Water polo

The winning culture of USA women's water polo

The winning culture of USA women's water polo

BUDAPEST — It’s the end of July, and you can feel those dog days of summer settling in. With it come the doldrums for a lot of Major League Baseball teams. By now, it’s clear their chances of winning the World Series are the same as Rutgers winning the 2017 Big Ten football championship. Like, zero.

Which has led to a slew of recent articles about one of the most controversial strategies in sports. It’s called “tanking.” Essentially, you tear up your team, understanding that in the short term you are going to be very bad. The trade-off: long-term greatness. You hope.

It worked for the Chicago Cubs. It seems to be working for the Houston Astros. Now the lab focus has turned to the Chicago White Sox.

U.S. women win water polo gold

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KAZAN, Russia — Rachel Fattal bubbled up with absolute, incandescent delight in describing late Friday how it felt to win the women’s water polo world championship. “Surreal,” she said. Then, a moment later, “Amazing.” Then, finally, “Unbelievable amounts of joy and happiness.”

The U.S. women, led all tournament by Fattal, part of a new generation of world-class talent on the team, held on Friday night to defeat the Netherlands, 5-4, before a raucous crowd.

The gold medal-winning US women's water polo team // Getty Images

With the victory, the American women won their fourth world championship; no other women’s program has as many.

Further, heading now toward the Rio 2016 Olympics, the U.S. women are — all at the same time — Olympic, world championship, World Cup and World League champions.

“The media likes it. USA Water Polo likes it,” U.S. head coach Adam Krikorian said, referring to that string.

“But every team is unique. Every championship is special.”

You can talk all you want about how tough any sport on the Olympic program is. There’s no doubt the toughest is water polo. The skill set it takes to play the game at a world-class level is formidable, and that’s being generous.

The game demands that you swim, tread water and wrestle with your opponents, all the while trying to shoot the ball into a net or stopping the other team from doing the same. Try it. See if you last even one minute before you end up flopping by the side of the pool.

The U.S. women finished sixth at the world championships in 2011 in Shanghai, losing to Russia in a stunner; they got fifth at the Barcelona 2013 worlds, losing to Spain.

In between, the U.S. women took gold at the 2012 London Games.

Since London and in particular Barcelona, the team has undergone some significant changes.

Heather Petri and Brenda Villa, for instance, mainstays on the U.S. team for more than a dozen years, retired.

So, too, Betsey Armstrong, the starting goalie for years. The backup goalie, Tumua Anae — retired as well.

It is a testament to the athletes in the pipeline — as well as the skill and verve of Krikorian, his assistant coaches and staff — that the U.S. women have been able to, well, plug and play and stay not just near but at the top of the world.

It’s not just that the senior U.S. women are now world champions.

The U.S. girls’ junior and youth teams — they’re No. 1 in the world, too.

Starting goalie Ashleigh Johnson is a rising senior at — of all places — Princeton. She was named the Kazan 2015 tournament’s best goalie.

With about 4 minutes to go in Friday’s final quarter, she made a highlight reel-worthy save on a penalty shot, obviously from point blank range, delivered by Holland’s Catharina Van Der Sloot.

She made another with 16 seconds to go in the game, this time off a shot from Nomi Stomphorst, that sealed the deal for the Americans.

“I didn’t feel very much pressure,” she said when asked about taking over in goal for a mainstay such as Armstrong, adding a moment later that she and the other new U.S. goalie, Sami Hall, were able to step right in: “I feel like this is a new team.”

Which in so many ways it is.

Kami Craig, Courtney Mathewson, Maggie Steffens — they’re still key elements of the U.S. effort.

But:

Maddie Musselman, who just turned 17 in June, is going to be a senior in high school; she scored Friday night to put the U.S. ahead, 2-1, in the second period. Her dad, Jeff, pitched for five years in the major leagues, for Toronto and the New York Mets, from 1986 through 1990.

Makenzie Fisher, 18, just finished high school. Her dad, Erich, was on the U.S. men’s team that took fourth at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Fattal is due to be a senior this fall at UCLA. She scored once Friday, cementing her status as the tourney MVP.

The set-up for the match Friday night under the lights — game time was 10 p.m. — evoked memories for not just a few observers of the women’s water polo final at the 2008 Beijing Games.

That match featured a higher-ranked U.S. team against an up-and-coming Dutch squad; the Dutch ended up winning, 9-8, on a goal with 26 seconds left from left-hander Danielle de Bruijn; she scored an astonishing seven goals.

The game Friday was notable for its defensive intensity.

Steffens, the U.S. captain, said after the game she could only hear out of her right ear; the left one got dinged, and hard.

When the game was over, two water polo caps, the special headgear that all players wear, lay at the bottom of the pool — they had been ripped off during the game.

The only two-goal lead of the game came late, the Americans up, 5-3, on Mathewson’s shot with 35 seconds to go in the third.

It stayed 5-3 until Holland’s Maud Megens scored with 3:13 to go. 5-4.

Back and forth it went, tension building, until the final save, with those 16 seconds left, by Johnson.

When the final buzzer sounded, all the American players jumped in the pool, dragging Krikorian — in a blue USA Water Polo and khaki pants — and his assistants in, too.

“I’m just happy we eeked that out,” he said. “The Dutch — they played really tough.”

Particle physics and water polo

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It is reasonable  to wonder why a story about a water polo coach getting the U.S. Olympic Committee's top award for sportsmanship and fair play would begin with a reference to the award this week of the Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of something called the Higgs boson particle. The Higgs, as it is known among physicists, has in common parlance come to be called the "god particle," because it explains -- well, everything. It has to do with how things acquire mass. More elementally, as the New York Times' brilliant science writer Dennis Overbye explains, it is that the cosmos is framed by simple, indeed elegant, laws. At the same time, everything interesting -- in particular, us -- happens because of lapses or flaws in that elegance.

That is, because of a mistake.

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Our world is so imperfect. It's the mistake, and the response, that is forever so compelling.

In the semifinal round of the women's water polo tournament at the 2012 London Olympics, Adam Krikorian, the U.S. coach, made a tremendous mistake.

With just one second to go, the Americans up by one goal over Australia, 9-8, he called a timeout.

Australian captain Kate Gynther's shot had just rattled off the crossbar. Krikorian thought the ball had ended up in the hands of the American goalkeeper, Betsey Armstrong. He called time. He thought everything was fine and the Americans were on their way, after a hard-fought game with the Aussies, to the gold-medal game.

Suddenly, it was not fine. The officials began huddling.

It wasn't just that the stakes were obviously high. Here, again, was history.

For more than a decade, the U.S. women's water polo program had been on nothing less than a quest for gold.

In Sydney in 2000, at the very first Olympic women's water polo tournament, the U.S. women lost gold -- to Australia -- on a shot made with roughly one second left in the game.

In Athens in 2004, the Americans finished third.

In Beijing in 2008, the Americans again took second, this time behind Netherlands, on a goal scored with just 26 seconds to go.

Krikorian -- who had been the coach at UCLA -- took over the program following Beijing, succeeding Guy Baker. He instilled a new culture. He said, over and again, we are all in this together.

He also made it plain the moment would come -- he didn't know when -- when the players had so bought into the idea of playing not just with but for each other as well as the staff, the coaches and the United States of America that they would know, they would just know, what to do and how to do it.

That, he made clear, was what a team was about.

And -- more.

In our world, so filled with skepticism and doubt, it is so easy, so tempting, to dismiss the idea of a team becoming truly a family. A family is rich with faith and, indeed, with love.

Physics can make incredible things happen. Love, though, is the strongest force of all. It bends time.

When Adam Krikorian called timeout, the problem was this:

Betsey Armstrong did not, in fact, have possession of the ball.

The rules were, as ever, simple: calling time when you don't have possession means the other team gets a penalty shot.

So, with just one second left in the game, the referees gave Australian star Ash Southern the ball. She whipped it past Armstrong. Just that fast, the game was tied. The horn sounded.

Onto overtime.

At the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, the Americans had finished sixth, their worst performance in over a decade. In the final game of that tournament, Australia had beaten the Americans for fifth place, 10-5.

To get to the Beijing final four years before, the Americans had defeated Australia in the semi, 9-8.

Now the Americans, seemingly on their way to the London final, were -- well, what?

"I just made the biggest mistake of my life," Krikorian said this week, recalling the moment, adding, "Immediately all these thoughts go through your head: 'I just cost my team the chance to play in the gold-medal game,' a dream they had been working toward for three or four years, some of them 12 years. There was a lot of battling inside my own head."

He added a moment later, "I typically pride myself on how I perform under pressure. This was something I had never experienced before. It was a bit overwhelming for me. I just remember being speechless. For once in my life, I didn't have anything to say. They came over to me in the huddle. I might have said a couple words. I mostly stared at them like I was looking at ghosts."

London Olympics - USA Water Polo Womens Press Conference

The time between regulation quarters is two minutes. Between regulation and overtime it's five minutes. There was still a lot of time left to go.

Krikorian looked at the clock -- 4:10 still to go until the whistle would blow to signal the start of overtime. He said, "It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had to get over it."

He called another huddle.

He said, "We are not going to let some stupid mistake by the coach affect the outcome of this game," explaining now, "I knew I had to say something that would immediately allow me to take responsibility for the mistake."

That plain. That simple. That elegant.

"That second meeting Adam had with us, bringing us all together, admitting, 'Guys, I made a mistake,' moving forward from that -- that showed all our team strength," said center Annika Dries, who is now 21 and playing both at Stanford and for the U.S. national team.

There really were no words thereafter: "The one thing I do remember is the eye contact I made with my teammates, the coaching staff, how determined we were and how there didn't even need to be words expressed: 'We got this. We are going to do this together.'

"I was swimming back and forth. I looked up at Adam and I just nodded. He knew and I knew that no matter what, we were in this together."

Attacker Courtney Mathewson, now 27, is also still on the U.S. national team. She had played for Krikorian at UCLA, graduating in 2008.

She said, "We knew he had made a mistake. But we make mistakes all the time. Everyone makes mistakes. This was our time to come together and prove to him that it was really just another bump in the road and we were going to get to where we wanted to be at the end.

"… We nodded. We looked each other in the eye. There was a little touch. We could feel the electricity within us at that moment. We could feel it was going to work out. We had done everything possible to prepare when things weren't going our way.

"After that second meeting, we could have been playing anybody at any time. But we knew. We were playing for each other and for Adam.

'And we dominated. It was straight domination."

Halfway through the first of the two three-minute overtimes, Maggie Steffens, then just 19, hit a skip shot. Then Kami Craig, who had also played on the 2008 Olympic team, hit from close range to make it 11-9.

That's how the game, finally, ended.

Two days later, the U.S. would defeat Spain, 8-5, for gold.

On Friday, amid the USOC's annual assembly in Colorado Springs, Colo., Krikorian will receive an award handed out each year since 1985, the USOC citing him for demonstrating "composure, crediting his players for showing resolve and making the best of a difficult situation."

"Ironically," he said, "for me what was unquestionably the worst mistake in my coaching career [turned out to be] my most rewarding moment," adding, "The culture I wanted to create, and dreamed of creating, was just staring at me in that intense moment. It was a great feeling, a very rewarding feeling."

He also said, "The thing I keep coming back to is as a coach you are in a position of influence. You have a unique opportunity to influence your athletes, your sport, your country, the Olympic Games. That provides a unique opportunity, a unique time to have an influence on the world, even if it's two seconds, five seconds, 10 seconds."

Ladies and gentlemen, particle physics may well be brutally difficult to explain. But in matters of team chemistry, it's easy: Adam Krikorian, winner of this year's Jack Kelly Fair Play Award.