went 6-0 in May to win the FINA Intercontinental Tournament in Japan. It’s also coming off a 2015 season in which it won the Pan American Games.
In talking about this Olympic team, Udovicic referenced the three-year journey he’s taken with the national team program and acknowledged how he’s pushed players hard. He and his staff worked with 40 to 50 athletes over that span to get to this final roster of 13, he said, and he told those in attendance at the announcement that he’s proud not only of these Olympians but those who didn’t make the final cut.
“It’s not easy to handle me,” he said, prompting laughter. “Sometimes I’m a tough guy. But this is what I am and I am not planning to change myself.”
Udovicic — who led Serbia to a bronze medal at the London and Beijing Games, a world championship in 2009 and two European championships — said he sees this team being a tight group that shares his values and goals.
Azevedo, too, said that this team is right where it needs to be. Born in Rio de Janeiro, Azevedo is excited about going back to Brazil, in front of family, to show what this team can do.
“We’re the only team in the world that’s trained nonstop for eight months, and we’ve gotten better every month,” he said. “It’s exciting to see. I think we’re going to be a team that everyone’s afraid of. I know they’re already afraid of us. Be ready. In Rio, we’re going to be one of the best teams in the world, and I’m really excited and proud to play with these guys.”
Azevedo, who will be the first five-time U.S. Olympian in water polo, has experienced both highs and lows with the national team. He won a silver in 2008 but was part of an eighth-place team in London.
This team goes into Rio ranked sixth in the world, but Smith is convinced all the hard work the players have put in under Udovicic will pay off.
“Man, training’s been really good,” he said. “It’s been beneficial. You want the hard work to pay off, and with this group and with this method of training you’re starting to see the benefit.”
Smith said he and his teammates know what they need to do: finish in the top four of their group, win their quarterfinal and push into the semifinals with some momentum. Already, he’s pointing to their first match against Croatia and second against Spain to “get ourselves in a good situation.”
Team USA goes in as an underdog, he said, but “I have a feeling that we’re going to get a medal.”
Unlike Azevedo and Smith, Hallock is an Olympic rookie who can’t judge this team against previous teams. But Hallock — who begins his freshman year at Stanford this fall after excelling as a high school and club player in Los Angeles — said he likes the way the team has prepared and improved under Udovicic. The coach’s approach has fostered “team toughness,” he said.
“He’s an extremely demanding coach, just like he was saying,” said Hallock. “He’s not going to apologize for anything he does, and that’s kind of what I like most about him. He’s extremely straightforward, honest. He’s not going to mess around. You’re always going to know where you stand. He’s an old-school, just really hard-nosed coach.”
The team will open Olympic pool play Aug. 6 vs. Croatia, followed by games against Spain, France, Montenegro and Italy.
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.