TOKYO — There were still about five minutes left in the final quarter of the women’s water polo final Saturday when Spain’s Roser Tarrago Aymerich, on the bench, gave in to what was obvious.
She tried to hide her tears. But to no avail.
This was a beatdown.
Not the sort of thing you expect in a championship game. Especially not given the stakes. When history was on the line. When the president of the Spanish Olympic Committee is in the stands. And the chief executive of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, too.
If they had that kind of thing at the Olympics, they would have considered calling the mercy rule. The Americans are that good. Which is a testament not only to the players but the team culture — winning, demanding but simultaneously supportive — that coach Adam Krikorian has built and nurtured over the past three Olympic cycles.
In dispatching Spain, 14-5, and Spain is a very good team, European champions, the Americans became the first women’s team in Games history to win three straight Olympic titles. Two men’s teams have done so: Hungary (2000-2008) and Britain (1908-1920).
The many highs the U.S. women’s water polo team has reached over the past 10 years are all the more sweet because coach, players and staff have, together, gone through incredible lows. They are, in the best sense of the word, a family.
“You can look at sports and say, oh, it’s easy for you guys,” Maddie Musselman said. “But it’s not. It takes a grind.”
The U.S. men’s program, meanwhile, is perhaps one world-class goaltender the likes of Ashleigh Johnson — indisputable MVP of Saturday’s final, stopping 11 of 15 shots — away from medal contention. A good chunk of the American guys have built experience playing in Europe over the past few years. The men’s team, which on Friday defeated Italy, 7-6, will play Croatia on Sunday for fifth place, the U.S. guaranteed its best finish since silver in 2008, a team led by Tony Azevedo.
That the U.S. women’s water polo has become the standard is no knock on other standouts such as the men’s or women’s basketball programs. But those are teams that come together at Games time. The women’s water polo program, based in Los Alamitos, California, is a four-year deal — this time around, five — that requires a substantial commitment in time and buy-in.
And water polo is brutally difficult. It may be the most difficult sport on the entire Olympic schedule, for that matter, a combination of swimming, treading water, underwater wrestling, baseball (or handball, depending on your preference) and soccer-style goaltending.
Before Krikorian, the Americans had struggled to break through for gold, even though they had perhaps the greatest player in the world — that is, before Maggie Steffens — in Brenda Villa. Famously, in Sydney in 2000, in the first Olympic women’s tournament, Australia beat the Americans with 1.3 seconds left in the gold medal game, 4-3.
In 2008 in Beijing, with a team that included Steffens’ older sister, Jessica, the Americans lost again in the final, this time to Holland, 9-8.
Krikorian took over as coach in March 2009; he had been head coach at UCLA. In 2012, with Villa and both Steffens sisters, the U.S. women finally broke through for gold — defeating in the final, by the way, Spain. And again in Rio in 2016, Italy getting silver.
But this simplifies things. It makes it sound way too yellow brick road.
Which it hardly has been.
In and — for sure — out of the pool.
At the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, there was a sixth-place finish. “That definitely had an impact,” Krikorian recalled late Saturday, meaning it incentivized everyone. At the 2013 championships in Barcelona, fifth. “That,” he said, “lit a fire under us.”
Beyond the pool, a whole dose of life as real as it gets:
A few months before the Rio Games, Islamic State coordinated suicide bomb attacks in Brussels, two at the Brussels Airport, one at the Maalbeek metro station. Alys Williams, one of the U.S. players, was on her way through Belgium to a tournament in Holland. It is only because she was late for her train that she was not in the Maalbeek station. The bomb there killed 20 people and injured dozens more.
During the Rio Games, Krikorian’s brother, Blake, 48, died. Adam Krikorian flew home for services, then flew back to Brazil. Just before the first game, he learned that Melissa Seidemann’s mother had suffered a stroke and was in a local hospital.
In October 2017, a gunman opened fire at a music festival on the Las Vegas strip, killing 59 people and wounding more than 400. Willilams, Seidemann and Maddie Musselman had been at the festival. Only Williams was still on the scene when the shooting started. She and her boyfriend started running. And didn’t stop. And didn’t look back.
In 2019, the U.S. women won the world championships in Gwangju, South Korea. That night, there was a party at a nightclub. A balcony collapsed, killing two people and injuring 17. Kaleigh Gilchrist, who had played 20 minutes in the game, sustained cuts so deep to her left leg that doctors needed more than 100 stitches to close them.
One of Gilchrist’s neighbors in Newport Beach, California, helped her with rehab, becoming a mentor. That was Kobe Bryant.
Then in January 2020, Bryant was killed, along with his daughter and seven others, in a helicopter crash.
Gilchrist said late Saturday that she endured panic attacks and PTSD. She needed way more than physical rehab — what she dubbed the “Mamba Mission” to get herself back together, all together, to get back on the podium.
“The past two years,” she said, “has been obviously very difficult but also an extreme growth period for me. To be around this team and have the support and also go through adversity for me helped me be individually stronger.”
Just a couple of months ago, Krikorian’s father, Gary, died, of natural causes. He was 81.
In 2018, Musselman had shoulder surgery. Anyone who has been through shoulder surgery knows the grind of rehab. World-class water polo demands world-class shoulder function. “Everyone had something happen, physical or mental,” she said.
Here, in the water, the Americans lost a game — 10-9 to Hungary in the group stage. It was just the Americans’ fourth loss since the 2016 Games. It was a good thing. Krikorian said the team had been tight. The loss loosened them up. Hungary, meanwhile, went on to take bronze.
“To get to this point after all that,” Krikorian said of playing Spain, “there was no way we were going to lose this game. We were so determined.”
The gold medal game was over early. The Americans were up early 4-1, then stretched the lead to 12-4. The U.S. bench went wild when backup goalie Amanda Longan got in late, and got a save.
It takes a family. A family that is the very best of America.
“I think for me it’s all about gratitude,” Maggie Steffens said. “If covid and the pandemic have taught us anything, it’s that we don’t know what’s going to happen moving forward — and to enjoy this journey as much as possible.”
TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 7: Team United States with Ashleigh Johnson of United States, Maddie Musselman of United States, Melissa Seidemann of United States, Rachel Fattal of United States, Paige Hauschild of United States, Maggie Steffens of United States, Stephania Haralabidis of United States, Jamie Neushul of United States, Aria Fischer of United States, Kaleigh Gilchrist of United States, Makenzie Fischer of United States, Alys Williams of United States, Amanda Longan of United States during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Waterpolo Tournament Women's Victory Ceremony match between and at Tatsumi Waterpolo Centre on August 7, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan (Photo by Marcel ter Bals/BSR Agency/Getty Images) NOCNSF