Krikorian: Johnson, World’s Top Polo Goalie, Plays Field Because of IOC, Possible Injury

Lima, Tuesday, August 6, 2019. Ashleigh Johnson from the USA goes for the ball during her Women's Water Polo match against Venezuela at Villa María del Triunfo at the Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Paul Vallejos / Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **
USA's Ashleigh Johnson switched caps for field play—raising issues of IOC rules for Olympic play. Photo Courtesy: Paul Vallejos / Lima 2019

LIMA, PERU. It was an unusual, though not unprecedented scenario: Ashleigh Johnson, arguable the world’s best female goal keeper, switched caps and jump into the water as a field player against Venezuela in a match Tuesday at the 2019 Pan American Games.

pan_american_logo.svgThis turned out to be a newsworthy development in an otherwise lopsided match that saw the American women win convincingly for the 56th time by a score of 23-3. The move by Adam Krikorian, the American women’s coach, was also potentially controversial. During the 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships, the Hungarian women’s team inexplicably ran up the score on a South Korean team that was virtually defenseless, scoring 64 goals—an average of two goals per minute—and reportedly laughing as their hapless opponents struggled with basic water polo tactics.

[On 1st Day of FINA World Water Polo Championships Two Numbers Stand Out: 64 and 33]

After the match, Krikorian—arguably the most successful polo coach in the world—was adamant that pulling his Olympic goalie was neither a stunt nor disrespectful. He tied his action to a 2017 decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to cut rosters from 13 to 11 for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The IOC’s rational is that this is a necessary byproduct of the increase in women’s teams from eight to 10 and corresponding space demands on Olympic housing for athletes. The Pan American games are being played under the new regulations.

“With the rules the way they are now, if our goalie were to get injured in the middle of the game, it would be an embarrassing situation for our sport,” Krikorian said. “You would be sending out a player in the goal who would be inexperienced and unable to play the position effectively.

“It would ruin the rest of the game.”

[FINA World Cup Underscores Big Changes Ahead for International Water Polo]

As the rules now state, teams are allowed two players in reserve who sit in the stands and are available—but only after a match is ended, precluding an intervention due to injury. For the U.S., Amanda Longan, one of the world’s top goalies, as proven by an NCAA-winning career at USC and extensive experience with the national team, sits and watches along with teammate Paige Hauschild.

December 16, 2018; Woollett Aquatics Center, Irvine, CA, USA; USA Water Polo Women's Exhibition Series: USA vs China; Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne for USA Water Polo

Adam Krikorian, center, had led his team to unprecedented success. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

When pressed upon whose decision it is to effect this change—which he feels is imperative—the U.S. coach was clear.

“Right now, it’s in the hands of the IOC—the leaders of the IOC, the leaders within FINA—to make sure that situation doesn’t arise. The only way that situation doesn’t arise is you allow another goal keeper to be on the roster.”

It was a strategically savvy move by the American coach to underscore a serious concern in a situation that was otherwise mundane for a team that hasn’t lost in more than a year. As leader of the world’s most dominant—and therefore visible—women’s team, Krikorian understands that he has both an opportunity and an obligation to advocate for his sport.

[On The Record with Adam Krikorian, US Women’s Water Polo Head Coach]

This does not mean, however, that he’s in any position to directly influence how his sport is regulated.

“I’m not sure if it’s a possibility or not,” he said in response to who might authorize the change. “I certainly hope so. It depends on who you talk to; I think everyone has a different stance. I’ve heard five or six different opinions as to what may happen. Whenever there’s that many opinions floating out there, it makes me think that no one really knows. “

seidman-goalie-panams

Who’s that in the red cap? Melissa Seidmann. Photo Courtesy: USAWP

Johnson, who backstopped the U.S. to gold at the Rio Games and is on board for another Olympic run next July, was delighted by the opportunity to play the field and score her first goal in international play.

“I’m rusty! Not being in the field for a while, not having to swim… I have a new appreciate for the field players now,” she joked, then echoed her coach’s concern about preparing for any game scenario.

“I really enjoy not just being in the goal, but preparing team-wise for any situation. I could get injured, something could happen—somebody’s going to need to step it up and get into the cage.”

Let’s hope the U.S.—nor any other team—has to face this decision in Olympic play. But, if they do, the Americans and their coach will be prepared, as they always.

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