Decade in the Mirror: Swimming World’s Top Water Polo Stories

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The U.S. women's water polo team celebrates a gold medal win in 2016 Rio Olympics. Photo Courtesy: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Tomorrow starts a new decade — as well as the beginning of the end of the latest Olympic quadrennial. With the Tokyo Games set to open on July 24th, the next seven months will see a run-up to the most important water polo tournament in the sport.

Before we go forward, Swimming World will go back — over the past decade — and examine the biggest news from the last ten years.

Our staff of writers, including Bill Cohn (BC), Steven Munatones (SM) and Michael Randazzo (MR) look at the decade’s noteworthy stories, from the rise of the Serbian men to the fall of USC’s Jovan Vavic.

2016 Rio Olympics - Water Polo - Final - Men's Gold Medal Match Croatia v Serbia - Olympic Aquatics Stadium - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 20/08/2016. The Serbian team celebrates their gold medal win. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

Serbian men celebrate gold medal win in 2016 Rio Olympics. Photo Courtesy: Laszlo Balogh

Serbian Men’s Water Polo

MR: There’s no disputing which team dominated international men’s competition over the past decade. The Serbs dropped a 9-7 semifinal decision to Italy in the 2012 London Olympics, leading to a disappointing bronze finish and marked the end of Dejan Udovicic’s tenure as Serbian head coach.

Under Dejan Savic, the Serbs finished 7th at the 2013 FINA World Championships —then did not lose a major tournament until 2017, when the Croatians upset the defending Olympic and FINA World champs in the semifinals of FINA Worlds. In between, the golden generation of Serbia won 12 straight major titles. The biggest was the 2016 Rio Olympics, where they dominated Croatia, winning gold with an 11-7 win.

BC: Serbian men are a great team.  Hungarian men are rebuilding and will be competitive in Tokyo. Polo is a national sport there. They seem to peak in Olympic years.

Reign of U.S. Women’s Water Polo

BC: USA Women are a great story. How Adam Krikorian keeps the competitive fire burning for a group that wins most games going away and hasn’t lost since 2018.  Looking forward, Adam has to cut players to get the 12-player limit.  He will have to either cut an Olympic medalist or an NCAA All American or two.

[Will This Team Ever Lose? U.S. Women Beat Netherlands for 2019 USAWP Holiday Cup Title, Run Win Streak to 68]

MR: There’s no question that the American women are FAR ahead of their competition. With an astonishing 68-match winning streak — which includes 12 major titles — there’s no one even close. Hard to see who can beat the team that won TWO Olympic golds (2012, 2016) and will likely return as many as nine Olympians.

USC Men / Stanford Women Dominate NCAAs

BC: USC is a story in and out of the water. Men appeared in nine of 10 NCAA finals and won five of them. The Trojan women picked up four titles and lost one championship game. Out of the water, Head Coach Jovan Vavic was indicted in the operation Varsity Blues FBI investigation and dismissed within hours of being arrested in Honolulu. Donna Heinel, their senior woman administrator also was charged and faces significant jail time.

[After a Quarter Century in Troy, Jovan Vavic Fired as USC Men’s & Women’s Head Water Polo Coach]

The school promoted assistant coaches Marko Pintaric and Casey Moon to coach the teams and has held his two sons out of playing time in the 2019 season.  There are more shoes to drop on this story as it unfolds, including any NCAA investigation of both the men’s and women’s programs, money paid to assistant coaches by Rick Singer’s company, and the disposition of the case against Jovan.

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Stanford women celebrate 2019 NCAA title. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

The Stanford women have flourished in the decade under John Tanner.  He’s had the Cardinal in all 10 NCAA finals this decade and won 6 of them.  He’s coached eight Cutino Award winners and has showed zero signs of slowing down.

NCAA Water polo is a story too. 49 men’s teams and 61 women’s teams played in 2019.  But the issue is that not enough Power 5/Division I schools play water polo.  It’s the Big Four, plus Arizona State, Michigan, and Indiana that have either men’s and/or women’s polo.  More than half of the men’s teams are DII/DIII.

It was good that the Golden Coast Conference (GCC) won games against the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF), and that Pacific made the NCAA finals again this year, but the MPSF was 26-9 vs the GCC this year. The GCC will need to continue to win against MPSF teams next year to make it a trend.

SM: Dominance of USC is certainly the story of the decade, but Stanford’s men have not equaled the dominance of their female counterparts.  Which is remarkable given the larger number of athletic scholarships in women’s water polo vs men’s water polo. That is, USC (and to a certain extent UCLA and Cal and UOP) has been able to get the college expenses covered for good foreign players.  None (or very few) of the families of the European players could pay for American colleges if not for the innovative financial aid packages created by Jovan and others.

Covering the college costs of foreign players was Jovan’s primary genius; without the pure athletic talent he was able to recruit, I do not believe he could have won so many championships.

MR: It was a decade to remember for the Trojan men and Stanford women, but one of the decade’s biggest stories came at the end, when the Gauchos of UC Santa Barbara opened with an history run and threatened to turn the established water polo hierarchy upside down.

[UC Santa Barbara Aims to Replicate Gauchos’ 1979 NCAA Championship Run]

FINA Rule Changes

SM: The (relative) openness of FINA and the decision-makers to look at different ways to officiate the game to make it more exciting and fast action for fans and television.

[On The Record with FINA’s Andrey Kryukov; Water Polo’s Future Rests with Him]

MR: Forgive me if “whiplash” is a term that comes to mind when talking about FINA rule changes. In 2017 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decrees that rosters for the 2020 Tokyo Games should be cut to 11, causing a significant reaction by national team coaches. Then, they (apparently) relax the rules at the end of 2019, allowing 12-player rosters for both the men and women, with a sub in the stands in case of injury.

One key development, yet to be fully implemented, is video replay. But, it will be in use in the 2020 Olympics; for that many have to be thankful.

Rise of Japanese Polo

SM: The influence of the revolutionary Japanese high-lane defense and its innovative approach to the game has opened up the game to smaller players and indirectly led to faster action.

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Japan’s Yusuke Shimizu. Photo Courtesy: FINA

MR: Dante Dettamanti, famed former coach for the Stanford men, has extensively followed the development of Japanese polo. There’s no question that their development this decade offers a lesson in how the sport can evolve, while breaking the stranglehold on Olympic gold by Eastern Europeans that stretches back for the past two decades and includes three-straight titles by Hungary (2000, 2004, 2008), one by Croatia (2012) and one by Serbia (2016).

[Japan Water Polo – A New Direction for the Sport?]

The Japanese have consistently competed; they haven’t yet captured a major title, but a shocking 15-7 defeat of the U.S. in the 2017 FINA World Championships was a signal that they will contend  at home in round-robin play — and it will not be a surprise if they advance to the knockout stage for their first time in Olympic history.

[On The Record With Yoji Omoto, Head Coach for the Japanese Men’s Water Polo Team]

Ashleigh Johnson / Filip Filipović: The Decade’s Most Dominant Players

MR: Filipović is the most dominant player on the best decade’s best men’s team; over the course of the last decade he has consistently been honored as the world’s best player, including in 2016, when he was Swimming World’s Male Water Polo Player of the Year. He was also a key player for Pro Recco, when they won Champions League titles in 2012 and 2015.

 

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USA’s Ashleigh Johnson making a save in the 2019 Pan American Games Photo Courtesy: Mariana Bazo

MR: Ashleigh Johnson has emerged as the decade’s best female player, being named both the 2019 Swimming World Female Water Polo Player of the Year as well as the Total Waterpolo Player Award 2019 winner. The Swimming World honor is the fifth time this decade Johnson won; she is also the only Eastern player to win a Cutino Award, which she won in 2017, upsetting U.S. senior teammate Maggie Steffens.

[Goalies Rule! Princeton’s Johnson, USC’s Baron Win Cutino Awards]

BC: Swimming is America’s national sport; Water polo is not. Can you imagine what would happen if athletes like Cam Newton and LeBron James had the opportunity to play water polo?  Ashleigh Johnson is a great example.  She is a superb athlete and is now the best goalie in the world.

Brazil Stuns Serbia in 2016 Olympics

MR: This is still one of the most stunning developments of the decades. Brazil, which had not competed in Olympic play for 32 years, upset the defending world champions 6-5 in group play during the 2016 Games. It’s an upset on the order of magnitude of Mike Tyson versus Buster Douglas. The punch-line is that the Serbians recovered and went on to capture Olympic gold. The win not only cemented the legacy of Ratko Rudic as the greatest water polo coach in history; it made goalie Slobodan Soro and his Brazilian teammates the biggest sports story in what historically had been a soccer-mad country.

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Boris Margeta, Spain’s Rafael Aguilar Morillo. Photo Courtesy: Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

Boris Margeta / Mistake of 2012 Olympics

MR: If there’s one story that still reverberates over the course of the decade — and has yet to be fully rectified — it’s the missed goal by referee Margeta in the Spain versus Croatia in round-robin play in the London Games. Spain’s Iván Pérez Vargas put a last second shot past Croatian goalie Josip Pavic that would have tied the match at 8-8. The line judge ruled it a goal; the Jumbotron in London’s Water Polo Arena showed the ball clearly crossed the line before the final whistle.

Margeta didn’t agree; waiving off the goal and putting the Spaniards behind the Croatians in group play. Spain got a difficult match-up in the Knockout Round, dropping an 11-8 decision to Montenegro; Croatia faced an inferior American squad, taking an easy 8-2 decision as part of an undefeated run to Olympic gold.

[On The Record with Boris Margeta, Renowned Referee, at the 2019 Pan American Games]

Maybe those rule changes — including video review — ARE the decade’s biggest story after all.