By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor
Adam Krikorian is arguably one of America’s finest and most accomplished coaches in any discipline. After winning 10 NCAA titles as a head coach of the UCLA men’s and women’s water polo teams (men: 1999, 2000, 2004; women: 2001, 2003, 2005-2009), in 2009 Krikorian assumed leadership of the U.S. Women’s Senior National Team. He guided Team USA through a magical trip to gold in the 2012 London Games. In 2016, the American women repeated their golden ride again in dominating fashion, trailing for less than a minute of play on their way to a 12-5 finals win over Italy.
Selected as the American coach of the Rio Games by the United States Olympic Committee, Krikorian might have left his clipboard behind for more lucrative—and less stressful—pursuits. But he chose to return in pursuit of a third straight Olympic gold, an accomplishment achieved by legendary Hungarian coach Denes Kemeny (2000 – 2012). And, with a squad that has captured the top prize in all major competitions since 2014, there’s no question that the Americans will again be the favorite in Tokyo.
During the recent NCAA women’s water polo tournament at USC’s Uytengsu Aquatics Center, Krikorian spoke with Swimming World about the emotions surround his team’s win at Rio—including the tragic death of his brother Blake prior to Olympic competition—his hopes for the future of the game, and what his and Team USA’s unprecedented success has meant for water polo, both in America and the rest of the world.
– In a moment fraught with many emotions, what was going through you mind as your team captured gold in Rio?
It’s not too many times in an Olympic Game, let alone any championship game, that you have the time to think about a multitude of things. Most of my thoughts probably had to do with my family and the loss of my brother. It was emotional [and] I started to cry right in the middle of the game. With two minutes left I had to kind of snap myself out of it. I don’t think I would typically go there; I had suppressed so much over that two week period.
Knowing that the game was in hand, it all came crashing down at once. You always say: “That’s an unbelievable feeling.” That truly was unbelievable because of the way we dominated.
I was very confident in the group, but I never expected we would roll through an Olympic Games the way we did. Again, not that we’re winning but the way we did it. I still have a hard time—even now—believing that’s the way it happened for us. To lead every single game for every single second except for 44 seconds the entire tournament.
Which is something I don’t think you’ll ever see happening again.
Quite frankly—and I hate to say this—winning an Olympic gold is pretty cool but… it was boring. As a competitor you always want to be challenged. At the conclusion there was something missing. I don’t know if it had to do with the emotions [around] the loss of my brother or if had to do with we didn’t have a close game.
– At the 2017 FINA World Water Polo Championships, where a great Serbian team fell to arch-rival Croatia, were you concerned your team might be also suffer a letdown?
We don’t compare ourselves to that. We respect what the Serbians have done—what all the great teams have done. [But] we don’t look at that [and think] now we’re at the top after that loss.
We’re fighting for respect and believe it or not our world of water polo is still very much in the dark ages and can be very sexist at times. We’re constantly motivated to prove—not just to ourselves and our country but to the rest of the world—that women can play the sport at a really high level.
We fight for respect outside of our sport and within our sport. It’s a talented, tough-minded team. And I still don’t believe we get the respect we deserve.
– The U.S. women have enjoyed such dominance that it’s almost oppressive.
When you’re in the middle of this, for us, I can understand [that attitude] from a spectator’s standpoint. But from a competitor’s or coaches’ standpoint, we’re not concerned about that. It’s not our responsibility to come down to the level of our competition; they need to rise to us.
We’re not all the sudden going to be big supporters of parity and let people win. And, we’re not always just competing against our opponents; we’re competing against ourselves. That’s the ultimate goal: to be the best version of ourselves.
– The best women in the world now come to America and play NCAA polo. Is this a threat to your team’s success?
I’m not selfish enough to think that the only thing that matters is our team and our success. I want the sport to grow. I want people—not just Americans—but people abroad that have the freedom to be able to pursue their athletic or academic dreams. That’s way more important than a water polo game.
With that being said, I’m never disappointed that we’re training too many foreigners. Good for them. If they have the opportunity and coaches have needs… they have every right to do so.
Part of my thought is: if we are helping them to get better, so be it! That’s great for our sport. It forces us to be better. And there’s nothing like competition. With every success we have, it opens a door to a new challenge.
Going back to my comment about 2016, we’d love to be pushed to find out what we’re made of, to become the best version of ourselves.
– How will you know when complacency sets in?
That’s why coaching is way more of an art than it is a science. As a head coach you need to have a feel for your team, your athletes, and, not just the cohesion in the group, but the belief and the determination…. That complacency, every team has their complacency. It’s just, how often does it come.
– You’re certainly don’t seem to be standing still.
I would be lying to you if I said I never get complacent. And, if anyone ever says that they don’t get complacent, they’re full of BS. It happens to everyone; it’s human nature to get too comfortable, to enjoy the comfort of your own surroundings and the comfort of success.
The key for people—including myself—I’m usually aware of it. I can’t say that’s the case for a lot of people—and that’s when you have problems. That’s when complacency really eats you up—when you’re not aware of it. My job—it always starts with me first—is for me to recognize and get myself out of those kinds of situations. Because if I’m complacent then, a team is going to be how the coach is.
That’s the first thing; for me to be aware of complacency, change my habits and behavior.
– What was it that convinced you to come back for a third run at the Olympics?
Everyone always says you’re coming back to win another Olympic gold. The more I’ve done this, the further away I get from youthful days as a coach, the more I realize it has nothing to do with winning. It’s all about being challenged and trying to be better every single day.
Ultimately, the reason that I decided to come back is because I felt like I had more to offer. And I know that I can be better than I was a year ago. Or that I was the last four years.
As long as I have that feeling, that I get excited about the challenges and excited about the growth that I have a vision for within myself, the more I’m going to continue to do this.
Winning, capturing gold medals, all those things are just a by-product of that drive to be better individually, that drive to be better as a group. We’re never going to match what we did in 2016 from a physical standpoint—not to mention the 44 seconds—we’re never going to match that.
If my vision was trying to match that or do better than that from a results standpoint, it’s never going to happen. I should just quit now.
So it comes back to: can we be better individually? Can I be a better teacher, be more patient. Can I connect better with my athletes? Can I do a better job of teaching these life lessons that are so valuable as they move forward in their lives.
My number one job is to create strong, independent, confident, tough, authentic women. We have a new crop of people coming up. Are they as people—not just as athletes—are they at their peak as strong, independent, confident individuals? The answer is: No. I want to help them get there.
As long as I have the passion for that, then I’ll continue to do what I do.
– You’re one of the sport’s most recognizable individuals. Can you see a future whereby you take more of a leadership role in the direction of USA Water Polo?
The only thing I can say for that—and I think that I speak for the entire team, athletes included—I don’t look at myself as just a competitor, [or] as a coach. We’re some of our most recognized people in our sport. With that comes a responsibility of leadership. My title may be head coach of the Senior Women’s Water Polo team, but I do take my role as a leader very seriously. And we as a team take our role extremely seriously, being great leaders and ambassadors—inspiring people of all genders and ages.
Going beyond winning and losing, that’s something we take great pride in. We find a great deal of joy in filling that role.
– At the recent FINA Water Polo Conference, you spoke about a sense of “urgency” to address the ills of sport. What are you most concerned about?
There’s been a lot of talk about the rules of our game. But my biggest argument—for us, for everyone involved in the sport—coming back to being the best version of yourself, we haven’t come close—nowhere close. We’re operating at about 30% right now.
And for many reasons, part of which [is] we’ve had the same people in leadership for a long, long time—and I’m not talking about US water polo. But within FINA. We’ve had a lot of people in our sport that have felt very comfortable and complacent.
We haven’t changed, we haven’t adapted—most importantly, we haven’t been putting forth the best effort to make our sport better on all levels. Marketing, promotion, rules, officiating, coaching.
Before we do anything, before we start trying to change all these things, let’s find out how good our sport is. It’s impossible to know where your holes are when you’re not operating at close to 100 percent. We have an opportunity—70 percent we’re not maximizing. We get caught up in: We need to change 20 different rules.
How about operating with some integrity? How about being better communicators? How about getting the officials and coaches together to discuss the interpretation of the rules that we actually have in place, first?
– Doesn’t that happen on a regular basis?
No, it doesn’t. It’s been very dysfunctional. It’s like—and I see coaches do this all the time—it’s like a power play; why worry about trying to do this fancy 6-on-5 when you can’t even pass the ball. Like any business, like any team, it starts with the fundamentals. It’s doing the basic things right.
And we haven’t done the basic things right. So why should we think about changing when we haven’t given ourselves a chance to be successful yet.
– And you believe that after the FINA Conference there was a clear message not just about what needs to happen but urgency to change?
What we’ve seen over the last few months, and what I’ve seen personally on a private level, has been extremely encouraging. And I think there’s a ton of people who feel the same way I feel—and not just feel this way, but are excited to do something about it, which is the most important thing.
As I said in my talk: “Talk is cheap.” I’ve heard officials, coaches and athletes complain over the 9 – 10 years I’ve been doing this. But there’s been little change.
People always want to see the sexy change. What’s the “magic bullet” that’s going to make things better? It comes down to really basic organizational keys that are going to make it stronger. And going back to how we plan, how we communicate, how we delegate.
Those aren’t things that get people super excited to talk about, but are extremely important for a successful organization.
– The fact that there doesn’t seem to be a clear definition in the rule book of what an ordinary foul is may be an indicator of this problem.
That’s a perfect point. How do we move forward if we haven’t even defined that?! We’ve had the same rule book in place for—I don’t know the stats—but I think it’s been 50 – 60 years. How’s that possible?
– Given your accomplishments, you are an important agent of change for the sport, How easily do you embrace this role?
That’s something that I have to keep an eye on. This is something that’s been extremely challenging for me in general. As our team has more success, we’ve been, and I personally have been asked to do things to help out, both inside and outside of water polo.
Managing all those things and maintaining my number one focus, which is the team, is something I need to be aware of.
I would love to be a part of the change moving forward. It starts with building trust, and building trust is about communicating, and there’s always two parts to communicating: speaking and listening.
I’ll say this: I was never listened to before. A lot of great coaches and great minds and great people who haven’t been listened to. That’s changing, and that’s what makes me excited. There’s more open dialogue then there’s ever been before. In order for things to change, that really where it’s at.