Before diving into this interview, you need to understand something: Tony Azevedo is to United States water polo as Michael Jordan is to United States basketball.
This will be his record-setting fifth Olympic Games. He’s the national program’s team captain and all-time leading scorer. The list of accomplishments on his USA Water Polo bio is, quite honestly, dizzying. In a sport dominated by powerhouse countries in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, he’s one of the few Americans to find major success playing professionally overseas.
When Azevedo showed up on my video chat screen after a grueling day of training at the national team’s facility in Chula Vista, California, it took me a few seconds to compose myself. I’ve played water polo competitively for more than half my life—I know the game well enough to have provided Paste’s primer on the sport last month—so to me, the chat was kind of a big deal. Fortunately, I think I kept most of my fanboy instinct suppressed for the duration of our talk.
There’s a certain circular poetry to Rio 2016 for Azevedo: it’s the city where he was born, and, considering that he’s now 34 and has a second child on the way, many speculate that it will be the site of his last Olympic stand. From the sound of it, he won’t be totally satisfied unless he rides off into the sunset atop the podium, gold medal slung around his neck.
How does it feel to be playing in the Olympics in the city of your birth?
If you think about it, every Olympics you go to, it’s such a new experience. Usually it’s a new language, new food, new culture, just getting to the airport feels different. A lot of times it really affects people, just the sense that you don’t feel 100% safe. And it’s just so exciting going into a place that I call home, a place I can teach all my teammates about, talk to them about, the food that I love more than anything, the people, the places. I really can’t believe that I’ve been doing this this long and I’m gonna be in my fifth Olympics and it’s gonna be in the city where I was born.
Have you been back there much over the years?
Yeah. I got to go back to play with SESI Sao Paulo, they were my club team over there. They basically had a tournament, one weekend in Sao Paulo, one in Rio, one in Sao Paolo, one in Rio. It was just an awesome opportunity for me to see Rio and see my family over there, see all the hangouts, all the new restaurants, see what they have going.
Everyone has to be so excited to see you play in person.
It’s amazing. I never thought I had as many cousins as I did until the Olympics were named there. It’s like, “Oh, you’re my cousin, great to see you too!”
This is your record fifth olympics. How does that feel?
It feels great that I’m 34, will be 35 very soon, and really I don’t feel like I’ve been doing it that long. I can see now, I have a kid, I’m starting to see how hard this is, traveling around and being away for so long. But it’s just been my dream. I feel like I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world because I’m doing something I love. I’m traveling around the world, which I love, I get to play in all different countries, learn new languages, train and compete in the sport I love for the country I love. It’s been this wonderful journey and now, all of the sudden, having it be my fifth time, in Rio, with this new team and us doing so well, it’s surreal.
This really is a new team, looking at the roster: almost no veterans on the squad. It’s you, Jesse Smith, Merrill Moses, John Mann and a bunch of college and high school kids. What’s that dynamic been like?
I came back after the coach gave me a year off to be with my kid and live in Brazil. I came back and I was just like, oh my goodness. These guys are so different, they’re so young, you know, and after a while I just really started loving them. I fell in love with the team, they’re so talented. It’s a great group because these guys are so motivated, they’re so gung-ho, they’re so passionate, yet they’re still so young in the game. I feel like my role has totally changed. I’m not the leader, the face anymore. Now it’s like I’m here to lead these guys and help them to become great players, each and every one of them, and hopefully win the first gold in US history.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve imparted upon them over the past year?
I guess I would say to take responsibility for everything. Two of the things that’s really helped me throughout my life is being humble—and what I mean by that is you have to go in and have this cocky attitude in any sport, but you have to be humble enough to learn. A lot of times, guys get this ego, they get it stuck in their head that oh, I’m better than this guy, I don’t need to learn from him…no. You can learn from anyone at any time. Once you stop learning, you shouldn’t play anymore. And the other thing is take responsibility for everything. I think a lot of problems in sports in general is something goes wrong and you immediately have people to blame. I tell these guys no, blame yourselves first, and then you’ll see how much you’ll be getting better because you’ll have so many things to get better at. If you never make a mistake, you’ll never get better.
You’ve had a lot of those learning experiences yourself over the years, from the highs of earning a silver medal in 2008 to the lows of losing in the quarterfinals in 2012. What would you say are the most important of those experiences?
I think those four years with Ratko [Rudic, former Team USA coach], from 2000 to 2004, were very difficult. We swam more than most swim teams swim. It was one of the most difficult times in our life, and I think for our team in 2008, that made us mentally strong. That has helped me to be mentally strong, knowing I can do anything. Now I’m 34, 35, and I’m doing the same thing as these 18-19 year olds, and I know I can. It’s not “I’m so much older,” it’s “I’m older and I’m still gonna kick your ass.” That’s the mentality you gotta be. I think 2008, winning that silver medal really, really helped us. It showed that hard work and dedication and selflessness, all those things actually mattered, and they work in a team sport. That really fueled our fire, fueled my fire. 2012 wasn’t that great. But I think all these little lessons I’ve learned throughout life have really been a great way for me to grow as a player and as a person. And I think another thing too was playing overseas for 11 years. That was really tough, being the only American in a foreign country, not knowing the language. But that was a big thing for me too, that really helped me grow as a person.
You’ve played in Croatia, Italy, Montenegro, all these countries that just seem to grow great water polo players on trees. What is it about the Balkans and the Mediterranean area that make them so water polo friendly?
They grow up, we’ve got the NBA, MLB, football, all these things. Basically, soccer’s gonna be huge, but for them, water polo’s huge too. These kids grow up with idols. These guys play water polo, then they get on TV commercials, then they’re on magazines, then they’re on TV shows. Kids grow up having idols as water polo players, and if water polo’s a big sport, the best players become coaches and all make good salaries. It’s a continuing thing. In our country, you don’t see water polo players on TV often, you don’t hear about them in interviews, all you hear is it’s the toughest sport in the world, how grueling it is. And then you see them every four years. I think my main goal after this Olympics and in the future is to try to grow the sport in our country, make it more exciting, maybe have a professional league. Kids need idols, and I think our sport is amazing. It’s a smart sport. All kids who play water polo end up going to good colleges, it’s a forced thing, they can’t just go professional. They all get degrees.
What’s it going to take to grow the sport here in America?
I think we’re gonna have to appeal to American audiences, we’re gonna have to show our sport in a better environment. I think a lot of times, you go to a water polo game in the afternoon, where the sun is just beating down on you, there’s no show about it, there’s no water for sale, there’s no beer for sale, there’s no food to eat. So in the end it turns out to be this awful, awful game. I think we need to change the refereeing system, there’s too much in the hands of the referees. But if all of a sudden you came to a night game, maybe a good Friday night or something, and the rules were a lot simpler to understand, and there’s a bunch of things to sell and buy, and you can buy a T-shirt with Tony Azevedo’s name on it, or Merrill Moses, or Bret Bonanni, or Luca Cupido, or some of these guys on the team, you’ll buy it and cheer for them. Then you create a following with our team, and then the sport’s gonna grow. But as of now, you go to a game and it’s not that exciting. So we need to do a better job of that. This year, we did a good job of that at the NBC game, but that’s because NBC was in charge.
And, of course, it’ll go a long way to make a deep run this year, which looks like it could happen; you don’t get [defending world champions] Serbia in your group, you open with a revenge game against Croatia [Team USA’s vanquishers in 2012].
For me, the group is actually great. If you wanna be the best, you gotta play against the best. And we have a very tough bracket, for sure the toughest. But the great thing about the bracket is if you put yourself in a good position, you’ll go against someone you know you can beat. We can definitely beat Croatia and Montenegro, we can get at least one of those games. We’re better than both the Italians and the Spaniards. For us, if we can stay consistent and have a good tournament, then all of a sudden we’ll get ourselves in position [for the quarterfinals] where there’s a good possibility we’ll win. And I think that’s a great thing for us. Obviously, we’ve taken the last eight months, no other team has, to get ourselves the most physically fit team in the world. We just have to show up mentally, and that’s what we’re working on this last month.
What has the training been like?
Training’s been brutal. We’ve done things that I’ve never done before in my life. We’re doing a lot of scrimmaging and swimming with heavy weight belts, so you’re basically trying to do all the swimming that we’re used to doing except with a 12-pound weight belt. A lot of butterfly, a lot of over-the-hips, a lot more legs. It’s a lot more specific training, and for me it’s been amazing. I was used to a coach that would come in and he’d make you swim, swim, swim. And this coach [Dejan Udovicic, from Serbia] has a different philosophy. He says, “Go over your hips, I want to get your legs strong, I want to make sure you guys are getting bigger”—for the first time, I see my body growing, I’m getting bigger.
How is playing under Dejan different from playing under Terry Schroeder [three-time Olympian and Team USA’s coach in 2008 and 2012]?
Terry did a great job with us, but we had a little bit of an older team. Did a great job with us in 2008. We had an even older team in 2012 that just didn’t really play motivated and kind of got lackadaisical. Then you get into a situation with Dejan, who gets all the young guys, and he’s a teacher. That’s what we Americans need: we’re big, strong, fast, we just need teachers. All of a sudden you have a guy who’s teaching these skills, and that’s all we needed. That’s been a big difference for us.
And the way the game is taught over in Serbia has to be markedly different from the way it’s taught here in America.
Oh, yeah. It’s a lot more legs. The Europeans are very static, great defense, great blocking. The United States is known for swimming and counterattacking and driving. We’re incorporating both. We’re getting better at our outside shooting, our blocking, our defense, our legs, but at the same time we’re still using our counterattack, our driving, our quickness. And it’s been fun to watch.
This roster is huge. You’re 6’1”, and you’re by far the shortest guy on the team.
It’s out of hand. I’m the oldest and the smallest, it’s bullshit. [Laughs] These guys are huge. They’re enormous and talented, and if they keep their bodies healthy, the US has a future not only now, but in the next 8-10 years.
How have you kept up all these years as one of the smaller guys in the pool? (Which is to say you would look like a rather normal person out of the water.)
I think what separates me from everyone else, I definitely have the desire. I try to be the hardest worker in the water at all times. But I think I’m one of the smartest players out there. I was lucky enough to have a great father who was a great coach, and I grew up learning the game. The game to me comes very naturally. I think that’s really what separated me and allowed me to play so long, allowed me to do what I’ve done. I have to thank my dad for that. At a young age, I was watching water polo moves and playbooks, and most kids were just playing on their own or with their friends.
What do you want people to remember you for when it comes time to hang up your cap?
I just want people to remember as one of the toughest players people played against, one of the greatest they ever saw play, and a guy who loved the sport. They’ll wonder how a smaller guy played for so long. But really, I want my legacy to be that gold medal. I’m gonna do everything in my power to lead these guys to get that.
Regardless of whether or not you get the gold medal, do you think this is it for you?
I don’t know. It’s been a long, long journey. Just trying to get to this point has been tough enough. My goal is to do whatever it takes to get that gold. After that I have my season in Brazil, which will finish in December of this year, and then I will finally sit down with my wife and talk about if I’m gonna end my career or not.
You’ve got one son already, and I know you’ve got another baby on the way. You know if it’s a boy or girl yet?
So you’ll make a contribution to the women’s team of the future as well.
[Laughs] One for each team.
Zach Blumenfeld thinks a United States gold medal in men’s water polo would be the single best story of the 2016 Olympic Games. Follow him on Twitter http://twitter.com/ZachBlumy.