Alex Obert shoots the ball during the Men's Water Polo Preliminary Round - Group B match between the United States of America and Croatia at the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre on Aug. 6, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
There are two things that the Italian Riviera city of Recco is renowned for. The first thing, unsurprisingly, is its food. Specifically, focaccia col formaggio di Recco, a local legend consisting of two pieces of flaky dough sandwiching small pillows of stracchino, a soft regional cheese made from the milk of cows who roam the high-altitude fields of the Ligurian Alps.
The second thing is water polo, which U.S. center Ben Hallock can’t get enough of. The food though, can almost be too much of a good thing.
“Everyone says, ‘How much better is the food in Italy?’ The food is unbelievable. Unbelievable. But . . .” said Hallock, almost bracing as if he knows finishing his sentence would approach blasphemy. “It’s unbelievable Italian food. And that’s all there is. Italian food. I’ve had pasta every day for the last 30 days. Some soy sauce would be nice, something like a Teriyaki sauce. It’s something you take for granted in the United States. The melting pot that it is, you have a lot of different food options. Like tacos. I would kill for some Mexican food.”
Such is the cost of commitment.
Hallock, California-born, -bred, and -college educated, has foregone all the comforts of home to spend the fall and winter playing for Pro Recco, one of the premier professional teams in the world and every bit the real deal as any menu item, in Italy or elsewhere. To be a part of Pro Recco’s pursuit of its ninth LEN Champions League title is, for Hallock, absolutely worth the culinary compromise.
“Going to practice at 6 p.m. with the sunset going into the Ligurian Sea, it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen,” said Hallock. “Every time I see that, I’m not quite sure how I got here.”
How Hallock wound up in Pro Recco’s picturesque Punta Sant’Anna pool, which literally overlooks paradise – the Golfo Paradiso – is a uniquely 2020 story.
Shortly after the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo Organizing Committee announced the decision to relocate the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 to the summer of 2021, Hallock and his USA Water Polo teammates gathered — on Zoom, as teams of all types learned to do last spring — to discuss how to handle the one-year delay.
“We talked about it when the pandemic started, ‘This sucks, but we have to be able to frame this as a positive for us,’” said Alex Obert, one of the veterans on the U.S. national team currently playing in the Champions League for Croatian powerhouse, VK Jug. “We’re a young team, so how are we going to get better? This is what we decided to do — we’re all going to go to Europe, we’re all going to play.”
Historically, only a handful of USA Water Polo players find their way onto rosters of European teams each season. This year, that number is up to 17, and that doesn’t include Jack Turner, a Team USA goalie who is on the practice squad for VK Jug. Four players — Hallock, Obert, plus Hannes Daube and Max Irving, both of whom play for Olympiacos in Greece – are competing for teams in the Champions League, giving American water polo an unprecedented professional presence at the sport’s highest level.
“We have almost every player who we are considering for the Olympics right now playing in Europe,” said Team USA coach Dejan Udovicic, who came to the States in 2013 after leading the Serbian National Team to bronze medals in back-to-back Summer Games.
The decision to go overseas was an easy one for those players whose college careers had already ended, many of whom already experienced a season or more in Europe. And it became easier for those with eligibility remaining once the NCAA pushed back the start of the men’s water polo season from the fall to January and granted the student athletes a waiver to play professionally for this one disrupted year (minus the paycheck, of course). To a man, they viewed this golden opportunity as a silver lining, a chance for one of the youngest national teams in the Olympic field to get one year better while the rest of the world would get one year older.
“The teams we’re competing against, they have guys who are 36, 37 years old,” said Obert, the second-oldest player on the Team USA roster who turned 29 the week before Christmas. “This is only going to help us.”
Of course, those ancient opponents pushing into their late 30s are now the teammates and teachers the young Americans are leaning on and learning from. They are bigger, stronger and more physical compared to what U.S. players see on a consistent basis. Their game is shaped by a decade of additional experience, and the game — both in terms of decision-making and actual ball movement — moves at a noticeably faster pace.
“Going from college to the professional level is kind of shocking,” said Turner, an All-American at UC San Diego who was named Division II National Player of the Year by the Association of Collegiate Water Polo Coaches in 2018. “Guys come in every day ready to play. And some days, these guys just don’t miss. I get my hands on stuff, but they just don’t miss.”
The benefits of the daily reps against this elevated level of competition are impossible to overstate. But more than their talent, it is the Europeans’ approach to the game — their professionalism — that the U.S. players hope to absorb and adopt and bring back with them like some cherished souvenir to show off and share with their teammates at home.
“You’re playing with guys, this is their career. This is how they feed their three children. It’s another level. It’s not, ‘Hey, my bad, I missed that field block.’ There’s no, ‘My bad.’ You need to do it. That level of accountability sort of sticks with you,” said Hallock. “To have everyone come back together after this and seeing their level of maturity, seeing their level of play, it’s going to be sweet.”
They actually have seen some early stage evidence of Hallock’s observations. Back in October, Team USA met for a week-long camp in Athens, where a dozen of their players are located, scattered across eight teams in Greece’s top league. Coach Udovicic could tell right away that something had started to change.
“I already saw a difference in approach, in self-confidence, in courageousness, in making decisions,” said Udovicic, who estimates that players can get 60-65 high-level games while playing for a good European club as opposed to the 25 or so they’d get from a regular Team USA schedule. Or the six or seven they’d get in college.
Alex Bowen noticed it, too. Aside from team captain Jesse Smith, who has represented the United States in four Olympic Games — he played on the 2008 team that won the silver medal in Beijing — and spent seven seasons in the Champions League, no one has more international experience than Bowen. And no one appreciates the value of that experience more.
Bowen knows how much he’s grown up during his six seasons in Europe. He arrived in Romania pretty much straight from the Kappa Alpha fraternity house at Stanford, a California kid who lived in shorts and sandals and had maybe three pairs of jeans, totally unprepared for the sub-freezing winters in Bucharest. Over time, he moved to Hungary and established himself as a dominant scorer; in 2019, he scored 49 goals for HAVK Mladost in the Croatian capital of Zagreb while winning the championship of the Adriatic League.
At that October camp, when Team USA worked out with the Greek national team, Bowen recognized the same awakening in his teammates, the beginnings of an awareness that American players belong at the elite levels where they have landed.
“Before I went to play abroad, there was always this mythicality of it, like, ‘Oh, this is so much better than anything I’ve ever done before.’” said Bowen. “But we are good players. Some people need to see that, and once you see it, that mythicality fades away.”
While they are apart, proving themselves in their respective corners of world-class water polo, the U.S. teammates are finding ways to stay connected. They competed this fall in a fantasy football league, which provided a regular connection, to home and to each other. There are team Zoom calls every Monday, scheduled usually for late in the Croatian evening, when Obert and Turner are free after VK Jug practice.
They update each other on their individual and team goings-on, in the pool and in their adopted surroundings. They bust each other’s chops, nurturing and maintaining the team chemistry remotely, knowing how important it will be when they are back together, whether that’s in early January when the team will again convene in Athens for training camp or during the anticipated month they’ll spend playing in friendlies and tournaments in Greece and Serbia, perhaps Italy and Montenegro — their itinerary, ultimately, to be determined by the coronavirus. Just like everything else in their lives was in 2020.
Ultimately, they will be back together in the States, where the faces are familiar and the food options plentiful. They will be home, focused on the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in 2021, but on one elemental level, everything will be different.
“Being there is helping a lot of us realize that we are this good, that we can compete with these European teams,” said Obert. “And when we come together, we should be able to compete. I’m looking forward to competing together.”