RIO DE JANEIRO — Adam Krikorian leaned over for a moment, trying desperately to keep his emotions in check. U.S. women’s water polo captain Maggie Steffens then walked up, put her hand on his back and offered a consoling smile.
Steffens and company were right behind their grieving coach, all day long.
Krikorian returned to the pool deck Tuesday for his first game since his brother’s sudden death last week, and the U.S. made life easy on him with a dominant 11-4 victory over Spain.
Steffens, Courtney Mathewson and Kiley Neushul scored two goals apiece, and Ashleigh Johnson had 11 saves while becoming the first black woman to play water polo for the United States in the Olympics.
The victory came on the four-year anniversary of one of the biggest moments of Krikorian’s coaching career, an 8-5 win for the United States against Spain in the gold-medal match in London. But that joy seemed like a long time ago as Krikorian choked back tears while describing his unexpected trip home to be with his family.
“Leaving the village was one of the hardest things to do, because you leave your team and your family here,” he said. “Arriving back at home was probably the hardest thing to do, just to see the family for the first time, and then leaving again, home, where your family is.”
Blake Krikorian, a Silicon Valley businessman and the co-founder of pioneering video streaming device Slingbox, died last Wednesday at 48. San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault told the San Francisco Chronicle that Krikorian had gone paddle boarding in the San Francisco Bay Area and was found lying next to his car in the parking lot. It appears he died of natural causes.
Adam Krikorian met with his team before practice on Thursday morning, and then left for California. He returned in time for practice on Monday morning.
“When he walked on the pool deck we were practicing and the minute we saw, like, the top of his head we all just started cheering and waving to him and we were just really excited to have him back,” Steffens said. “We didn’t miss a beat with him gone, but it’s always nice to know family’s all together and we have our family together now and we’re ready to play.”
Krikorian, a former coach and player at UCLA, grew more emotional when asked about the support of his players. The London gold was the first-ever for U.S. women’s water polo, and the tight-knit team is favored to win again in Rio de Janeiro.
“Their smiles and their love for each other and being here and experiencing it has lifted me up,” he said.
The United States never trailed against Spain, with Neushul scoring the first two goals and Johnson taking over from there in a commanding performance in her Olympic debut. The Princeton goaltender said she was really nervous before the game, but it was hard to tell.
“I felt good with the defense in front of me,” she said. “I felt like everyone was really stepping up their game and playing how we wanted to play and set the tone for the tournament.”
This is only the fifth Olympics for women’s water polo, but the significance of breaking the color barrier for the U.S. team was not lost on Johnson.
“I don’t really think about it a lot, but it feels great to be an example for other black people to try the sport and pursue higher levels of the sport,” she said.
Also Tuesday on the first day for women’s water polo, Hungary edged China 13-11, Italy beat Brazil 9-3 and Australia rolled to a 14-4 victory over Russia. It was Brazil’s Olympic debut in the sport.