Adam Krikorian’s water polo team’s road to London
After five wins and a disappointing loss, Adam Krikorian’s women’s water polo team is hungry for the gold
Since Manhattan Beach resident Adam Krikorian took over as head coach for the USA women’s water polo team in 2009, he’s led the team to five victories out of six international competitions.
The team claimed titles from the last three World League Super Finals, the last World Cup and the 2009 World Championships.
“It gives us a sense of confidence, but at the same time, we understand it doesn’t guarantee us anything,” said Krikorian, 37, whose team is heading to the Summer Olympics in London later this month.
What keeps the team grounded, he said, is that one disappointing loss.
Last July, at the World Championships in Shanghai, the team finished sixth place.
“We feel lucky that we were able to experience a bit of a struggle last summer,” Krikorian said. “That gave us a good dose of reality.”
After the loss, Krikorian made teambuilding and group cohesion a priority, said Assistant Coach Dan Klatt. “Everyone’s prepared as a result of his leadership,” Klatt said.
Any success in London, Krikorian said he’d largely credit to that tournament.
“I feel good that we can draw from our wins and the success we’ve had, but that we can also draw from our failures,” Krikorian said. “As long as we can remember both, we’re in good position to do well.”
A couple of months later, the American team made a comeback, beating Canada in an “unheard of” 20-round shootout, which qualified them for the London Olympics. “It was the sense of energy in the huddle and the spirit that really told the story,” Krikorian said. “And the story was that we weren’t going to give up.”
Since January, Krikorian’s had his team on a demanding six-day-a-week training regimen. “That’s what our sport requires in order to play it at the highest level,” Krikorian said. “Our sport is a game of conditioning, a game of fitness. If your fitness isn’t the best, then the rest of your game will suffer.”
On a couple occasions, Krikorian led the team down to San Diego to practice with the Navy Seals. “Some of them would say that’s the hardest thing they’ve done in their life, but it brought the team together more so than any other activity we’ve ever done,” Klatt said.
Training with the Navy Seals gave the team perspective. “You are able to grasp a little better that you’re working and playing a sport for your country,” Krikorian said.
The coach heads to the Los Alamitos training grounds at 5:30 a.m. every morning to prepare for the team’s first 7-to-10 a.m practice of the day.
After practice, he’ll often fit in his own workout. Krikorian later returns to work to review videos – of both his team and those of his opponents – while taking notes of what they’re doing well and where they can improve.
Defense, depth and stamina are among the 13-player team’s strengths in the water. “Teams are going to have a hard time getting the ball in the back of the net if were doing our job and we’re playing the way we’re capable of playing,” he said.
Krikorian added that his entire roster is strong. “We really don’t rely on one player,” he said. “We have different combinations of different people that can beat you any day, any game. We’re difficult to prepare for, for our opponents.”
From 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., the team hops back in the water for a second practice. Krikorian will often stay making notes until anywhere from 6 to 9 p.m. Days when he can return to his Manhattan Beach home before his six-year-old and three-year-old are tucked in bed are special, he said.
The American team has a balanced mix of veteran and new players – necessary for what Krikorian calls “champion teams.” With players ranging in age from 19 to 34, the team boasts two four-time Olympians, seven returners from the last Olympics, and even includes a pair of sisters, Jessica and Maggie Steffens.
“The first-time Olympians we have on the team bring a youthfulness and enthusiasm to what they’re doing that only rubs off on the others – even the ones who’ve been around for a long time,” Krikorian said.
Krikorian and Klatt believe the team has the right dose of confidence, but not cockiness. “Any one of the eight teams that’s going to be competing has a chance to win a medal. There’s just a tremendous more parity now than there ever has been,” Krikorian said. “Every team is a huge threat.”
And Krikorian doesn’t pretend to know it all. He learns from his assistant coaches and veteran players every day, he said. He recalled a conversation with legendary UCLA coach John Wooden during Krikorian’s 10-year coaching tenure at UCLA.
“He told me once that everything in this world, we’ve learned from someone else; and that kind of stuck with me. I’ve never forgotten that,” Krikorian said. “As soon as I think I know it all…that’s really when I should hang up. I hope that never happens.”
But according to Klatt, Krikorian fosters a healthy dose of competition among the group. “If the team’s not performing to his expectations, he’s not afraid to let them know about it,” Klatt said.
Before each game, the team huddles in a circle, arms wrapped around one another.
“That’s a symbol of our unity and our idea of holding each other accountable, having each other’s backs, and really supporting each other all the way until the end,” Krikorian said.
After the huddle, the team jumps in the water. “Then it’s all business.”
The USA women’s water polo team will play Hungary on July 30.