Women’s water polo: Americans net repeat gold

Jay Cohen
Associated Press

Rio de Janeiro — Ashleigh Johnson and KK Clark joined a couple Brazilian dancers for a samba lesson. Maggie Steffens grabbed an American flag for the party on the pool deck. One by one, the players draped their gold medals around the neck of grieving coach Adam Krikorian.

The U.S. saved its best for last, and Italy never stood a chance.

Johnson made nine saves, Kiley Neushul scored three goals on four shots and the United States routed Italy, 12-5, on Friday for its second straight Olympic gold medal in women’s water polo.

“To play as well as we did in that moment and that atmosphere when you’ve been thinking about this for the last four years is just, it’s a dream come true,” Krikorian said.

Makenzie Fischer and Rachel Fattal each had two goals for the Americans, who stretched their winning streak to 22 games with their sixth victory in Rio de Janeiro by a combined score of 73-32.

“I think we really did change the game,” Johnson said. “We played completely different than the game’s ever been played before. Really fast, intelligent.”

Neushul and Steffens each gave Krikorian a big hug as they left in the final minute, and Neushul patted him on the head. When the final seconds ticked off, Krikorian walked over to congratulate Italian coach Fabio Conti, and then was tackled into the pool by a couple of his jubilant players.

The U.S. women were the overwhelming favorites all along — and they played like it. The 12 goals and seven-goal margin were records for the Olympic final.

“USA is, in this moment, a team of another universe,” Conti said.

The Americans pounded Brazil, 13-3, before outslugging Hungary, 14-10, in the semifinals. They held the lead after 23 of their 24 quarters and trailed for a total of 44 seconds — in the first quarter against Hungary.

“It’s one of the best teams I’ve ever been a part of, and I’ve been a part of some really amazing teams,” Neushul said. “The team is so versatile, so many different threats. We have speed. We have size. We have athleticism, and I think this team was one of the first teams to display all those different styles in one team.”

By the time Krikorian and the U.S. staff hit the pool for a celebratory swim, the Americans possessed each of the major crowns in women’s water polo, adding a second Olympic gold to their world title, World Cup and World League Super Final titles.

The scene after the final was the top of an emotional roller coaster for Krikorian, who rushed home before the first game to be with his family after the sudden death of his brother Blake, a former water polo player at UCLA and Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

Before departing for California, Krikorian met with his players and urged them to make the most of their Olympic experience. He returned in time for an opening 11-4 victory over Spain, and then nearly broke down in tears while talking about his brother after the win.

“It’s not about me and it’s about the team, and that has helped me and that’s made it actually fairly easy,” he said, “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 that I think we all have for each other.”