By Tom Vartabedian
LOS ANGELES — All but lost in this year’s Olympic Games was the work of coach Adam Krikorian.
We celebrated a gold medal and three silvers by our Armenian team and one other by an Armenian representing Germany. Yet, we have said little about the United States women’s water polo team which was undefeated and captured gold for the second straight Olympics.
Krikorian was the man behind the scenes, pulling all stops to give this country its share of prestige. It was not a leisurely dip in the pool by any stretch.
A week before, he left Rio and flew to California to attend the unexpected funeral of his older brother Blake who had succumbed to a heart attack while surfing.
The team was in capable hands with his assistants, no doubt, but distraught and obviously in a stupor, he came back to his squad and did what was expected of him.
The victory may have eased some of the grief this man suffered throughout his family ordeal. Something tells me he came back on a mission — to dedicate this gold medal performance to his late brother.
After the team clinched gold with a 12-5win over Italy, the athletes swarmed around Krikorian on the pool deck, then dragged him in for a celebratory dunk in the pool.
After attending the funeral services, Krikorian came back to preside over the team’s first game. The Americans prevailed easily over Spain, 11-4. It was not an easy moment talking to reporters afterwards Krikorian appeared choked up and understandably so.
He told reporters it was unreasonable to think the team was playing to support him. As they hugged and pushed him, clothes and all into the water, it certainly seemed there was no one his team would have rather celebrated with than their beloved mentor.
Even when Krikorian had to leave Rio to grieve his brother’s death, he never seriously considered staying home and missing the Olympics.
As one of the most celebrated water polo coaches in United States history, he has always had a special bond with his players. And with everything they had to put into defending their title four years later, he convinced himself the moment was about serving them, not him.
“I look at them and know how much work they put in through this process,” Krikorian said. “No matter what happened to me or my family, I can’t ditch them. This is my team and I need to be here. Obviously, I needed to be home during that period as well. But I also needed to be in Rio doing my best to try and lead the way.”
As Krikorian discovered, returning to the Olympics became therapeutic. The coach didn’t think it was accurate to admit his team was inspired by the memory of his older brother, who founded Sling Media, the company that builds Slingbox, the high-tech device that allows sports fans to access telecasts of their home games on their laptops while on the road.
But in terms of what he represented and how much he enjoyed the team’s success as a former water polo player himself, there was little doubt Blake would have been excited about the championship run.
“It just reminds me of the qualities my brother had which were hard work, passion and perseverance,” Krikorian added. “In a lot of ways, the team reminds me, in its attitude and approach, just how my brother was — and what he would have wanted for all of us.”
Since taking over the Women’s Senior National Team, Krikorian has been just about perfect. From his arrival after coaching UCLA for a decade, Team USA has competed in 15 major championships and come away with gold in 12 of them.
Water polo has been his passion. He himself was a standout player for UCLA from 1992 to 1995 where he captained the Bruins his final year, leading the team to its first NCAA title in 23 years.
He has earned National Women’s Water Polo Coach of the Year honors five times with seven national titles, along with coaching the men’s program to three NCAA titles. He and his wife Anicia make their home in Manhattan Beach, Calif.