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U.S. women's water polo team gives grieving coach a golden moment

Members of the U.S. women's water polo team draped their gold medals around the neck of coach Adam Krikorian after they beat Italy 12-5 in the final. AP Photo/Sergei Grits

RIO DE JANEIRO -- They came at him with two lines of coverage, just in case he had any notions of trying to elude them. But Adam Krikorian knew this group wasn't ever going to let him go. And so they wrapped him up in a gang tackle and swept him into the pool at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, and afterward they draped their gold medals around his neck, his grief, for one moment anyway, blending with tears of joy.

His U.S. women's water polo team had defeated Italy 12-5 on Friday in still another show of domination for a team that won its second Olympic gold medal in a row. The Americans, also the reigning world champions, outscored their Rio opponents 73-32, extending their winning streak to 22 straight games and their 2016 record to 42-2.

That they operated so efficiently over a two-week period during which their coach learned of the sudden death of his brother, flew home to California for the funeral, and then returned to Rio three days later to guide them, spoke both of Krikorian and a tightly bonded team that flourished in large part because of its selflessness.

"The thing I kept coming back to is that it would be very selfish of me to let what happened to me personally and to my family and to let the grieving and mourning affect this group and what we set out to do the last four years," Krikorian said. "These girls have worked so hard for four years. Some have worked their entire lives for this moment. Who am I to ruin that for them?"

To a player, however, Krikorian's squad showered its admiration and appreciation on the coach, who held a team meeting Aug. 3 after hearing that his older brother Blake, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, died of an apparent heart attack after paddleboarding.

"For him to pull his team together after hearing that news hours before and be able to sit down and talk to us in that situation is so telling of his character," said team captain Maggie Steffens. "He was telling us to enjoy the moment, enjoy opening ceremonies. 'Don't worry about me, you be you. This is your dream. Live it.' And here is this coach who had just been through something so traumatic.

"We wanted to be strong for him, but he was strong for us. That's why he's the best coach in the world in my eyes."

Why his team is the best in the world is based largely on what won the Americans the gold medal Friday. Their first five goals came from five different players and eight players scored in all, with Kiley Neushul (three), Rachel Fattal (two) and Makenzie Fischer (two) getting multiple goals.

Goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson, the first African-American woman to play water polo in the Olympics for the U.S., was also spectacular, saving a penalty shot in the third quarter that would have trimmed the U.S. lead to 7-4 and making nine saves in all.

"She's a competitor at its finest," Steffens said. "It doesn't matter what the score is, she wants to get that block for our team. I remember one meeting talking about what pumps us up, and Ashleigh said when she makes a stop, immediately she can see the fire in our eyes because she was able to inspire her teammates.

"That was something I got from her. I want to get a goal or a stop for her because she has our backs."

The low-key Johnson, 21, who attends Princeton, said she had not played the way she would have liked early in the tournament.

"I'm really happy I was able to make some stops in key moments for us," she said. "That's what our team is about, being able to step up in the big moments and play your role."

It is a team of women who consider each other family and talk about building unity by sharing their most vulnerable side. Once, Krikorian had them write letters to coaches who inspired them growing up to be who they are today.

When they read the letters aloud, Krikorian said he "cried at every single one of them."

"We talked about not hiding anything and being very open and honest with one another and even emotional and vulnerable at times," he said. "And to do that, to do something that extremely emotional and to do it in front of your teammates, creates this compassion for one another that helps us become tighter as a unit and helps us know each other a little better."

In the end, they said, in trying to describe the emotion flowing through them as they gathered at midpool in a mixture of chlorine and sweat and tears, it was that closeness they will never forget.

"We started this together and we wanted to end it together," Steffens said. "To just all be in that circle and share that circle with one another, it was fun for me to just look around and look everybody in the eyes and say, 'We dreamed of this and we did it.'"

Thursday would have been Blake Krikorian's 49th birthday, and Adam's wife, Anicia, flew to Rio to surprise her husband. On Friday, not long after his players put their gold medals around his neck, Krikorian's thoughts once again turned to his brother.

"I just keep coming back to how my brother, who was the coolest dude in the world, would want me to be," he said. "And anytime I was losing focus or getting too emotional, I would think about him and what he would tell me: 'Man, you are wasting this moment. Go have a blast. Kick some butt. Go compete. Never give up.'

"When I started thinking about that, it gave me some peace to know I can continue on to do what I do."

Giving Krikorian the medals is something of a team tradition begun in London, a symbolic gesture because coaches do not receive medals. But on this day, it was to honor the man who has been through so much.

"But I don't need a medal to know the love and respect we have for each other, the relationships that have been born," Krikorian said. "There's no medal that's going to prove that to me. What's most important is what's inside my heart and what's inside my mind, and that can never be replaced."