USA Water Polo at World Championships: One Up, One Down in Doha

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Photo Courtesy: USA Water polo

The results from the desert—Qatar, to be exact—at the 21st World Aquatics Championships were decidedly mixed for USA men’s and women’s water polo.

The women, coached by Adam Krikorian, delivered in the clutch as they so often have during Krikorian’s impressive tenure. Last Friday the Americans captured gold by virtue of a 10-9 win over Hungary.  It’s the eighth time USA has taken gold in women’s water polo at the World Championships and a notable rebound for Krikorian’s team. They finished fifth at the 2023 World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, ending a streak of four-straight titles—and suggesting American dominance might be ebbing.

The results in Doha showed that USA water polo is still the team to beat. Krikorian’s squad opened with a 10-8 victory over a Dutch side coming off an inspired run last month at the European Championships. That, and wins over Australia and Spain—other rivals for gold at the 2024 Paris Games—and a recent training session with Italy in Ostia suggest the American coach has his players focused on the only prize that really matters: a record fourth-straight Olympic gold.

The American women’s squad for Paris will feature a core of experienced Olympians led by captain Maggie Steffens, a three-time gold medalist. Those veterans will pair with a crop of newcomers eager to follow Krikorian wherever he leads, with this latest journey perhaps the final coaching chapter for one of the nation’s finest Olympic stewards.

The US men, coached by Dejan Udovicic, were not close to a medal, let alone a title in Doha. Their path to a ninth-place finish was marked by a tournament opening shootout loss to Montenegro, a two-goal loss to Serbia and a one-goal loss to Italy. An optimist might say the Americans are close, but—unlike the US women—they always seem to be on the wrong side of close games.

The latest World Championships result by Udovicic’s team raises concerns about what might take place at Paris’ Aquatics Center five months from now. Despite a reshuffling at the top of the men’s ranks—two-time defending Olympic champs Serbia has replaced almost its entire lineup while Croatia, Italy and Spain have gotten that much older three years after Tokyo—the Americans appear to be losing ground. Perhaps the most telling sign: the rise of French polo. Until a recent focus as this year’s host, France had qualified for an Olympic water polo berth just once since 1992—an 11th place finish at the 2016 Rio Games. They placed fourth in Doha, a year after placing fourth in Fukuoka, a success which included a semifinal win over the US.

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Photo Courtesy: USA Water polo

Is it unfair to question which direction the American men are going? A sixth-place finish at the Tokyo Games provided a glimmer of hope for future play, with young talents like Hannes Daube, Johnny Hooper, Max Irving and Marko Vavic developing in time for success in 2024. Clearly, this hoped-for improvement has yet to occur; a sixth place World Aquatics Championships finish in 2022 was followed by seventh in 2023 and now ninth this year. As a tune-up for the Olympics, the tournament in Doha was an American dud, and you have to wonder how much longer Ben Hallock, the best American man of his generation, will take the pounding and the losing. Will he endure until the US hosts the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles?

Despite the heat, and perhaps the absurdity, of an aquatics championship in Qatar, the American women proved they are again gold-medal worthy. The US men showed they need a stunning reversal to contend for a medal in Paris.

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Dan Camaro
Dan Camaro
1 month ago

Everyone knows it, but most are unwilling to say it out loud…. The US men’s team is way, Way, WAY past due for a new men’s WP coach – the US isn’t close to fielding a competitive men’s WP team based on the college graduates who aren’t playing for the current Serbian coach who’s strategy is basically SHOOOOT! Lots of talented water polo men in the US aren’t willing/able to play for the current Serb coach since he plays favorites and refuses to consider those who don’t bow down to his style of losing. Move on Chris – if this were a college football team or basketball franchise, you’d have had a leadership change after the last Olympics!

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