Runnin’ with Rani: USA women’s water polo team comes to Kona

  • Head coach Adam Krikorian led the women’s team to two straight Olympic gold medals in 2012 and 2016 and enters his 12th year coaching Team USA. (Rani Henderson/Hawaii Sport Events)

  • The USA National Women’s Water Polo Team at the Kona Community Aquatic Center on Sunday in preparation for the upcoming 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. (Rani Henderson/Hawaii Sport Events)

The buzz and excitement circulating within the swimming community over the last week finally became an awe-inspiring reality.

On Sunday, the USA National Women’s Water Polo Team — and two-time defending Olympic gold medal champions — arrived at the Kona Community Aquatics Center for a ten-day training camp in preparation for the upcoming 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

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Prior to dipping into the water, the team was welcomed with ti-leaf leis by staff from the County of Hawaii Parks and Recreation Aquatics Division.

“This is pretty spectacular along with the impact for our community,” said Alejandra Flores-Morikami, Recreation Specialist I, Aquatics Division. “Here we have these top tier athletes and they are representing our nation and they are coming to Hawaii. We can really build upon that momentum that this brings to our state as far as water polo goes. Even if it inspires one kid to follow this path of athleticism and representing our nation, I think that’s just fantastic.”

The 18-member women’s team currently trains in Southern California and headed by one of the most decorated coaches in water polo history. Adam Krikorian, who led the women’s team to two straight Olympic gold medals in 2012 and 2016, enters his 12th year coaching Team USA.

Krikorian’s previous experience includes coaching the UCLA womens and men’s team from 1999–2009 for a combined 11 NCAA championships before accepting his position with Team USA in 2009. He was named the US Olympic Committee’s Coach of the Games for 2016 and also inducted into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame that same year.

As they head toward a third straight gold medal at the 2021 Summer Olympics, I caught up to the busy coach who shared his thoughts on training during a pandemic, the challenges of keeping his Olympic team motivated, and why he chose to bring his team to Kona.

Q: What is the feeling among your team to be training in Kona?

For a team that is so used to traveling all over the world — spending a ton of time in airports and planes — this has been much different than what we are accustomed to. We haven’t traveled anywhere in just about a year. Our last trip was to Holland, and then to Colorado Springs, and then home to California, and that was the end of February back in 2020.

For many of us, this will be the very first time getting back on a plane and we are excited. Obviously, there is something very special about the opportunity of getting to travel with a group of people that allows you to be able to connect, and dig a little deeper into the relationships that are so important for teams. Then you add the element of being in Kona on the Big Island and the beauty, the weather, and just the Aloha spirit — I think it’s the perfect place for us to not only train, but also to get that opportunity to connect and build those relationships that are so important to team sports.

I think you get exhausted of traveling a bit, but I think we are all anxious and excited again to get on an airplane and actually go somewhere else. The Big Island as well as all the islands have done a good job mitigating the spread of the virus. I think that is wonderful because it gives us confidence knowing that we are going to a place that is not just beautiful and a great opportunity for us to connect, but it’s also a safe place. For us, health as you can imagine and for many elite athletes in the world, health is first and foremost to our success.

Q: How have you been able to train during the pandemic?

When this all happened, we stopped practice somewhere around March 16 or 17. We didn’t touch the water until beginning of July. For all of them, that is the longest that they have ever been (out of the water) in their entire life. So that was a long break. We started back in the summer and as you can imagine, just eased our way back into it with some light training and small groups. And as the testing capability started to get better, we started to do more.

We are at a point now which we are operating at our regular schedule. Yet we are still abiding by certain protocols and procedures that put us in a protected and safe place. We practice good habits, number one, and number two, we put a testing system in place that really covers us that makes us feel comfortable to be able to practice and train at our regular schedule.

We test about five days a week. We use a combination of PCR tests and Antigen tests over the course of a week and we’ve had a lot of success. I said this to the team back in March that in many respects, the safest place for us to train is together and doing what we do. The training in our sport is so intense and it’s so physically and emotionally draining, it doesn’t give you too many opportunities to go outside and do the things that may compromise your health.

Q: What is the current pool situation in California?

Most pools in California have been closed. They are all beginning to open now, slowly, not a full open but a partial open. However, we train at a military base in Southern California just south of Los Angeles. Luckily, they operate under their own jurisdiction and they have been very kind and generous with allowing us to continue to use that pool. And obviously, they feel comfortable in doing so knowing that we have the proper protocols in place and our testing that is happening on a daily basis.

Q: How have you been able to keep your team focused?

It’s been challenging and I would say this is probably the biggest challenge that I have ever had to deal with in trying to keep them motivated. Obviously, this has been a difficult time and we haven’t had consistent training, and we haven’t been able to compete as our last game was one year ago. You add those things to the fact that this team is a two-time defending gold medal team with many people back from the last Olympic Games who had a ton of success. So naturally, there also comes a certain amount of complacency that can be dangerous for teams.

But they have done a good job so far and one of the ways you try to keep them motivated is you work them real hard, and then you give them an opportunity to enjoy paradise like we plan to for the next ten days. We will refresh and we will reboot so that when we go back in the middle of March, hopefully we will return with a renewed sense of energy and connectivity that is so important for the success of our team.

Q: Of all the places you could take your team to train, why Kona?

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My brother has a house on the island and I’ve visited the island probably a handful of times and I’ve always really enjoyed it. The Big Island is just such a peaceful, quiet place. This past year has been an emotionally difficult year. The stresses — physically, mentally and emotionally — have been challenging to deal with. What better place to go than Kona to be able to enjoy the natural beauty of the Big Island, and then be able to share that experience with our teammates.

Columnist note: The USA Olympic Women’s Water Polo Team practices at the Kona Community Aquatic Center are private and not open to the public due to safety protocols in place for COVID-19.

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