2019 Pan American Games Men’s and Women’s Water Polo: Select Quotes

Lima, Saturday August 10, 2019 - Mathew Halajian from Canada, left, challenges for the ball against Marco Vavic from the USA at the Complejo Deportivo Villa Maria del Triunfo at the Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Enrique Cuneo / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **
Canada's Mathew Halajian (wihte cap) challenges USA's Marko Vavic in Pan American Men's Wayer Polo Final. Photo Courtesy: Enrique Cuneo / Lima 2019

Editor’s Note: Swimming World was stationed pool-side for the entire week of men’s and women’s water polo competition at the 2019 Pan American Games.

pan_american_logo.svgFor Team USA and Canadian water polo watchers, the 2019 Pan American Games was an eye-opener regarding how the rest of the hemisphere plays polo. At first glance there is a great deal of potential as well as relative success—Brazil medaled (bronze) in both brackets, and the Cubans have the size—if not the funding—on the women’s side to improve their fourth-place standing.

[2019 Pan American Round-Up: Krikorian + Steffens on Water Polo in the Southern Hemisphere]

Key to realizing this potential is more investment; not just from respective countries governments and sports federations but from the Americans, who clearly have the most resources available to advance the sport in North and South America.

Following are select quotes, with assorted background, from participants at the Pan Ams. These comments provide depth to a tournament that was quite significant—the American men and the Canadian women both qualified for the 2020 Olympics—and also some local flavor in the absence of any televised action.

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William “Willo” Rodriguez, Puerto Rico Coach after a 24-1 loss to USA men’s team in Group A play.

Rodriguez is currently the head coach for West Valley College in Saratoga, CA. WVC is a feeder for DI, DII and DIII programs, and Rodriguez has an impressive resume of experience. Formerly a co-head coach at Division I powerhouse Pepperdine (2012-13) as well as head coach at La Verne College (2014-17), Rodriguez served as an assistant men’s and women’s water polo coach at USC from 2010-12 during which the Trojans claimed two national championships.

As a player at Pepperdine (2001-02) Rodriguez was key contributor on a team that compiled an overall record of a 30-16 and finished 2002 ranked third in the national polls.

– You’ve coached extensively in America:

I’ve been in the U.S. since 1997 and I’ve been around the college ranks: Pepperdine, USC. Now I’m at West Valley Community College. So I’m very familiar with a lot of the coaching staff [for the U.S. Men’s National Team] and some of the players as well.

– How do Puerto Rican polo athletes get better?

I try to help then find opportunities, mostly in [American] colleges. As a matter of fact, their captain [Jesse Smith] was a teammate of mine at Pepperdine back in 2000. Trying to open those doors will stimulate this game and the island.

Lima, Tuesday, August 6, 2019 - Gabriel Robles from Puerto Rico during the Men's Group A Preliminary Waterpolo match against USA at Villa María del Triunfo during Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Paul Vallejos / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 NO SALES NO ARCHIVES **

Puerto Rico’s Gabriel Robles during action against USA. Photo Courtesy: Paul Vallejos / Lima 2019

As it stands right, the United States is the most powerful country in the hemisphere, when it comes to water polo. It’s really good for these youngsters to see what the best looks like, so that way they can measure themselves against them, and figure out what they need to do to one day maybe catch up.

– How can Americans help grow water polo on the island?

Again, it has to do with exposure. We were very lucky that I’ve been in the states for over 20 years. We’ve brought the Puerto Rican team [over] and coached with some of the most successful coaches—we’ve played Stanford, Cal, San Jose State.

As these youngsters get exposed to those kinds of schools, it fires that dream of trying to make it big and going to California to compete against some of the best the U.S. has to offer.

– Felix Mercado, the Brown coach, is from Puerto Rico.

Felix Mercado, Carlos Steffens, who is the father of Maggie Steffens, the American women’s captain—all those connections help.

I think education’s the biggest one because a lot of these youngsters, they come out and they can stay on the island, where water polo’s not very competitive, or pursue water polo in California and at the same time get a world-class education.

That will help a lot.

***

USA’s Alex Wolf after beating Canada 18-6 for the gold in the men’s match.

Wolf has enjoyed success at every level of athletics; he was three-time CIF champion while competing for Huntington Beach High School boys volleyball (the team lost one match in four years, compiling a 104-match winning streak); he’s won a national championship with UCLA in 2017. And now, barring injury, Wolf is going to the Olympics.

[On Deck With UCLA Water Polo’s Alex Wolf]

After a semifinal win against Argentina, the somewhat reticent Wolf spoke about his dreams as a player, and how he’s consistently pursued this goal. In the match against Canada, he had 13 saves and a couple of aggressive steals.

–  This wasn’t just another water polo match; you executed your game plan flawlessly.

Lot of excitement, a lot of emotion, team was able to execute on the game plan.

As we saw in the previous game against them, they were in a very deep zone. We attacked that very well this game and forced them to change their defense in the second half. Then we continued to attack the press they ended up running.

– You were very aggressive on defense, especially with a big steal on Nicolas Constantin-Bicari, the Canadian captain.

It’s always easier to stop the shot then block it in those situations.

– Your dream of playing in the Olympics.

I think it’s cocky to say I expected it, but it’s a goal I set and I’ve done everything to get there. Those dreams are coming to reality through hard work, commitment and dedication.

–  You’ve enjoyed a lot of athletic success.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be on great teams [with] great coaches. The USA Water Polo system I’ve been able to be part of the national team development [squad] for I don’t know how long. It’s greatly helped my development as a player.

In terms of lots of success, my coach at UCLA, Adam Wright—he’s not a goalie—so he’s not coaching me on the mechanics, but he’s done a lot to help me develop the mindset to be successful. The process—everyone talks about that process and to be a student of the game. He really preaches that and that’s why he’s done a great job at UCLA, which I’ve been fortunate to be a part of.

***

USA’s Alex Bowen after gold medal win against Canada

Bowen, a Stanford graduate, is refreshingly open about his play and his emotions. He certainly loves polo; after helping Team USA to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Games, which will be his second Olympic Games, he’ll rest up for two weeks before traveling later this month to Barcelona to join CN Sabadell, a professional team.

After tallying five goals in the Pan Am final against Canada, Bowen spoke about his elation—especially in light of the night club tragedy during the 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, where two people were killed and a number of athletes were injured.

[Update: USA Water-Polo’s Kaleigh Gilchrist Injured As Night-Club Building Collapses In Gwangju, 2 Dead, 14 Injured]

– This is not a new feeling for you but it must be a good feeling.

Oh, it’s amazing. After all that’s happened this summer, after—frankly—a disappointing world championships; we ended up on a good note but it was still disappointing.

With what happened afterwards—I was on the floor with Johnny [Hooper] and Ben [Hallock]—after all that happened it brought our team so close together. That first half was a testament to how close we were, to fight the whole way through.

– Water polo appears to this observer to be an emotional and cerebral sport more so than a physical one.

Oh, yeah. You’ve got to keep that mental composure even when you’re getting beat up, essentially. While you’re getting punched and kicked and drowned, you’ve got to be able to keep calm and let what happens, happen.

Lima, Saturday August 10, 2019 - The USA team celebrates after winning the Men´s Water Polo Gold match against Canada at the Complejo Deportivo Villa Maria del Triunfo at the Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Enrique Cuneo / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **

American exuberance. Photo Courtesy: Enrique Cuneo / Lima 2019

– That’s the story of this game; the Canadians lost their composure.

Especially in that kind of situation we have to play really clean—show our hands, make sure we don’t get caught with them down to draw ejections.

Really, just letting it happen, swimming out to the box, don’t give them a chance to get back in the game.

– You were brilliant with the man-advantage; you had twelve goals on the power play.

There’s really no other way to say it: we played really well and I loved it.

***

Canada’s Head Men’s Coach Giuseppe Porzio after loss to Americans in gold medal match.

A true gentleman—and quite pleasant to speak with—Porzio knew his team had missed a big opportunity against the Americans. But he also knew his young team was not quite up to the challenge… yet. 

As of now, Canada has committed to traveling for the Olympic Qualification Tournament next March in Europe. This represents a difficult path to Tokyo but not unprecedented for the Canadians; in 2008 they beat Romania 9-8 to advance to the semifinals, thereby qualifying for Beijing.

I told you that they are stronger than us—maybe we spend a lot of energy in the last two games. I knew they were a little bit stronger than us this moment, but I hoped we could stay close the first two periods. In the first three minutes they got three goals and then had no energy or confidence.

I knew this is a young team and that’s not easy. We had a big chance today.

In the end, I prefer this tournament. We had a good result—silver medal.

– What’s next for your team?

We have another chance at the end of March for qualify for the Olympic Games.We will try to do our best there, too. Maybe it’s hard stuff because we will meet a team like Hungary, Croatia, Greece and a tough German team.

It will be not easy for us.

***

Canada’s Mark D’Souza after loss to Americans in gold medal match.

D’Souza does not lack confidence, and his shooting ability and drive make the 20-year-old an ideal face of a Canadian men’s program still in search of its first Olympic berth since the Beijing Games in 2008. As he previously said, his dreams for 2020 are grand; that they did not come true in Lima does not mean that his hopes are dashed.

[Tokyo Bound! Decisive Win Over Canada in Pan Am Water Polo Final Gives USA Men Gold, 2020 Olympics Berth]

– Your team seemed unprepared for the American onslaught.

The caught us on our back foot. We didn’t start the way we wanted [to]. The U.S. has some veterans and they put the game away early. There was no coming back after that.

It’s the sport; sometimes things don’t go your way.

If there’s one thing I can be happy about, I can say we were trying to play to the end of the game.

The U.S. played a very good game today.

– The U.S. was deadly with the man advantage (12 of 19). Was there something they did that you were not prepared for?

I wouldn’t say it’s unexpected. We knew that they were an aggressive team and they did a good job of putting the ball away today. They got the opportunities, they capitalized on them, and put us away early.

– You typically are very comfortable shooting the ball but you took one shot in the first half.

I pride myself on being aggressive, and I know when I’m not aggressive. Today wasn’t one of those times. I was looking for the right chances.

I also consider myself a playmaker. I look for our best opportunity. On the extra man I wanted to expose the U.S. defense because I’ve studied what they do. We were looking to find the post today but the chances just weren’t there.

– Was facing Brazil in the semifinals a factor in how your team played against the U.S. in the finals?

We played a very good Brazilian team. Yesterday was a good game. [The Brazilians] are gritty, just like the Americans.

Lima, Monday, August 5, 2019 - Reuel D’Souza from Canada in action during his Men’s Water Polo Group Phase match against the United States at the Polideportivo Villa Maria del Triunfo at the Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Marcos Brindicci / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **

Canada’s Mark D’Souza. Photo Courtesy: Marcos Brindicci / Lima 2019

In a tournament [like this] things start to add up, fatigue comes through. But we’re a fit team. Regardless of what you’ll say about the score, we swam. We got up and down and have some guys logging over 26 minutes a game in six games over seven days.

We have a very young group and we’re looking to capitalize [on that]. We want to keep this group together. We think we can do big things in the future.

– What’s next for you and your Canadian teammates?

I want to play water polo; that’s what I want to do for a bit. I have all the time in the world to do what I want to do, and I’m set with my goals.

We have a lot of guys who have their priorities straight. We know what we want as a team and as individuals. We’re hoping it will all come together at the right time.

We’re always looking ahead. This was a tough loss today but we’re a young group and we’ll stay together. We’re gonna see what we can do in March [at the Olympic qualification tournament].

***

Brazil Head Coach Ricardo Azevedo after 8-7 loss to Canada in Pan Am semifinals.

As may be familiar to U.S. NCAA men’s tournaments—where one of the four semifinalists is often weak and so the second and third place teams tend to eliminate each other—the top three at Pan Ams were sorted in such a way that the Americans drew Argentina in one semifinal with Canada and Brazil facing off in the other.

[On The Record with Ricardo Azevedo, Former US Head Coach, Now Advising Brazilian Water Polo]

Azevedo, who five weeks ago took the coaching reigns for the Brazil’s men after being the chief high performance director for the Brazilian water polo federation, is as experienced as any coach in the hemisphere. That his team came up short in a match they rallied to take a late lead was disappointing, but afterwards Azevedo spoke frankly about the result.

– Your thoughts about the match.

It was a great game. Canada started really well. Their arms were live and they played with a lot of confidence. I thought our guys were good not to just roll over and die. Instead, we held them for a long time. It was 3-1 for quite a while, almost to the end of the second quarter.

Lima, Monday, August 5, 2019 - Nicolas Constantin-Bicari, left, from Canada reacts to the referee’s call during their Men’s Water Polo Group Phase match against the USA at the Polideportivo Villa Maria del Triunfo at the Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Marcos Brindicci / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **

Canada’s Nicolas Constantin-Bicari. Photo Courtesy: Marcos Brindicci / Lima 2019

We chipped it away, got to 4-4. It was good water polo both ways, both teams playing with a lot of desire—obviously we both wished to go forward.

These are the kind of games nobody’s ever happy losing.

As a coach, seeing these guys for 40 days, I thought we did pretty darn good. Our defense was solid, we were making situations. We did make three major mistakes and gave up a shot from center, which we usually never do.

At the end, I thought the 6 on 5 was perfect, the play was great, we got the exclusion, but it was too choppy on the play. It has to be more fluid, you gotta roll the ball around, and if it comes to your hand you gotta shoot it.

[On The Record with Slobodan Soro, Brazil Men’s Water Polo Goalie]

You can’t think about it—which he did, and put a little bit of extra strength and it was too powerful.

These are things that young players do, and that’s why they call it sport.

– You dictated the game that you wanted; low-scoring, defensive struggle, you had a lead in the closing minutes, and Constantin-Bicari beats your team with a shot in front.

He’s one of the best centers in the world. We tried to deny him as much we could, and we slowed him down—nobody’s gonna stop him.

After we went ahead with 2:22 left we had an opportunity [on offense] our player drove inside [and didn’t get a call]. That Canada not only tied it up but 46 seconds later took the lead shows a lot of fortitude, strength—and also shows a lot of respect to Pino, [Canadian coach].

We got the exclusion, could have done the same but today it went Canada’s way. Ours’s will be another time.

***

Canada Head Women’s Coach David Paradelo, after his team lost to USA but still qualified for Tokyo.

Besides who would win gold on the men’s side—and scoop up an Olympic berth—the other plot line involved who

– Despite a lost to the USA, Canada’s women’s water polo team is going to the Olympics for the first time in almost two decades.

Today is the beginning of a journey for us—and it starts with a good slap on the face.

Their game-speed is above par—it’s above everyone’s—and they showed that today.

– As you look at the Olympic sprint over the next 10 months, what will you take away from your Pan Am experience?

It’s not only here in Peru it’s World Championships and World League Super Finals. We haven’t spent much time together the last few years, we don’t have the luxury of the U.S. program that’s been the same for the past decade.

We have a decade to catch up with them, but we go step-by-step. We started by improving our offense and our counter-attack—which was good here. Even in this last game I wasn’t displeased—great defensive skills, great goaltending—Ashleigh [Johnson] came in with a great game today.

– Will your college players red-shirt in spring 2020?

We want to spend the whole next year together. We want to make sure that we’re in the best position possible to medal at the Olympics. That starts by being together, which we haven’t done in the past two years.

If we want to head to the Olympics for the best performance possible, we need to start that as soon as possible and we’re starting that in September.

***

Canada’s Krystina Alogbo after losing to gold medal match 24-4 to USA women.

Alogbo is representative of a decades-long effort by Canada to return to the Olympics. A veteran of four Pan American games—all silver finishes—she is the longest tenured player on head coach David Paradelo’s roster. She just missed out on her country’s last Olympics—the Canadian women finished seventh at the Athens Games in 2004.

Now, she’s on the cusp of being an Olympian; her team qualified for the Tokyo Games by virtue of qualifying for the Pan American final with the already-booked USA women.

alogbo-canada-aug19

Canada’s Krystina Alogbo. Photo Courtesy: Enrique Cuneo / Lima 2019

– Your coach told me that you’ve been struggling for this opportunity for quite some time

Struggling is a big word. It’s commitment. It’s true, it feels like a struggle sometimes. It feels like it’s hard to get up sometimes and keep going for another four years, and keep pushing, and keep believing.

[Golden Again! USA Women Win Fifth Straight Pan American Water Polo Title at 2019 Games in Peru]

Once you start looking at it differently, once you start seeing it as something you’re committed to, no matter what, it’s going to be every game, how you want to end it as your career, I think things become clearer, and it becomes attainable and it becomes less all on that. You start believing, you start seeing other things, there’s new people coming in, you learn how to approach the next step to get to the Olympics.

This qualification is what helped me and my teammates to get to where we are.

As a team, you get nervous for that big moment—but every moment’s that big moment. Once you analyze [that] you get comfortable, you don’t fear what’s to come.

– Though, given their overwhelming success, it’s probably natural to fear, envy or dislike the U.S.

It’s always hard to face the U.S. It’s not just that they are one of the best teams in the world—they are the best team–it’s more of: how do we beat them playing our game? Our biggest issue is believing that we could play our game and beat them. Sometimes we underestimate that.

[USA Women Advance to Fifth-Straight Pan American Water Polo Final, But Canada is Big Winner]

As soon as we see something different or not in our favor we focus on that and lose track of [everything else]. In this game it was all on us. We have to stick to our game plan—how we did from the beginning of this tournament, how we finish off world championships.

If we brought that attitude, that mentality, that concentration we would have gave them a good game.

It’s a long road. [The Olympics] are a year from now. Teams like Holland, Italy have given them one-, two-goal games. We also gave one-, two-goal games to Italy and Holland.

When you look at it on paper, the possibility is there… [but] you need everything in your favor to achieve that goal

***

Brazil’s Victoria Chamorro after loss to Canadians in the semifinals

Chamorro has a fantastic pedigree in polo; a two-time NCAA champion with USC (2016, 2018), she was an Olympian with Brazil in 2016, representing her country. Now living in Germany, Chamorro expressed regret that her young teammates simply did not have enough experience to stop a talented Canadian side that had just spent a week facing the world’s best teams at the FINA World Championships.

– Your team is on the outside looking in.

Congratulations to Canada. They worked hard [and] they earned their bid but it’s tough. I really wanted that ticked to the Olympics again. It really hurts to lose. What hurts the most to me is the way we lost.

Lima, Saturday August 10, 2019 - Brazil ’s Water Polo women team celebrates after winning the bronze medal against Cuba in Water Polo at the Complejo Deportivo Villa Maria del Triunfo at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 . Copyright Enrique Cuneo / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **

Brazil’s women’s team celebrating bronze win at Pan Ams. Photo Courtesy: Enrique Cuneo / Lima 2019

We have to digest it, focus on tomorrow. It’s tough to see that opportunity slip away. It really hurts to lose but it hurts the most the way we lost.

– There was great disparity in ability here at the Pan Ams—how did that affect your preparation against the Canadians?

They come from playing in the World Championships; we got together in the beginning of July and are training every day for a couple of weeks. We have girls that have never played at this level before, girls who never came out for the senior national team.

So, it’s pretty tough to compete with the Canadians. We tried our best, but we have a coach who has been with this team for two years but has been away from women’s water polo and this level of competition. It’s an adaptation for him as well.

We’ve just got to work with what we have.