By: Ivan Serrano
THOUSAND OAKS (CBS) – Long Beach’s Tony Azevedo, known as the Michael Jordan of his sport, scored 17 goals in the Beijing games to lead the U.S. to a impressive silver medal-finish. The heart of that team, a veteran group filled with world-class players, is back and hungry for gold.
This team, who trains at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, has done something no other Olympic water polo team has done which is to forgo lucrative contracts overseas in order to train together for 8 months. Last Olympics the team was together for only 3 months. They have put all the pressure on themselves by passing up all that money for chance at Olympic gold.
“We all decided to stay home for 8 months and train non-stop, full-time, and forgo big contracts overseas just to stick together because we want to make sure we were the most prepared team in the Olympics,” said the 3-time Olympian Azevedo. “Being captain is a great thing for myself, but mostly I try to lead by example. I have played with these guys my whole life, but most importantly is training as hard as I can, showing them my desire, my heart, my work ethic is always at the top and hopefully they follow and I lead them to a gold medal.”
The United States has not won an Olympic gold medal in water polo in over 100 years (1904), but the players do not count it since it was not during the modern era of the Olympics. They were close 3 times – 1984 in Los Angeles and 1988 in Seoul where they lost in a tie and goal differential, and 4 years ago in Beijing where they gave Hungary their third straight Olympic gold.
In Beijing, the Americans surprised the world by cruising through the opening rounds and defeating the world power house of Serbia before falling to 3-time defending champions Hungary, 14-10.
“We tasted it and then we didn’t get to finish it. It was tough. It was an amazing moment being in that gold medal game,“ said the US Captain. “Having it stripped from us was hard. The problem winning silver is that you have to lose that final game, unlike bronze or gold, so there was a bitter taste in our mouth immediately after.
US goal-keeper Merrill Moses is one of the many players returning for the London game and he believes the experience with this team will pay off.
“We have more experience and we’ve been in a gold medal game, but it’s a lot different this year. Before, we were the underdogs, said the 34-year-old from Rancho Palos Verdes. “No one thought we had a chance. Now, everyone knows we are capable of winning a medal. We stayed together for another four years because we want to win a gold medal.”
Odds makers have the Americans at a low 16-1 to win the gold due to their poor performances at 2011 World Championships, getting 6th and 4th at the World Cup.
“Somebody is wrong! I totally believe that this team has as good a chance as anybody to win that gold medal,” said head coach Terry Schroeder when asked about the odds. “I wouldn’t be around and I know most of these guys wouldn’t be around if we didn’t believe that.”
The US will have a tough road to the gold medal game as they were put in the group of death, with defending champions Hungary, No.1 world-ranked Serbia and 2012 European Champions Montenegro.
The team filled with all Californians with 12 of the 14 from Southern Cal believe with all the tedious training and preparation they will bring back the gold to the United States.
“We shocked the world last time and I think we will shock the world again,” said Merrill. “We stayed together another 4 years because we want to win a gold medal.”