Interview by Steven Pegram
TONY Azevedo has been touted as the "Michael Jordan of water polo." At 18, he was the youngest U.S. National Team member ever and the youngest player on the 2000 U.S. Olympic Team by seven years. The Brazilian-born Azevedo was the leading scorer (14 goals) for the U.S. at the 2001 World Championships and led Stanford to the 2001 NCAA title as a freshman.
Q1: Why is water polo known for being such a grueling sport?
TONY AZEVEDO: Well, what people don't realize is that the game is played without seeing about 90 percent of what is happening. Under the water you are able to do whatever you want without the referee or anyone seeing. Also, the whole game is played without ever touching the bottom (of the pool). In other sports when you stop or get tired you can catch your breath by kneeling, or even at timeouts you can sit down. In water polo, our timeouts consist of eggbeatering (treading water) to stay afloat.
Q2: What really goes on beneath the water surface during a game? Have you ever lost a swimsuit?
TONY AZEVEDO: Under the water is an unknown world. It is where many players get hurt or get an advantage over another player. Imagine trying to shoot the ball when someone is grabbing, hitting and pinching you at the same time. I have never lost a suit but I have gotten one ripped. By grabbing my suit you are able to slow me down and dictate where I go. As a kid, the hardest thing for me was to learn how to get out of a suit grip.
Q3: You played with a broken ear drum at the 2001 World Championships. How difficult and painful was that experience?
TONY AZEVEDO: Breaking my eardrum in Hong Kong was extremely painful for about a week, but by the time the games started it did not hurt. It was a hassle though, as I would spend 30 minutes before each game making it water tight. Also, during the game if it got wet I would have to come out, never allowing me to get a real flow going. However, my eardrum enabled me to play as aggressive as I wanted.
Q4: What other sports are good training grounds for water polo? Which sports did you compete in before committing to water polo exclusively?
TONY AZEVEDO: Any sport is good training for polo, but the best is obviously swimming. Swimming is the most important thing for water polo, because just like any other sport, the faster you are the easier it is. I competed in swimming, basketball and baseball as a child, but water polo was just too much fun.
Q5: What makes California the epicenter of water polo in the United States? Are water polo players considered "studs" in high school?
TONY AZEVEDO: I think the reason for California's reputation for being the epicenter of water polo is strictly related to the weather. As a kid, what do you want to do on a hot day, get dressed up and sweat for hours, or get a tan and play in the refreshing water? I think the reputation water polo players have is along the lines of studs. My reasoning is because we have nice bodies with tans due to the hours of training in the sun, and I swear the fact that we spend a fourth of our day in Speedos makes water polo players much more outgoing and confident.
Q6: The United States is the top swimming power in the world, but not so in water polo yet. What are the top countries in the sport and why are they superior?
TONY AZEVEDO: The top countries in polo are Hungary, Russia and Yugoslavia. They start playing at a young age, so by the time they are professionals, they are much more experienced. In the U.S. we do this in basketball. There are so many sports in America that water polo just is not as popular as the sport is in Europe.
Q7: If you were a sports promoter, what would you do to make water polo a more popular sport in the United States?
TONY AZEVEDO: I would definitely focus on the athletes. I think that if we could follow beach volleyball and play matches on the beach while selling beer, we would be able to get a lot more fans out to watch. Also, I think we need to focus on the players we have and show the country that our athletes are very well rounded and great role models.
Q8: Your father is a former player and is a leading United States coach today. What has he meant to you as a water polo player? Can he still play a mean game?
TONY AZEVEDO: I think that if he tried to play now he would probably be very upset. The game is much faster, but I will tell you that no one would guard him because their funeral would be inevitable. Anyway, he has meant everything to me. My dad never pushed me to play and has done everything possible in order to help my game. He taught me everything, and without his support, I would not be where I am right now.
Q9: You were born in Brazil, but grew up in California. So, who has the better beaches – Brazil or California? Also, which country do you root for in World Cup soccer?
TONY AZEVEDO: First, I am going to say that Brazil's beaches are better because the water is cleaner and the girls wear much less. As far as soccer, I am going to say that I root for the U.S. in every sport, but soccer is different. If you have ever been to Brazil, you will know why soccer is so huge there.
Q10: You were outspoken about your national team's disappointing sixth place finish at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Are there improved prospects as we head towards the 2004 Athens Olympics?
TONY AZEVEDO: The 2000 Olympics were tough as we were one second away from winning, but it did not happen. Our team tried our best, but things were just not falling our way. For the next Olympics, I think we will be very tough. We have many young players who are learning the system very quickly. I think with more games and constant improvement our team could bring home a medal.