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'We wanted to give everything'
"It's a lot of things you do for the Olympics — a lot of jerseys you sell. We play the whole summer. I do think guys should be compensated. Just like I think college players should be compensated as well. Unfortunately, it's not there. But I think it should be something, you know, there for it."
— Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat star and erstwhile member of Team USA
Here’s hoping that should Mr. Wade decide to grace London with his presence this summer (he’s presently on the fence with regard to his Olympic involvement for reasons that hopefully have more to do with nagging injuries and less with the size of his paycheck from US Basketball), he finds time to meet Tony Azevedo, Merrill Moses and the rest of the US men’s water polo team for a little refresher course on the Olympic spirit.
That’s because the American water polo players are not only seemingly content to represent their country free of charge, but they’ve also taken the unprecedented step of forgoing their professional salaries for a year so they can pursue Olympic glory.
So instead of plying their trade throughout Europe (Hungary, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia are water polo hotbeds, while Italy, Spain and Greece also have professional leagues of note), the US team has been spending six days a week in the pool at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif., while relying on assistance from US Water Polo, the kindness of strangers and some aggressive fundraising for sustenance.
“I think maybe what (Wade) said might have been taken out of context, I don’t know,” said Azevedo, giving Wade way more benefit of the doubt than the Heat star deserves from a man who will be representing the United States in the Olympics for the fourth time this summer, all without benefit of compensation. “But for someone who might be talking about money for this, then they’re in it for the wrong reasons. We’re definitely not here for that. We’re here to represent the country, to represent water polo . . . and hopefully to bring home the first gold medal that the US has ever had in water polo.”
The Americans were tantalizingly — not to mention, surprisingly — close to that achieving that first in Beijing.
Ranked ninth in the world prior to the Olympics, the US was widely expected to extend its medal-less run in the sport to a full two decades. But after stunning top-ranked Croatia in pool play, the Americans rode that momentum all the way to the gold-medal game against the two-time defending Olympic champions from Hungary. They hung with the heavily favored Hungarians for most of the game, forging a third-quarter tie before surrendering five straight goals and eventually falling, 14-10.
US Men's Water Polo team names 14 players for 13 spots because of injury to Krumpholz.
But from that disappointment was born the resolve to do whatever it took to ensure it was not repeated, even if it meant forgoing an annual salary that — for only the most elite players — is the rough equivalent of what Wade earns in a little less than two NBA games.
“Definitely that’s a big part of it,” U.S. goalkeeper Merrill Moses said. “That stung. People always look back and say, ‘Oh, you won the silver medal.’ Us 13 that were there look at it as we lost the gold medal. . . . We’re going (to London) on a mission and we wanted to give ourselves the best chance. The best chance is training together as a team as long as possible, fine tuning the team chemistry and strategies. We wanted to give everything and that’s seven months full-time training before the Olympics.”
For at least one member of Team USA, that meant living with a host family during training. For others, it meant a potentially awkward conversation with wives and girlfriends regarding a significant change in lifestyle.
But according to Azevedo and Moses, once the decision was made, the team bought into it completely.
“I don’t think anyone said, ‘No, I’m not doing that,’ ” Moses said. “Everyone knew exactly what we’re doing this for.”
“For us to pretty much put on hold for a year our only income is substantial,” Azevedo said. “But to me that shows how tight this team is and how much we’re willing to sacrifice.”
Similar team-building exercises certainly paid dividends in 2008. Upon taking over head coaching responsibilities a little more than a year out from the Olympics (after Azevedo’s father, Ricardo was unexpectedly fired from the post, no less), Terry Schroeder took the team on a whitewater rafting trip and put them through Navy SEAL training. It was a rah-rah move that could have backfired, particularly with a veteran squad. But the team bought into it, and it showed in Beijing.
This time, however, the decision is about more than just chemistry. Historically stymied by the more physical Eastern European squads, the Americans are hoping that by focusing their training efforts on London (as opposed to the European pro seasons), they will be able to close that gap on the other elite teams.
“Now we’re going to add that we’re in the best physical shape,” Azevedo said. “Because in a pro season, you can’t physically train as hard because you’re playing big games. . . . You can’t lift three times a week. You can’t train more than four hours a day. We’re going to be much more physically prepared.”
The plan certainly appears to be working.
On May 27, the Americans ended a 10-year losing streak against Hungary with a 12-9 win. Four days later, the US proved it wasn’t a fluke, beating the Hungarians again, this time holding them to just five goals. The United States followed up those two impressive showings with a third, beating Croatia for the first time since Beijing in its final domestic tune-up before London.
Not that the Americans are putting too much stock in wins in friendlies held in the United States, particularly when the elite teams are so evenly matched.
“I think that the top eight teams in water polo can beat each other,” Moses said. “I would say we’re all within one goal of each other. It just depends on how the ball bounces and how you play that day.”
Or just maybe, it might depend on which team is willing to sacrifice the most in order to win.
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