Alex Obert is embracing the winds of change that have gone through the U.S. men’s water polo team.
Team USA’s roster has a different look to it than the one that competed at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, with seven returnees and six newcomers set to do battle at the upcoming FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary.
Obert, a 6-foot, 6-inch 225-pound defender who helped the University of the Pacific reach the NCAA championship game in 2013, scored two goals for Team USA in the Olympics and has played a key role in the squad’s second-place finish at this year’s FINA Intercontinental Tournament and fourth-place showing at the FINA World League Super Final.
He expects 10th-ranked Team USA to be ready to go when it opens world championships play against Olympic silver medalists Croatia on Monday.
“The team has adjusted well to such a big changeover since the Olympics,” Obert told TeamUSA.org via email from Montenegro, where he was preparing for the world championships. “As the more experienced players now, it is our job as Olympians to teach these young guys the same lessons guys such as Tony (Azevedo), Merrill (Moses), John (Mann) and Jesse (Smith) taught us.”
Obert, 25, said the Rio experience a year ago was a game-changer for him, even as Team USA struggled and failed to reach the second round.
“Playing in the Olympics was a dream come true,” the Loomis, California, native said. “Ever since I started playing, I wanted to compete at the highest level, and that meant the Olympics. Scoring goals there just meant I did my job to help the team win. The only thing I worry about is helping the team win.”
Although Obert grew up in California, a hotbed for water polo, the sport wasn’t his first choice. He only started playing as a way to stay in shape for basketball, his admitted first love at the time.
“I quickly realized water polo is where I belonged,” he said. “I loved the game right away. I quickly picked up on the similarities between water polo and basketball. The ball skills and strategy came quickly to me.”
Obert adds he at first struggled with the water part of the sport’s name. While many kids who start playing water polo have experience on a swim team, Obert was the opposite.
“I started water polo before swimming,” he said. “Luckily my dad swam at Pomona (Cal State Polytechnic University, Pomona) so he helped me improve my swimming skills pretty quickly.”
Another shock to the system for Obert was going from Pacific to the U.S. national team. For one, that meant simply transitioning from the 25-meter pool in college to the 30-meter pool in international water polo. International teams also have 13-person rosters, as opposed to 16 in college. Then there are the basic dynamics, going from playing a full collegiate season to building up for one big tournament in international play, plus going from playing guys in their low 20s to playing seasoned professional.
“These differences make for a tough transition for players coming from college straight to the international game,” Obert said. “Having a coach like (Team USA coach Dejan Udovicic) with so much international experience helps speed up the transition process.”
And speaking of transitions, Obert now finds himself one of Team USA’s leaders heading into the world championships.
“I have to learn to be a more vocal leader on this team,” he said. “It has been a big adjustment for me since that was not my role in the last Olympics. I have worked on it every day to try and improve (as a leader).”
Obert says there’s a lot that excites him about Team USA.
“I love the energy this young team has,” he said. “We all are so grateful for being a part of this team. We love being around each other. The team’s biggest talent is our overall speed. There is not one slow person on the team. We will play faster than we have ever before to take advantage of our speed.”
Obert notes Team USA must limit its mistakes in Hungary if it is to be successful.
“As a young team, this is harder than it sounds because we do not have a lot of experience,” he said. “But as long as we do not give the team other presents and make them work for everything, we can compete with anyone in the world as we showed in Russia (World League Super Final) last month.”
Mike Miazga has written about Olympic sports for nearly 25 years and is the former editor in chief of Volleyball Magazine. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.