Friday, April 20, 2018
Sports

Out-of-this-world gold

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Ashleigh Johnson and KK Clark joined a couple of 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 United States 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 gold medal in women's water polo.

"To play as well as we did (Friday) in that moment and that atmosphere in a gold-medal game when you've been thinking about this for the last four years is just … it's a dream come true," Krikorian said.

The Americans 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," said Johnson, who was voted the tournament's top goaltender. "We played completely different than the game's ever been played before. Really fast, intelligent. It's really fun to watch, and it's great to play."

In another Olympics dominated by U.S. women, Steffens — the MVP and probably the best player in the world — and her teammates shined as brightly as any of them. The 12 goals and seven-goal margin were records for the Olympic final.

"USA is, in this moment, a team of another universe," Italy coach Fabio Conti said.

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 their second straight gold to their world championship, 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 United States' first game to be with his family after the sudden death of his brother Blake, a former water polo player at UCLA and beloved 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.

Blake's 49th birthday would have been Thursday, and Krikorian's wife, Anicia Mendez, surprised her husband in Rio to be with him for the day and then the final.

"It's not about me, and it's about the team, and that has actually helped me, and that's made it actually fairly easy," Krikorian 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."

Krikorian brushed away any talk of winning it all for him and his family, insisting Blake would have thought that was a ludicrous notion. But his players pledged their support for their mourning coach. And they delivered with their play.

"That's what we're about," Steffens said, "is going out there, having fun and playing the best water polo we can."

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