RIO DE JANEIRO — One by one, each with a different reaction, the players on the best women’s water polo team ever leaned down to accept their gold medals. KK Clark looked at hers and mouthed, “Oh, my God.” Courtney Mathewson held back tears. Makenzie Fischer beamed. Kami Craig laughed, and then she cried through the entire national anthem.
Coaches do not receive Olympic medals, so Adam Krikorian watched from the side of the pool. He had led the United States on a dominant run, capped by its 12-5 demolition of Italy, under tragic circumstances. On Aug. 3, Krikorian’s brother, Blake, a renowned tech entrepreneur, died suddenly of a heart attack while surfing. Krikorian learned that night and flew home from Rio the next day. He returned in time for the United States’ first game Aug. 9. Blake Krikorian would have turned 49 on Thursday, the eve of the final.
“The two days coming home, it was very therapeutic to be able to grieve with the family, and to have that time together,” said Anicia Mendez, Krikorian’s wife. “He had to come back. Everyone has sacrificed so much to get to this point. I know he wanted to be strong for those players and to not take away from their experience. He would never allow anything personal to get in the way of that.”
Krikorian gathered his players at 7 a.m. the day after Blake died, before he flew home. They felt as if they had lost a member of their own family because that’s what they had become during four years of training.
“We’ve opened up,” Craig said. “We’ve been vulnerable.”
Krikorian wanted to ensure his tragedy would not impede their dreams. “Don’t worry about me,” he told them. “You be you.”
“We wanted to be strong for him, but he was strong for us,” captain Maggie Steffens said. “That’s why he’s the best coach in the world.”
In Rio, the smallest things would make Krikorian think of Blake: listening to a certain song, sitting under a tree by the pond in the Athletes’ Village. He found solace in his players and believed it would be “selfish” to let his tragedy affect them.
“I just keep coming back to how my brother, who was the coolest dude in the world, would want me to be,” Krikorian said. “Any time I was losing focus or getting too emotional, I would think about him, and I would think about what he would tell me: ‘You’re wasting this moment. Go have a blast. Kick some butt.’ When I start thinking about that, it gives me some peace.”
That first game after Krikorian got back, a blowout of Spain, set an apt precedent. The United States romped through the field and in the final produced an ode to the sport, fast and elegant and powerful.
The United States stomped Italy by the widest margin of victory in any of the five women’s Olympic finals. The Americans thrived on their typically balanced attack, five different players scoring their first five goals. Three — Rachel Fattal, Fischer and Kiley Neushul — scored multiple goals. Goalie Ashleigh Johnson, the first African American women’s water polo Olympian, made eight saves, including a block on a penalty shot, which are converted about 80 percent of the time.
For the tournament, the United States outscored opponents 73-32 and won all six games by at least four goals. In London, the Americans had claimed their first gold medal on toughness and grit. In Rio, they became the first nation with two gold medals and laid claim to the title of best women’s water polo team ever.
“I think you could make an argument,” Krikorian said. “I think you could make a strong argument.”
“We played water polo different than any team has ever played this game,” Johnson said.
“One of the most athletic, creative, crafty teams to ever play the game,” Craig said. “Not in the U.S. but in the world.”
“We’re just good at water polo,” defender Melissa Seidemann said. “You know?”
Their excellence made the final another blowout. With 2:32 left, assistant coach Dan Klatt grabbed Krikorian’s attention to remind him to make substitutions. The head coach is always the last to relax, and finally Krikorian could. For more than two weeks, he had focused on his team. Once he accepted that the United States had the game in hand, Krikorian’s mind drifted to Blake.
“You kept so much emotion and feeling inside,” Krikorian said. “It just started to raise and sort of burst out of me.”
Players felt a similar release. When Seidemann walked into the mixed zone to speak with reporters, she buried her face in her hands and bawled.
“Sorry, I’ve been holding it in this whole time,” Seidemann said. “Everybody’s tears are coming from different places.”
When the game ended, Krikorian and the rest of his staff leaped into the water, shoes and clothes and all. Players swam across the pool, jumped on to the deck and pumped their fists as their crowd of supporters wailed and chanted. They grabbed flags from the fans and draped them over their shoulders.
Back in the pool, coaches formed a circle. Krikorian broke and swam across the pool, alone.
The afternoon before, Blake’s birthday, Krikorian walked toward the practice pool and heard a voice call out, “Adam! Adam!” When he turned his head, his first thought was, “Who’s this good-looking woman calling my name?” The woman walked closer, and Krikorian realized it was his wife.
Last Friday, back in California, Mendez had woken up and decided she needed to be in Rio. When Krikorian saw her, he was stunned.
Now, in the pool, Krikorian lifted himself on to the deck and climbed steps to the crowd. Still drenched, he hugged Anicia and told her he loved her. She told him she loved him back, and they held their embrace for a full minute as the crowd roared around them, saying nothing else.
“I was just thrilled to be there for him and support him from an emotional standpoint,” Mendez said. “And for him to know he had me there.”
Krikorian knows there will be hard times ahead, and he may not have one of his families to help him through.
“It’s the daily interaction and it’s the relationships that mean more to me than anything,” Krikorian said. “I don’t need a medal to know that love and respect we have for each other. There’s no medal that’s going to prove that to me. What’s most important is what’s inside my heart.”
He may not have his team, but one moment will always be inside his heart. Once they posed for photos on the podium, Steffens waved Krikorian over. One by one, all 13 players did the same thing. The members of the best women’s water polo team ever removed their medals, and they placed them around Adam Krikorian’s neck.