The U.S. women’s water polo team earned its second straight gold medal after defeating Italy 12-5 in Rio. But it’s what the players did after their victory that’s truly inspirational.
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Spurred By a Coach’s Hardship, U.S. Women’s Water Polo Team Earns Second Olympic Gold
By Nick McCarvel
Gold medals secured, the U.S. women’s water polo players did the unthinkable minutes after collecting their long-coveted Olympic prizes: Gave them away.
Not to anyone—and not for long—but following Team USA’s domination of Italy 12-5 in the gold-medal match Friday inside Olympic Aquatics Stadium, earning the Americans a historic second straight women’s water polo Olympic title, the 13 members of the team went to head coach Adam Krikorian one by one and put their medals around his neck.
Krikorian, who left Rio for several days after the team had arrived earlier this month because of the death of his brother, couldn’t help but be emotional. This wasn’t the biggest prize to him, however: The last seven years as head coach have provided that.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the team,” said Krikorian, who has been head coach since 2009 and has led the U.S. to 13 gold medals in its last 16 major international championships. “I’m not going to say that it doesn’t make your heart warm, but to me it’s the daily interaction and the relationship that this team has built that means more. There’s no medal that’s going to prove that to me. What is more important is what’s in my heart and in my mind.”
“We wanted to make sure that he got the medals as well,” said captain Maggie Steffens. “Because coaches don’t get them, and he deserves them.”
What the U.S. deserves is a spot in history, as it further cements itself into the water polo record books. The program becomes the first women’s water polo team to win back-to-back golds (or multiple golds at all) at the Olympics, the sport having been added in the year 2000. Team USA has medaled every single Games since then, as well.
Italy had been the last team to defeat the Americans, when it did so last season at the world championships in group play. The U.S. has won 22 games in a row since then, including the gold medal victory on Friday.
It is the ultimate prize for what has become the ultimate team in this sport, the Americans losing just a handful of games since the 2012 London Olympics, though only four players from the team returned for the Rio Games: Steffens, Kami Craig, Courtney Mathewson and Melissa Seidemann.
It was a first Olympic gold for goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson, who in Rio had become the first black woman to represent the U.S. in Olympic water polo.
“It’s incredible. It’s so amazing to be able to share this with my family, my friends, and my coach,” said Johnson, who had transitioned from competitive swimming to become a water polo player and is the lone American on the U.S. national team that is not from California. “I didn’t have any expectations. This feels like I thought it would, I guess.”
Is this the best women’s water polo team of all time? They went 6-0 in Rio and outscored opponents 73-27 overall. Krikorian thinks perhaps.
“I think you could make an argument, a strong argument,” he said, noting the 2012 team was rather deep, as well. “This team has done some special things. The way we’ve done it, going into this tournament I was concerned because we hadn’t played any close games.”
Friday, eight players total scored for the U.S., including the first five goals coming from different players: Mathewson, Kiley Neushul, Craig, Makenzie Fischer and Rachel Fattal.
“That’s been a theme for us this entire tournament,” Krikorian said of the goal-scoring.
Italy kept things close for the first half, however, Roberta Bianconi scoring for the Italians with less than a minute left in period two to cut the American advantage to just 5-3 at the break.
But that is when Team USA started distance itself against an Italian team that was allowing just over six goals per game in Rio. Fattal scored less than a minute into the second half, then Neushul again just over two minutes later, as well as Seidemann and Steffens in the third quarter.
Johnson added a brilliant save on an Italy penalty shot and the U.S. had a 9-4 advantage heading into the fourth. From there, they sprinted across the finish line. Johnson saved nine of 13 shots on goal throughout the game.
“We dominated that game—there is no better feeling,” said K.K. Clark, one of four players on the team with UCLA ties. “We train against each other every day and we’re able to put that work into our games. We’re humble enough to know that we can be beaten, but also confident enough to know that we can take on anyone in the world.”
Seventeen-year-old Aria Fischer becomes the youngest U.S. Olympic water polo medalist in history, as well as the youngest women’s water polo medalist from any country. Teenagers on the team also include Maddie Musselman and Aria’s older sister, Makenzie.
After the final horn blew, the U.S. coaching staff was pulled into the water by the team, soaked from head to toe in their official team shirts and dress pants. As the crowd thundered with “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chants, the Americans gathered in the middle of the pool for a celebratory huddle.
It was later after the medal ceremony that the women donned their medals around Krikorian’s neck, something the 2012 team had gotten the idea to do after reading Duke (and Team USA’s) basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s book, The Gold Standard.
Krikorian’s mind turned to his brother as the final minutes of the game ticked down, nearly forgetting to sub in his reserves as the U.S. had a safe seven-goal lead with less than four minutes left.
“I was just thinking about my brother, thinking about how hard this journey has been,” Krikorian recalled of that moment. “It hasn’t been easy.”
But Steffens, the team captain, gladly shared her medal with him four years after the 2012 team had first done so, and the team posed for dozens of snapping cameras on the pool deck in celebration, all 13 medals hanging on Krikorian’s neck.
“To know that Rio had a happy ending for him, and that we could leave that pure joy in his heart in such a time of heartbreak, it means a lot to us,” Steffens said. “We love and respect him greatly.”
And what did it mean to Krikorian? He found the light side of all that heavy hardware hanging off of him.
“It means that my neck hurts,” he told reporters. Laughter ensued.