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“When I look back at my career, I see how blessed I am … ” – Interview with Tony Azevedo

Tony Azevedo Interview for waterpology.com

Tony Azevedo is a five-time Olympian who won the silver medal in 2008 in Beijing. Other highlights of his career include five gold medals at the Pan American Games, two FINA World League silver medals, as well as the bronze at 2003 FINA World League. In 2015, Azevedo participated at his eighth FINA World Championships which is the world record. While at Stanford University, he became the first-ever player to win the prominent Peter J. Cutino Award in four consecutive years. He was also named the 2004 American Water Polo Coaches Association Player of the Year for four consecutive seasons. Tony gave exclusive interview to Waterpology.com

“Olympics in Rio were totally different than any other.”

Last year, Tony Azevedo played at his fifth Olympics Games which took place in city of his birth, Rio de Janeiro.

“I remember sitting at my house when there was the decision between Rio and Chicago thinking to myself – how many people can be as lucky as I am, where no matter what it’s going to be, it will be pretty much my home soil. And then Brazil won. As bummed as I was because it wasn’t going to be in the U.S. in Chicago, I knew this was a great opportunity for Brazil, and myself which ended up playing 4 years in Brazil, which I would never have had the opportunity if the Olympics not been there.”

The USA men’s national water polo team finished tenth. Although he was disappointed with the outcome, Rio 2016 was different from the previous Olympic Games for him and he gladly remembers all the silver linings.

“It was really awesome seeing the change in Brazilian water polo, seeing where I was born, having my family finally see me play. It was a whole another emotional level than any other Olympics has been,” Azevedo said in the interview for Waterpology.com.

Tony commented on the success of the Brazilian men’s national water polo team in Rio, who, in the group stage, defeated Australia. Tony remembers Brazilians’s triumph over Serbia as well:

“We were all at this little restaurant watching it live, thinking ‘this is not going to happen, Filipovic’s going to score four goals and everything’s going to be over.’ Those guys kept fighting and they believed in themselves.”

Brazilian head coach in Rio was Ratko Rudic whom Tony knows very well because he coached the U.S. men’s national water polo team from 2001 until 2004:

“When he was our coach, he instilled a sense of confidence in the players, and a sense of ‘you are a team’ and ‘you worked harder than anyone else in the world’ and ‘I’m going to be successful because I know that.’ He does an amazing job on that and that’s what he did with those players. Obviously having one of the best players in the world, which is, in my opinion Felipe, helps. He is a great goalie, great center. It was really impressive seeing those Brazilian guys.”

Tony believes that the four years prior helped Brazil.

“The Brazilian league went from playing a couple of times a year to, all of a sudden, I was playing there four years, Felipe went home, Vrlic was there, Soro was there… Now we have a league that’s pretty much on par with places outside of Brazil and some places in Europe.”

When it comes to water polo in Europe and in Brazil, as someone who played in both places, Tony believes that “there’s no comparison really as far as the league goes in general.” He went on to explain that: “The level’s much different because each team in Brazil has on average maybe four players at high level that could play in Europe, while in Europe you have twelve.”  However, he highlighted the “phenomenal talent” of the players in Brazil, adding that they just need “a little more support from their organization and support from the world of water polo. In a small sport like water polo, you’d think that we would help the world, but we don’t, we focus on ourselves,” stated Azevedo.

“When I look back at my career, I see how blessed I am through the coaches that I went through.”

Tony Azevedo has had the privilege of being instructed by some of the best coaches in the world.

“When I look back at my career, I see how blessed I am through the coaches that I went through. I’ve taken a little bit from all the coaches and I had such a great mixture of coaches. Starting with my father who really made me who I was, playing water polo at young, young age, to Monte Nitzkowski, who just passed away. He was one of the greatest American coaches in my opinion. Then (John) Vargas, who had faith in a 17 year old me, and to this day I live with the passion that he does, fully taking in the ‘little man syndrome.’ Ratko (Rudic) made me senseless as to training hard, because if you wanted to be the best, you had to train like the best and harder than them. Whenever I’ve had a hard swim set or a hard weightlifting, and it’s 9 hours and I think I’m dead, or at the end of the game I think I don’t have it in me – it was those years of Ratko that made me think: ‘of course I can, I train harder than these guys, if I’m tired, they’re going to be more tired.” Terry (Schroeder) was a big help for me outside of the pool, teaching me about selflessness. Going from Europe, when all the sudden I started having to just score, to going back to the U.S. team and saying: ‘no, all that matters is that we win and we become a team.” He helped with that to me as a captain of the team in 2008. Dejan (Udovicic) changed my mindset a lot, which is hard to for a 34 year old going to his fifth Olympic Games, as to the importance of legs and certain body movements and why we need to focus on those instead of the swimming. That’s what I‘ve learned from all the coaches, I took it all, and went with it.”

Having in mind the fact that coaches Rudic and Udovicic come from Europe (Croatia and Serbia, respectively), Tony was asked to compare the coaching methods and styles in the U.S. and Europe.

“Ratko and Dejan were two very different coaches” and “it’s hard to put it like that – the European and the American. Vargas was very much about movement and driving, this is very much our style and very much my style. He was the coach that really made me at the beginning for my first Olympics. Ratko was just very intense and taking you to a whole another level to get you mentally strong.”

However, Tony noted the mental aspect of coaching as something Rudic and Udovicic had in common:

“If there is a comparison between Dejan and Ratko, for me it’s the mental aspect of it, the mental strength. Because all that matters is that you need to be mentally tough when you get to that moment because that’s when you’re not going to break. They were really different, so it’s hard to tell.”

He summarized his impression on European coaches:

“I’d say in general that the knowledge of positioning, and 6 on 5 movements, and things like that were really impressive by European coaches. Just because they’ve seen it and they’ve studied it so much at a high level. But for me John was one of the best and he knew everything too.”

Asked to pick a lineup comprised of strictly Europeans he had played with or against, he answered:

“My line-up’s going to be the line-up the one that does anything for the team. Maro Jokovic was one of my favorite players because of the defense that he had, the shots, his demeanor in the water. My idol was Vujasinovic, but I never really got to play with him, he was a little older generation. (Aleksandar) Ivovic would be my guard, he was phenomenal. (Felipe) Perrone played with me only a couple of times, but just seeing him play was enough, (Maurizio) Felugo – they’re players I have the utmost respect for, great players, team players. As for the center, one of my favorites that I played with was (Mile) Smodlaka. He could get set anywhere, I really loved having him there. I would pick Giacomo Pastorino, who’s now the manager of Recco, for the goalie. He was one of my best friends, one of my first goalies in Italy and he was a really fun one to play with. Or I’d pick the young (Marko) Bijac from Croatia as be the goalie.”

“My biggest achievement is the silver medal.”

Azevedo believes that his prime was 2006-2012 and that’s when he felt that he was playing his best.

“I was an American thrown into Europe after high school and college and became a professional athlete. That was a whole new world for me, and it took me a while, but I adjusted well. My philosophy was always – I don’t care if I score, I just want to win. And in a lot of places in Europe, it’s not like that. You lose, but if you have 4 goals – it’s alright; while if you win, and you didn’t score – maybe they’re paying you too much. So it’s my last year in Italy, then I went over to Jug in Dubrovnik and won the silver medal in 2008, and then continued playing well like that in the years following. Honestly, this last year and a half I also played some of my best water polo, I felt like I had a reemergence. I’m a big fan of coach Udovicic. I know that we didn’t have the greatest outcome (in Rio), but we were the youngest team in the world, and going in with 10 new Olympic players is tough in any sport.”

Asked what he considers to be his greatest achievement, Tony immediately answered “The silver medal.” He also noted that people in the U.S. didn’t realize what a success it was.

“We’re used to immediate success here, to 8 gold medals from Michael Phelps. But in a sport in which our country is not the dominant one, in a sport where people play 12 months a year, compared to us who play 3 months at a high level, with the passion that we had and the sacrifices that we went through, not getting paid and no one believing in us, to do the unthinkable and beat the great Serbians we hadn’t beaten 8 years prior – it’s the biggest success for me.”

Azevedo said there has also been a lot of disappointments, which are hard to think about, but yet all those disappointments made him who he is today.

“Even losing that gold medal (in 2008) was a great disappointment. Or the last two Olympics, not even getting to the top 8. Two double overtime losses at home to Stanford as well. My first Olympics was maybe the worst because I was a kid who believed that we had every single chance possible, and those guys were my idols, and I thought we’re going to win that gold, and then all of a sudden we lose. I remember sitting there crying, but as you get older you start understanding the concept of losing and winning. I’ve always believed that if you do everything you can in and outside of the water to be the best that you can be, then whatever happens – happens for a reason and you learned from it.”

He also commented on his nickname “The Savior,” about which he gets asked all the time.

“I don’t know exactly where it came from. As a kid I took it as – ‘I’m the one that’s going to bring back the gold medal to the U.S.’ and I thought – You know what? I’m going to do it. Unfortunately, I didn’t. But I did get very close and now I look at it as ‘I’m going to be the one to take this sport to the next level. Unfortunately, not a lot of people have that mindset, it’s all about what are we’re going to do here, how am I going to make money, pulling as much cash as we pulling, just keep rolling through it, instead of thinking – what are we’re going to do to better the sport, to do something that no one’s thought about, outside of the box.”

“I will have an official retirement game this summer.”

Talking about his decision to retire, not to go back to Europe or Brazil, Tony Azevedo said he had discussed it with his wife and his father and sister, adding that it was a tough and long decision.

“It was tough because I had an unbelievable opportunity with my club Sesi in Brazil, and the money was great, and they are an unbelievable organization, they are the best club that I ever played for. The way I was treated, the way they wanted to grow the sport in the country and not just focus on their own little team – I really appreciated that.”

He said that Manuel Estuarte was his idol.

“I’ve always dreamed of going to six Olympics, but for me to do that – it would be another four years of living outside of the U.S. with 2 kids not going to school on a regular basis. I’d be traveling all over, be gone 2-3 months every summer from them. It’s not the same. Physically I could definitely continue playing, but I also wanted to go out when I was on top, and I think that the moment is going to be this summer.”

Asked if he would consider putting the cap back on, like Felugo did for the Water Polo By The Sea, Tony answered:

“I was actually offered to go play with Water Polo by the Sea with those guys. Thomas started it, he’s a good friend, and Felugo is a good friend as well. I hope to be working with those guys in the future to bring some high level games here.”

Then he went on to talk about his retirement:

“I’m going to have an official retirement game this summer. Because now I’m not officially retired, or otherwise I’d lose my insurance. I think we’re going to play against Croatia. And I will play about a minute, and hopefully score. It will be a highly publicized game, at Stanford. The date hasn’t been exactly set yet, but I think it’s going to be June 11th. And that will be it for me.”

After twenty years with Tony Azevedo, the U.S. men’s national water polo team will from now on be playing without him.

“I think that our team has a lot of talent. It’s going to take us a little bit, but I see us being right there. It takes a lot for you to go through and get used to playing against these big time guys that play together 12 month out of the year and are playing at such high level. I see the talent more so than it’s ever been in the U.S. I just don’t see the passion that myself and Ryan Bailey had, and that’s disturbing. That’s one of the reasons I’m focusing outside of the box, because in four years I don’t want to have that as an excuse anymore. I want to make sure that with the whole new generation, you can take the talent and the coaching that they’ve learned, and you put passion in that – and then it’s done.

“U.S team needs more international respect and change of mindset.”

Azevedo also spoke about what needs to be done to see men American water polo team more successful is internationally or at least getting to that gold medal game again:

“A part of it is – respect internationally. Our sport is very much centered around Europe. I’ve been around long enough to see why we don’t get the same amount of respect that anyone else does. Because they come from a country where water polo is important. After 2008, we still never earned the same respect as everyone else and that was always disappointing to me. But to get back there, the players need to get the mindset and the passion that we are the best. And it’s hard when you don’t play enough games. Then you go into a game and you look at Serbia, and right before you play you’re thinking: ‘Wow, look at those guys, look how cool they are,’ instead of saying: ‘I don’t care who these guys are, we’re going to beat them.’ The mindset comes from games and experience, and training and confidence.”

The idea of a professional water polo league in the U.S. has been discussed for the past few years. Tony believes that it’s the next big step and says that’s been his goal for a while.

“Back in the day when water polo was at its peak, Americans, Australians, anyone who could go out to Europe was going there because the money was great, the league was fantastic, you were treated like a God, that was the only place to be, and as a kid I dreamed about that. Nowadays, I talk to the guys in my team, and half of the them are thinking of retiring at the age of 22 because the only other option is maybe going to some team that maybe is going to pay you and that salaries going to be super low and you don’t know the language, and they say ‘why?’. It’s the same situation in Russia – Russians are getting paid very well in Russia, so there’s no point for them to go to Europe, unless the money is better or there’s something more special. I think that’s the unfortunate part, and unless we do something here… When here’s a league where these guys can finish college and they say – maybe at 22 you’re not ready for the Olympic, but at 26 you’d be pretty damn good and at 30 you could be amazing. Water polo is a sport where we’re not gymnastics that start super young, we’re a sport in which our peak is in the late 20s, early 30s. What’s happening now is that Americans, Australians, South Americans are saying ‘why are we going to go to Europe.’ Because when I go to Europe, they’re not going to pay me, treat me poorly, and all for a thousand dollars a month maybe. We need a professional league. It would be good if all the center water polo players who go to college, finish college, have a degree, then continue to play here on a professional level. My goal would be to make it a real worldwide league, and that’s going to give people the level to continue and I think it will save our sport.”

Azevedo expressed his belief that the national league is a step in the right direction.

“If you finish college and you sit and don’t do anything for six months, or the national team players go and everyone else trains by their own, they’re going to lose passion, they will never grow at the same rate as someone who is playing non-stop. With the national league you have an opportunity to play with new players which is good, and you have an opportunity to play against some really good players. I think it’s a step in the right direction. I hope to see a future in it.”

He referred to the fact that he did not play in the national league in April.

“Those are the games that I can never play again. Those are the ones like: I get in, and I’m not in my best shape, and then some kid from college, who wants to prove that he can guard me, can hit me in the head and then I’ll go crazy, and the referees will think: “well, that’s Tony, he should be able to score on him…”

During past years, FINA has proposed some rule changes that might be implemented in September 2017.

“I’m against just changing a rule every once in a while, and saying that we’re doing a good job, we’re constantly trying to evolve, but not really put the effort and the thought process into it. So if you really believe in what the rules are, we should be sitting down with people of the ESPN and FOX – and don’t tell me there’s not enough people in the U.S. or in the worild that have connections to high level television programs – and say what works. We should look into it, and then we decide on the new rules, this is the new path of this sport, instead of just saying: ‘all right, we’re going to do this,’ and then when two years later it turns out didn’t work out, and we say: ‘let’s go back to this.’”

One of the new rules would be to play a 25m game instead of 30m. Commenting on the allegations that it would make the game less violent, Tony noted that it was way more violent when he played World League in 25m. He also added that he was more tired after a 25m game. Comparing changes in water polo with the ones introduced in other major sports, such as basketball or baseball, Tony highlighted that, for that “millions of dollars were put into to investigate and to make sure that something is the best thing that the public will like and will have the players protected.”

Tony Azevedo today and plans for the future

Asked whether he was thinking of doing high-level coaching one day, Tony said for Waterpology.com:

“Coaching could be something in the future, but right now I want to focus on the sport in general, and I think I have the ability now.”

Tony Azevedo will organize the Aquatic Games this summer. The Games will be held in Long Beach California. It is expected to have hundreds of participants this year, including over 20 youth teams.

“We’re working with Silicone Valley people to try to make something totally different than it’s ever been in our sport. I want these kids to go home and think that they’ve never had a better time in their life. As we get closer to the Games, more things will be revealed. It will not be a just a water polo tournament, we’ll reach out to high-level Olympic swimmers, synchro, kite surfing, rowing. It will be an aquatic festival, something that never existed.”

Speaking about his plans outside Southern California and helping people who’re passionate and love the sport but don’t live or play in Southern California, Tony said:

“Together with sponsors, I will start doing more free clinics around the country to grow the sport. Right now, with the Aquatic games, I’m putting a focus on creating all-star teams from the East Coast. So, the level won’t fall, but at the same time they’re getting the opportunity to come out and play against the best – this year Pro Recco will be our guest. We need to do a better job of bringing high-level games to these areas because we’re not. California is great because there are all the camps, and all the tournaments and everything is here. How many times have we played a big game outside of California? We played a game in Houston, Texas, right before the Olympics against Montenegro, and it was fully packed. And you can look at the kids that were there, the clinic that we did before that and after that game, and I’d say in 4-6 years there will for sure be a double of players from Texas that will be playing in college because of that one game. And that was ONE game. What about Philadelphia, Chicago, NY, Florida…? We need to do a better job of coming together. My job, and what I’m focusing on us to try to, is to reach out and figure out the problems and help it grow.”

Tony also organizes the Summer Academy, a school of water polo, together with his father Ricardo Azevedo and Adam Wright, UCLA Men’s Head Coach.

Azevedo Water Polo offers exclusive chances for travel and training to both teams and individuals tending to globalize and grow water polo.
“We’ve reached out to high-level teams to take them around the world and to get them the international experience. We’ve had a lot of teams go to Italy, and we also work with Pro Recco, as well as teams in Montenegro. This year we cooperated with Croatia on organizing the Water Polo Island. Athletes go to an island with Olympic gold medalist Niksa Dobud, where he and other Olympic gold medalists train them in the ocean for 2 hours. They are on an island, they stay at a 4-star hotel on an island, and then they go on a boat and every night to a different port, and play in the ocean again or play in the sea against a team.”

Who is Tony Azevedo outside of the pool?

“I like doing things outdoor, being on the beach, walks, hiking, camping. I also love trying new restaurants, I like good wine, coffee, reading the newspapers. Right now my number one priority is hanging out with my kids. The other passion is the sport – to do new things and think outside of the box.”

People often ask him if his children, Cruz and Luna, will be water polo players.

“I say – ‘No, I’m going put them in every other sport.’ But then I go to practice and to the Olympics, and all my three-year-old son can talk about is how he wants to be a water polo player. So that’s a whole another inspiration to me. I don’t want my kid to play a sport that’s the same as when I was in it, or worse. I want them to be successful and good people. And if they want to play water polo, I don’t care if they’re high level, my job is to make sure it’s at the best level.”

“If you forget the past, the future isn’t that bright.”

“Don’t ever look back and question yourself, do everything you can, as hard as you can, and do it because you love it. I think that WP players are different than everyone else. There’s something about us, there’s something about being in a Speedo, when you’re 6 years old, and being confident to walk in front of everyone and do it. Water polo is a great sport, I think the time is now to take it to the next level. So, know about our sport, know about the history of our sport, because if you don’t, if you forget the past, the future isn’t that bright,” Azevedo concluded for the website Waterpology.com.

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