U.S. water polo coach has joy of Olympic gold, agony of losing brother

Fourth-Place Medal
(Getty)
(Getty)

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RIO DE JANEIRO — The emotions finally overcame Adam Krikorian with about two minutes remaining in the match.

His assistant coach hinted that with an 11-4 lead, it might be a good time to give the U.S. women’s water polo team’s backup goalie an Olympic cameo appearance in the tournament finale. Krikorian replied by asking if the lead was safe. He was met with an emphatic eye-roll before making the substitution.

“And that’s when I knew we’ve got this game. And that’s when it started to hit,” he said. “I’ve kept so much emotion and feeling inside that it just started to rise, started to burst out of me.”

Krikorian stood near the pool at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium and recalled the journey of the last three weeks. Recalling the call that informed him that his brother, Blake, had suddenly passed away back in California. Recalling how he left his team in Rio and flew back to grieve and console family. Recalling that plane ride back to Brazil, leaving one family for another. Recalling that emotional meeting with the players before their first game. Recalling those quiet moments each night in the Olympic Village, where he’d give up the fight and allow mourning to occur. Recalling all of it, as the clock ticked down.

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And so as the buzzer sounded and the players wildly celebrated, Krikorian felt an unprecedented and inconceivable combination of his life’s most anguished sadness joining the exhilaration of winning Olympic gold.

He walked over to thank his counterpart on the Italian team, and turned to see his players Maggie Steffens and Rachel Fattal running at him, with a line of teammates behind them. He barely had time to react as they gang-tackled him in celebration, tumbling into the pool.

“The emotions swing so quickly,” he said. “Once you’re in the water, you’re part of the team. You’re dishing out hugs and kisses. Just to see them so happy, makes me happy.”

They kept him happy during the tournament. They kept him sane. They were the family he needed as he was so far away from another that did, too.

***

Blake Krikorian was, like his brother Adam, a water polo enthusiast who attended UCLA.

While his brother turned that love of the sport into a career in coaching, Blake went in a decidedly different direction, becoming a well-respected figure in Silicon Valley after co-creating the video streaming device Slingbox, which allowed users to watch their own cable feeds from anywhere. He was also an accomplished angel investor and served on Amazon’s board. Kara Swisher of Recode called him a “beloved” person in tech.

He had returned to his car after paddle-boarding at Linda Mar Beach on Aug. 3, when he suddenly collapsed next to it, suffering a heart attack. Blake Krikorian was just 48 years old, and left a wife and two children behind.

Adam Krikorian had arrived in the Olympics Athletes Village to begin preparing for his team’s quest for a second-straight gold medal, having won in London 2012, when he received the news of his brother’s passing.

He packed up and left for California.

“Leaving the village was one of the hardest things you do, because you’re leaving your team and your family here. But arriving back at home was the hardest thing to do,” he said, earlier in the Olympics. “And then leaving again …”

His words trailed off into tears.

“I feel for my brother’s family. His wife. Two kids. So I try not to get too emotional, because in some ways I feel like that’s selfish,” he said.

He never had a second thought about returning to coach his players in the Olympics. To not return, he said, wouldn’t have been fair to them. “It would be very selfish of me to let the grieving and the mourning affect this group, and what we set out to do in the last four years,” he said.

***

After his players tackled him into the water, Krikorian swam across the pool to where the U.S. fans were seated, climbed out and passionately embraced a woman in the stands.

“I just met her last night, actually. Some Brazilian woman.”

He laughs.

“No, that’s my wife.”

Anicia Mendez had agreed that she would stay away from Rio on Krikorian’s request. It was a request she honored until right before the gold medal match, when she surprised him at the team’s practice facility.

“All of a sudden I hear ‘Adam, Adam!’ I look over and my first thought was, ‘Who is this good-looking woman calling my name?’” he said. “And she comes over a little closer and I realized it was my wife.”

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For Krikorian, it was a moment that meant the world to him. “Being a coach’s wife isn’t easy. It’s a 24/7 job. We can talk about how we all want to [relax] but it’s not easy to do. So she’s had to deal with my schedule and traveling. She knows how much work I put into it, and they put into it,” he said.

“It was a really emotional moment. You feel alone sometimes. It was really good to get that hug, to have her close to me.”

It was a day on which he needed that hug, needed that surprise visit.

The eve of the gold medal match would have been his brother’s 49th birthday.

***

The message Adam Krikorian relayed to his team from the moment he stepped back into Rio was that everything he was going through could not detract from their Olympic moment. He wouldn’t allow it.

“These girls have worked so hard for four, some their entire lives for this moment. Who am I to ruin that for them?” he said.

“As the leader of the group, it’s important that I stay focused. It’s not about me. It’s about the team. And that’s actually helped me. It’s made it very easy. And that doesn’t take away from the love I have for my family, or my brother. It’s more of a sign of respect and love we have each other.”

(Getty)
(Getty)

So the topic of his brother’s death would come up in interviews and conversations, but he’d try to keep it out of the locker room. As a coach, Krikorian wanted to project an image of strength and normalcy. In quiet times, away from the team, he would become overwhelmed by grief.

“I have it at night, certainly at times. It’s the littlest things. I’ll be fine, and then I’ll listen to a song that’ll remind me of my brother,” he said.

He found solace in the Olympic Village, in a quiet section where a small tree stands. There are colorful ribbons attached to the branches, and tribute to those who have departed through the years. Krikorian would sit there during the evening, think about Blake and deal with his grief.

The players wouldn’t see it, but they knew he was struggling to remain focused. So they cherished his commitment and recognized his strength.

“We wanted to be, as a team, strong for him. But the whole time he was trying to be strong for us,” said Steffens, the captain.

It wasn’t a rallying cry. It wasn’t the motivating factor for this team, as much as being the best team in the world – ranked No. 1 entering Rio – and defending their gold were motivations. But there’s no doubt that as they celebrated their win, they were celebrating a win for Krikorian.

“We love him greatly. We respect him greatly. You want pure joy for people that you love and respect that much,” Steffens said.

***

It’s a tradition born from the fact that Olympic coaches don’t receive medals when their teams win one.

The American players were given their gold medals on the podium, the anthems played and then one by one they walked over to Krikorian and hung their medals around his neck until their numbers reached Phelpsian proportions. They honored him like this in London, and then again in Rio Friday night.

How did it feel?

“My neck hurts,” he joked.

“That had nothing to do with my brother’s untimely death. That had more to do with what we created over the course of four years. That’s why it was meaningful,” he said.

“I don’t need a medal, to be honest, to know the love and respect that we have for each other. There’s no medal that’s going to prove that for me.”

(Getty)
(Getty)

For now, Krikorian is only feeling one thing. Not joy. Not pain. Just relief.

“I’m so relieved it’s over,” he said of the Olympics. “You would never expect this from a gold medal coach, but the last few days I’ve been saying, ‘OK, two more days. One more day.’”

He’ll go home to spend quality time with his wife and two children, and with his sister-in-law and her two children. He’ll go to Northern California or possibly Hawaii to decompress and “enjoy some of the things I haven’t enjoyed in the last three years,” he said.

It’s been an amazing stretch for the U.S. women’s water polo team. It’s won every tournament it’s entered since 2013. It has consecutive gold medals and a pipeline of young talent that could turn this into something dynastic in the Olympics.

Whether it will have Krikorian as its coach is, at this point, a mystery. Not only would he not commit to coaching in Tokyo 2020, he said wasn’t sure about his future as a water polo coach at the college level, where he won 11 NCAA championships as a head coach of the UCLA men and women from 1999-2009.

“I love water polo. I love to coach. But I’d like to think I have a skillset that allows me to do other things as well,” he said.

But it’s his brother’s untimely death that pushed him into that contemplation.

“When you have someone that passes away in your life, you start to question a lot of things. You start to question the meaning of life, the time that you spend away from your family. These are the things I have to evaluate,” he said.

Adam Krikorian can now work on himself, after being selfless for a month for the benefit of his players. And his players can leave Rio knowing that through their love, their dedication and their undeniably dominance in the pool, they’ve helped him immeasurably through personal anguish.

“To know that we could make sure Rio had a happy ending for him, and to give him that sense of pure joy when he’s feeling so distraught, means so much to us,” Steffens said.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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