‘This team isn’t as good': U.S. women’s water polo’s Olympic dynasty in danger
With the Paris Olympics coming up next year, U.S. women’s water polo coach Adam Krikorian is feeling the pressure of time. As in not enough of it.
There is history at stake, too.
No water polo team — men or women — has won four straight gold medals at the Games. The U.S. women, led by Maggie Steffens, have won three in a row, but there are signs that the American grip on the sport is weakening.
“To be quite frank, this team isn’t as good. They hate it when I tell them that, but it’s the truth,” Krikorian said in a phone interview. “We’re not as good as we once were. We don’t have as much offensive firepower, and we don’t have as much of a balanced attack as before.”
Some of Krikorian’s concern is just standard practice for the longtime U.S. coach. During the team’s long run at the top — even with Krikorian’s most dominant rosters — he has carried around a mental list of strengths and weaknesses the entire way, perhaps most notably, including criticism of his own coaching performance.
But the U.S. had won four straight world championships before it finished fifth last month in Japan. It was the first time that the U.S. women failed to medal in a major event since the 2013 World Championship in Spain.
Before rolling to gold at the Tokyo Games, it was defeated by Hungary in group play in its first loss at the Olympics since the 2008 final.
The U.S. opened this year’s world championship with three straight wins by a combined score of 40-16. But it went 2 for 14 with the man advantage during an 8-7 loss to Italy in the quarterfinals — an anemic statistic that Krikorian wasn’t ready to brush off as just an aberration.
“We had some good days from an offensive standpoint or an efficiency standpoint on our power play during the summer,” he said. “But we also had some moments where we really struggled, and so it didn’t come out of the blue.”
Some of the U.S. trouble can be attributed to its mixture of youth and experience, and the growth of the newcomers might be the biggest key to its pursuit of gold next summer. Just six of the 15 players on the U.S. roster for the world championship were part of the Tokyo team.
A generation that worshipped Steffens and other U.S. stars is wearing the American caps now, and it’s a tricky transition. Krikorian is looking for what he calls a balanced attack — offensively, defensively and from a leadership standpoint.
“That starts with me and it extends to the veterans and the leaders of this team and our ability to be able to create an environment and a culture in which allows them to and empowers the younger ones to be able to play with a ton of courage and even at times, some reckless abandon,” he said. “And I think that’s not easy to do.”
The U.S. team gets back in the pool on Monday. Its next opportunity to qualify for Paris is the Pan American Games in Chile beginning in October.
Even as Krikorian worries aloud about the team’s shortcomings, he is still working with a ton of talent. Steffens and Maddie Musselman, the 2022 World Aquatics women’s water polo athlete of the year, are back. The U.S. also has two of the world’s best goaltenders in Ashleigh Johnson and Amanda Longan — a situation worth watching in the runup to Paris.
“I still have Ashleigh as our No. 1 goalie, but Amanda’s a close second,” Krikorian said, “and again, in my mind, Amanda’s just too damn good not to give her some opportunity to play ... especially at this point of the quad.”
Krikorian, who nearly walked away after the Tokyo Olympics, also raved about the makeup of his new team as well.
“I think this group is a fabulous group with regards to their selflessness and their commitment to each other,” he said. “They are a fantastic group of people that I know will really enjoy this process. I don’t think it’s going to be difficult for this team to be able to find that happiness and that joy, even through the difficult times.”