RIO DE JANEIRO — In his apartment and in the other moments he finds himself alone, Adam Krikorian still thinks about his brother. He is almost never alone. Krikorian is surrounded by the U.S. women’s water polo team, his team.
The players have managed a feat of astonishing grace for their coach: At once, they provide Krikorian respite from the pain of losing his brother, and they recall for him the best qualities Blake Krikorian possessed. Without knowing it, they are both a salve and a tribute.
Early Wednesday evening at Olympic Aquatics Stadium, Krikorian stood on the pool’s edge and high-fived players as they swam back to the deck. They had battered Hungary, 14-10, to move to Friday’s gold medal game, in which they will face Italy. The defending gold medalists have dominated the tournament with performances such as Wednesday’s, when captain Maggie Steffens led a balanced attack with four goals. After Krikorian walked away and allowed the players to huddle themselves, they shifted their focus on their next goal.
“What do we want?” center Kami Craig said. “We don’t want to just be on the podium. We want to be on top of the podium.”
The tournament has felt like therapy for Krikorian. Two days before the Opening Ceremonies, his brother Blake, a renowned Bay Area tech entrepreneur, died suddenly at 48. Krikorian rushed home, leaving his team for three days, and returned in time for their opening game. The rush of the Olympic tournament and the focus required allowed him temporary sanctuary. Even talking with reporters has helped to unburden his thoughts.
“When you see a bunch of young adults and even young kids, some of them fighting to achieve their dream, it reminds me of the qualities my brother had,” Krikorian said. “Which were hard work, passion, perseverance. In a lot of ways, this team reminds me of him. Their attitude, their approach reminds me a lot of just how my brother was and how he’d want us to be.”
The current version of the U.S. team started coming together three years ago. Krikorian’s approach hinges on pushing players’ limits, both physically and socially. He works them hard in training and demands honesty — “making sure you get to your raw self,” defender Melissa Seidemann said.
On Aug. 3, Krikorian returned to his Rio de Janeiro hotel room after a practice. His phone had been turned off all day, and when he flicked it on he saw a message from his father, the kind everybody dreads: Call me now.
On FaceTime, Krikorian saw Gary Krikorian crying before he heard what had happened. Blake had been surfing. He had a heart attack. He was dead.
It happened so suddenly and made so little sense. Blake was active, a former water polo player at UCLA. He was wealthy and brilliant. Blake and the third Krikorian brother, Jason, founded Sling Media and invented the television-streaming service Slingbox, which preceded a career of visionary and lucrative investments. Blake was an angel investor in Lyft, among many other companies. Blake became a beloved star in the tech world. Last year, Blake appeared as himself in a cameo on the HBO series “Silicon Valley.”
Krikorian’s assistant coaches and players were all asleep, and for a night Krikorian suffered and grieved by himself. The next morning, he told assistant coaches Dan Klatt and Chris Oeding. Klatt could understand on a deep level. His brother, Skyler Hafen, had died suddenly while he was traveling for a water polo tournament.
“My soul wanted to be the friend,” Klatt said. “But my dedication to him as our leader was to do what we needed to and continue to do that throughout this tournament.”
First, Krikorian gathered his players. He had coached some of them for seven years, since he became the national coach in 2009. They had become the best in the world — an unsurprising development given Krikorian’s record at UCLA, where he won 10 national titles leading both the men’s and women’s teams — and they had developed a deep bond.
“He’s real,” Seidemann said. “He loves us more than any other coach I’ve played for. You can feel it in the water. You can feel it out of the water.”
Krikorian told them a tragedy had happened but that it was his tragedy and not theirs. He told them it should not derail what they had worked so hard for. He told them he had to leave but that he would be back. The news devastated them.
“It’s all about supporting our family, and he’s a part of our family as much as his brother is a part of our family,” Seidemann said, her voice cracking. “Just sticking together.”
Krikorian spent three days at home and returned Aug. 8, the night before the United States’ first preliminary game, an 11-4 pummeling of longtime rival Spain. They have not been seriously challenged in the tournament.
“Too much has been made of us or me winning for him,” Krikorian said. “Obviously, he’d be rooting for us. But he would care more about how we did things. He would care more about working hard, about never giving up, about sticking together, preserving through the tough times. At the end of the day, you win or lose. He’d be happy and proud of this team no matter what happens.”
After Friday, Klatt knows too well, Krikorian will lose his temporary sanctuary. He will support Blake’s immediate family, and he will have more time alone.
“I know when you get back home is when there’s going to be challenges,” Klatt said. “Because there will be daily reminders and things that need to be dealt with. He loves to grind. He loves to coach. He loves to be part of a team. I think he feels the love, too. That piece of it is therapeutic, too.”
On Wednesday evening, Seidemann and Steffens embraced in a hallway outside the pool. They threw their arms around one another and skipped toward their locker room, signing and laughing, on their way to try to win a gold medal, together.