An Interview with Tony Azevedo

ProAnox Athlete Interview
Conducted by Adam Saucedo, M.A., Mental Training Consultant
Skype Interview on 4/26/13 from Dubrovnik, Croatia.

1. Before we get into your current water polo experience, can you tell us a little about your background as an athlete and how it has shaped you as an Olympic water polo player today?

Tony Azevedo 2The biggest influence for me as a kid was sports. I played baseball, which was my number one passion. I also played basketball, a little flag-football, swam and also played water polo. But one of the biggest influences for me was my father. He was the Olympic coach (Water Polo) in 1996. Even before that, he was the Junior team coach and he was constantly connected to water polo and high level athletes. He would always take me with him to all of the trainings. Sometimes just to beat the traffic in the carpool lane. While I was there, I got to do my homework at the pool and then after sit and watch these guys. Watching behemoths train everyday and focus on their goal, to make the Olympics. It really impacted me. It was the 1996 Olympics where I was the ball boy. I got to work the Gold-medal game, Spain vs. Croatia. It was then that I got to see the passion the Spaniards had when they won. They were crying along with their fans. I still get goosebumps to this day. That was the moment I knew I wanted to be an Olympic athlete… that I wanted to play water polo and I wanted to go to the Olympics. This was just prior to my freshman year in high school. I came back that summer and trained. I decided that I was not going to go out for the baseball team. I was going to only play water polo and try to make the next Olympics.

2. Can you explain exactly how important water polo in your daily life?

Well, it is my life. Water polo is definitely extremely important to me. Everything I do in my life right now is for my career. From what I put in my body to the things I inhibit myself from doing, such as skiing in the winter time or skateboarding in my free time. Everything is about making sure my body is in perfect form for the Olympics, for my professional season. Right now, I play the sport because that is my living, my business and my job. It is what I love. Water polo to me is everything. I wake up every morning and I train. At night I have two-hour training again. Then I go home in the summer time, which you may think is a time for a break, but then its training with the National Team non-stop for three months. Then there is the professional season. I usually average two to three weeks a year off. Otherwise, it is water polo and that is it.

3. What do you believe are one to two things you currently do in your training that are keys to your success?

One thing that is important is the willingness to do everything as hard as you can in the water. This what is missing from the newer generation of younger players. I think that this is one of my biggest attributes. Out of the water, you can joke with me. I am a normal person. But once I touch that water, whether it is an hour or three-hour practice, I am working as hard as I can non-stop. When it comes to water polo, I am so intense. I treat it like game because you practice like you play. I truly believe that. I think that is something that may seem like a generic answer because it seems like it would be a given. But sadly it is not. You see a great deal of players who have the talent, so they think that they do not have to work as hard; that their talent will push them through. However it leads them to be good or mediocre players on the team. If they really challenged themselves everyday, they would be the best player they could be.

Another thing about myself would be my humbleness. That really allows me to critique myself. A lot of times in sports you see athletes try to blame someone else or try to brush it away if it was their mistake. However, I try to always blame myself. I ask myself, "Why did this not work?","Why did we lose that game?" and "What could I have done better?" That reflection has really been key for me. Instead of finishing up a game and blaming others for not playing well, I focus on me and what I could have done better to help our team win that game. That has constantly made me try to grow as a player.

4. What is you ultimate goal with regard to your sport?

Tony and RicardoThe Gold medal! Since coming onto the team in 1999, I have had that Gold medal in sight. With a country like ours, I really think that is going to be to take water polo to the next level. We were so close in Bejieng and that was what was so hard about it. London was a really tough one because we had the potential to really do anything and we ended up doing the worst that we could have possibly done in our minds. That was a really sad thing because of how close our team was to each other. This is going to be a rebuilding year, this next one, going into Rio De Janerio. It may seem like a long shot to everyone, but you really never know. Right now, the thing that keeps me going is that Gold medal.

5. Can you describe the role proper nutrition and supplements play in your training?

Yes. I have always eaten well and put the right things into my body. However with age, I have taken it to another level. It is unbelievable how much better I feel. When it came to the 2004 Olympics, we had Croatian coach Ratko Rudic, who was probably the most brutal coach in the world. At the time, I did not put too much time into what I was eating and what I was putting into my body. I was not taking any supplements. I remember just constantly being tired and never having the energy. This really took away from my ability to give 100 percent. When I would get in the water, I would not have the physical energy.

My routine now is different. Of course ProAnox, over the past two years, has played a big role in my nutritional system. When I am over here in Europe, I do not work out as much as we do at home. It is more of an average of 2 in the morning and 2 in the evening. Since it is difficult for me to take four or five bags of ProAnox with me in my luggage, I only take one packet a day. But when I get back home, I usually take two to three bags a day. It really helps me stay healthy. I think that is the biggest thing. I have not been sick since I have been on ProAnox. Aside from an earache and things that you cannot control, I have felt great.

As far as nutrion, I do not eat processed foods. I do not drink sodas and I eat as much vegetables as humanly possible. I do not think any Croatian over her can beleive it when they see my lunch or my salad filled with every type of vegetable. I think that it is not only good for my body, I just feel great after eating well and taking care of myself.

6. How do you feel your nutrition and supplements play into your recovery process?

Here is a perfect example. This weekend I have a Saturday and Sunday off and I sometimes like to go on a trip when I have time off. I cannot make my own meals at home and I end up eating out the whole time. Even when I choose healthy options, you still never know what they put in all of the foods. All of the sudden I will show up to Monday's training session feeling sluggish. So I know it is exactly what I put in my body. Sometimes I will have to go to an event and for two days I will be eating out the whole time. Then you are expected to train at a high level and you cannot. I notice it immediately. When I have it dialed in, it makes me feel confident to train at a high level.

7. How does a country like Croatia (population 4 million) keep beating the U.S. (population 316 million) in the Olympics and the World Championships? What does the U.S. need to do to turn that around?

Actually, prior to this Olympics, we beat Croatia three out of the three times we played them in the Olympic Games. However, in general, they have done better than us over the past years. I think it is that is why I am out here. It is the high level of coaches they have over here- people who dedicate themselves just to thinking about the right tactics and the perfect methods to play the sport… how to get their players physically and mentally to the top level. It truly is uncomparable to the U.S. You look at ever other sport in the U.S. that is popular, such as baseball or basketball, you can see how much time these coachese dedicate. Even in high school and college, they dedicate everything to those players. There may only be 1,000 players in the city of Dubrovnic, where I currently live and play water polo. But when they started at eight years old, their coach was a three-time Olympian with a Gold medal. After, when they moved up to the fourteen-year olds, they had a guy who played professionally for twenty years who also played in the Olympic games. The manager of our club is a three-time Olympic athlete and our current coach on the professional circuit is a two-time Gold-medalist and considered the best player in the world when he played. Just right there, it is quality over quantity. Absolutely 100 percent. Right now, we are deciding who the next coach for the United States will be and it looks like we are probably going to import. We do have some great coaches in the U.S., but not at the level where every kid can get high quality coaching at a young age and be groomed with great coaches so that by the time they are eighteen, they are ready to compete at a high level. By this time, they have been given every tool to succeed.

8. Are there any other differences between water polo in the US and water polo in Europe?

Tony Amrican FlagWell I think it has to do with the physicality. There is an extremely higher level of knowledge of water polo in Europe. Unfortunately in the U.S., there is a lack of professional leagues and television sponsors for water polo, in general. In Europe, there is so much water polo to be watched with mutliple games being televised each weekend. Players start watching this at the age of twelve. So by the time these guys get to the age of eighteen to twenty years old, they have watched over hundreds of high level games and have been to water polo games to see players from all over the world. So now they have this  knowledge in the back of their head. I honestly think that is what separates me from a lot of other players my age. At a young age, I was doing the same thing. Constantly with my father, flying all over Europe, and watching these type of games. My knowledge of the game just rose. Compare this with your normal athlete who has not heard about water polo until they reach high school. Now they start learning about the sport and they may not see an international game until college, if then. They may not even get to play high level water polo until after college when they are twenty-two or twenty-three.  So the difference in knowledge and the physicality are two major differences. At home, there is nothing to compare to playing against players who are 6’8’’ or 6’10’’ behemoth players out here. They way they play out here in the Balkins is with no movement. When you try to move, you get kicked and punched and it is more of a boxing or wrestling match than it is a water polo game.

9. You have spoken about preparing for the 2016 Olympics. Can we expect to see you in your 5th Olympics in Rio de Janiero where you were born?

Absolutely! As long as we qualify. I am thirty-one years old but I feel great! I still feel like I am one of the best players in the world. As I look at the last Olympics, we had thirty-six year olds. You look at other teams, they average thirty-three to thirty-eight year olds who make it to the Olympic games. I am thirty-one years old right now and I am playing on the best team in the world, at the highest level, and I feel great. I am definitely going to be involved in the Olympics in 2016. I think the biggest hurdle is making sure we qualify. But you can count on my being there, walking in, if we do.

10. With such a long and demanding training schedule, including multiple years of training in between Olympics, how do you avoid loss of motivation or even burnout?

Well my wife helps a lot with that. I think one of my favorite hobbies is travelling. I enjoy getting to trying new kinds of foods and see different places. It really helps when I have a weekend or a day off. This way I can stop thinking about water polo and just take off. It really helps with my motivation. Just a day for me with my wife or family getting to do something different, helps me come back a day later ready to train. Also, the biggest thing that I mentioned earlier, is the fact that I know I am not done. I will know. If I am not happy about going into trainings, if I question what I am doing here, then I know that I will stop playing. However, right now, I have not won a gold medal. I still want to do everthing that the U.S. guys are doing. I see myself leading these guys to a gold medal. I know that there is no let down and I have motivation to see this through.

11. Finally, anything else you have learned about yourself as a water polo player at the highest level?

I think that one of the biggest things is learning to stay focused. As I mentioned before, water polo is such a different sport from another other sport, in my opinion. Not only do I feel that it is one of the toughest sports in the world, physically, but also mentally. It is not about just being a perfect specimen of a player, but it is about how are you going to make the other players around you better. That is one of the things that has made me grow as a player. It is defitinely not an individual sport. One thing I learned being over here in Europe is that even if the first day you play amazing, where every shot you take is perfect, this will only last so long. People learn how to guard you and you need to make your players better. It is also knowing how to speak to players, because certain players can only be approached and spoken to in certain ways. In general, I think that water polo has really helped me learn how to speak to people and learn how to motivate others. Now, I can definitely can see in a couple of trainings how to approach and speak to a specific players. That has been a great life lesson that I can take away. 

Tony Shooting