Hired in 2013 to oversee the Olympic Development Program (ODP) as well as coach and referee development for USA Water Polo, John Abdou has become an invaluable partner to Dejan Udovicic and Adam Krikorian, head coaches respectively for the U.S. women’s and men’s national teams. With America embarking this year on a new development cycle in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Abdou’s position overseeing all player development at USAWP makes him arguably the most important decision-maker in American polo.
Prior to taking a fulltime position with USA Water Polo, Abdou spent five years at Bucknell University as head coach of both the men’s and women’s programs then two as associate head coach at the University of California at Santa Barbara. A 2001 graduate of the University of California–Irvine, he played for the Anteater men’s water polo team.
Speaking last week with Water Polo Planet, Abdou addressed the recent lack of international success by the U.S. men’s team, specific challenges Team USA faces going into next month’s FINA world championships in Budapest, and why the U.S. Senior Women’s National Team is head and shoulders above the rest of the world.
You recently got a promotion to Chief High Performance Officer. How does this new position impact your relationship with the national team coaches?
As High Performance Director I was on the same line as both senior team coaches—meaning that we worked side-by-side. Before I was in charge of ODP and other aspects of high performance and now I’m managing all the national teams, from the pipelines all the way up to the senior teams.
In terms of background, I played in high school, played in college and then coached up until I took the position back in 2013. And on all levels; I coached high school, I coached club, I coached age group, I coached on the East Coast and on the West Coast, coached several different pipeline national teams and even got a chance to coach with the national “B” team.
I was at UC Santa Barbara as the associate head coach and then when this position opened up at USA Water Polo I was excited about the opportunity to work with both our senior team coaches who were already hired at the time.
Since getting here I’ve got to know them well and to understand their philosophies, their coaching methods and approaches. Beyond learning about water polo from them [I’ve learned] how to approach situations, managing people and problem solving has been very beneficial.
When he took the U.S. men’s head coaching job, Coach Udovicic—a native Serbian—did not have a depth of knowledge about American water polo. How has your knowledge informed his understanding about how the sport operates in this country?
That’s something that Dejan and I speak about a lot. It’s not easy for someone from outside of the States to come here and fully understand our system. It’s incredibly complicated, whereas in Europe it’s much more direct. [There] club teams are the focal point of everything. You have a player who starts with a club and develops all the way through with that same club and the national team integrates into the club schedule and that’s it.
The biggest challenge that both Coach Krikorian and Coach Udovicic face is to integrate the national team calendar into a system that has high school water polo, club water polo, NCAA water polo [and] year-round academics. That’s a huge challenge because the calendars do not align.
FINA makes the international calendar for the year based on what works best for Europe and not for those countries outside of Europe.
In terms of understanding the system it’s more about understanding the calendar first and then understanding the priorities of an American athlete. On both the men’s and women’s side, the priorities are to get into college and use water polo as an avenue to a great education. That’s in stark contrast to what’s happening in Europe.
It’s as if America is at a double-disadvantage; our system doesn’t mesh well with international water polo and the calendar is also against us.
Another way to look at this is that in America our high-performance process for national team athletes is essentially self-select. That can be said world-wide but—even more so here—athletes need to self-select to be part of the national team. For every male or female athlete it’s a decision-making process to be a part of the national team. And they weigh that against academics, lifestyle and career.
It’s our responsibility to guide and counsel them on what inevitably is going to be their choice. When you’re in a professional system, as in Europe, it’s not necessarily self-select. Athletes are paid by their clubs, and playing for their national teams is a career goal for them.
In America the result is athletes can use the degree they got from Stanford or USC—and all the connections that come from their education—and weigh that versus being on the American national team.
A different question is being posed to them than to our competitors.
Are the expectations placed on the U.S. men’s team unrealistic?
The way I look at this—and our coaches feel the same way—[is] that we’re constantly trying to win all the time, and do everything we can to be successful at the highest levels. Coach Udovicic didn’t come here just to continue on the same path that we’ve been on. He’s trying to help us break through and do something different.
When I say that he’s trying to help us break through, I think that where people miss some of the facts.
For example—and again the goal should always be the highest level of achievement at the Olympic Games or in any world championship—but to put that in context with the facts; in the past 30 years our men’s team has won one Olympic medal.
That’s 30 years; Coach Udovicic has been here for four. In the history of our competition at the World Championships, we have never placed higher than fourth. We have six FINA medals total in the last 30 years as well. One of those came last year at the World Super Final.
Specifically, the last 27 years are important because in 1991 Yugoslavia broke up into separate countries that includes Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia. That created a different competitive landscape than what was happening pre-1991. The silver medal that came before the one we won in Beijing in 2008 was in 1988 in Seoul, Korea.
In between that time, the break-up of Yugoslavia has changed the landscape [of international water polo].
With all that data, the expectation is still to achieve to the best of our ability. But we have to understand the history, what the current level of our men’s team is right now and how that relates to the last 30 years.
What might be expected from the relatively inexperienced roster the US is fielding now in the FINA Super Finals tournament and will send to the FINA World Championships next month in Budapest?
The expectation is again to continue achieving at the highest level. We are [often] compared to Australia in terms of our structures, our systems, the size of our country. Recently Coach [Elvis] Fatović was talking about their struggles in relationship to ours. I think that’s important.
Obviously, the result at the Rio Olympics was incredibly disappointing. So it’s interesting to hear peoples’ opinions about what happened in Rio and what we feel about it. But I can tell you that the coaches and the athletes that participated there—nobody is more frustrated and disappointed with that result then they are.
That being said, we were highly competitive in the Rio games. Some more data; at the end of the London Games in 2012, if you did a plus/minus of our results against opponents we were -9 in all the games. In all the games in the Rio Olympics we had an even goal differential with our opponents. We lost a very close game to Spain, a very close game to Montenegro, a close game to Croatia and then beat Italy on the final day.
<NOTE: Team USA played three more matches in London than in Rio; all were in the knockout round; the U.S. lost 8-2 to eventual gold medal winner Croatia, lost 8-7 to Spain in a semi-final classification, and lost 10-9 to Australia and finished in 8th place.>
A lot of times in the Olympics you’re not talking about a true round robin situation where you play everybody. So, the results are not reflective of that—though that’s not just based on our Rio team. I thought we had an incredibly competitive team in 2004 and even in 2000 but based upon bracket play and how the brackets are assigned, Olympic game results aren’t going to reflect that.
That being said, it’s important to look at some other factors and details. 2004 was a great team for us and we finished seventh in the Olympic Games. Frankly they should have had a higher result than seventh because of some of the brackets.
We try to find some other data that’s important. Again, -9 in London in 2012 and we improved that by nine goals against our opponents from 2012 to 2016, and brought us at least back up to even.
That’s one way to track progress.
In response to your second question, about how competitive are we going to be now in regards to our team and some of these players, another fact that everyone must deal with—us, Australia, and a lot of other sports in America—is that in the first year of a quadrennial in an Olympic cycle is always one of transition.
You’re going to see some athletes retire and some athletes question whether they’re going to return. This is across all sports in America after an Olympics.
While Tony [Azevedo] has made it official, there are others who are still considering what’s [next]. John Mann, Merrill Moses, Jessie Smith are in talks with Coach Udovicic about their futures.
You also deal with injuries; Josh Samuels is injured for the year but return next year.
The same can be said for the women’s side. Other than KK Clark there haven’t been any official retirements. So you have that year of transition to figure out how the roster will land and how USA Water Polo, their families or anybody who can support our athletes to continue to play—or are they going to make the decision not to?
If continuity is key for ensuring a stable, successful men’s program, what will it take to retain the best American players?
I don’t want to call this team young and I don’t want to call this team new because—based on a 30-year snapshot of US water polo and beyond—we are going to be perpetually young.
We’re going to be that way because of all the things that have been said in the past about not having a professional league and not having a way for the athletes to keep playing. Or, are we sending them to Europe—through there are factors in Europe that are keeping athletes from getting there as frequently as they were before.
The one silver medal that we have in 30 years is due to a group of men who stayed together—a critical mass from the 2004 team that stuck it through to 2008 and then achieved greatly in Beijing.
Everything I’ve described now was known in 2008. The decision was made after the 2008 Olympics to keep the band together, so to speak. To avoid the trap of being perpetually young, if they could keep the team together for another four years they would have even greater success in the London Olympics.
Those men sacrificed quite a bit to make it work so they could stay together as a team but had disappointment in 2012 with an eighth-place finish.
The idea of keeping a group together had great success for 2008; keeping the group together in 2012 didn’t. That roster had aged by 2012 [so] we had to start over with a whole new pipeline of athletes.
It’s obvious that if a team sticks together they will be more successful, right? That’s a no-brainer statement. But to say that there’s one specific answer for how we can do that moving forward would be short-sighted. We need to deal with each athlete individually and make sure that USA Water Polo—but also their families, their colleges, their clubs—are addressing their needs and questions to keep them in the program moving forward.
There’s not one blanket answer to make that happen. Every athlete male and female requires an individual plan to get them between now and Tokyo.
Who would you identify as the next generation of leaders for this team, which began a new quadrennial of play this month at the World League Super Final in Russia?
First and foremost, we’re going to greatly miss Tony Azevedo. His retirement is going to have a significant impact on the team. But I’m excited for Tony and his efforts to help grow the game in America. He is by far the best ambassador that we have and the work that he’s going to do—even though he’s no longer on the national team—will inevitably have a strong impact on our national team’s performance in the next decade or so.
Players who have to step up and fill roles are all across the board. The returning athletes from Rio—barring injury with Josh Samuels, who is getting himself back in the pool—you’re talking about players like Alex Bowen, who spent a professional season in Hungary this past season and had a very successful run there for his club [Pannergy MVLC]. He’s come back a more mature and stronger player.
You’re seeing the maturation of McQuin Baron. He recently won the Cutino Award and has continued to improve his game on a daily basis. You’re seeing Alex Obert, who played professionally in Australia, who has continued to evolve his game. Luca Cupido, after winning a national championship—he’s not at the World League Super Final because he’s finishing a summer school course and trying to graduate [from Cal].
You’re looking at a core group that involves them and Alex Roelse, who’s off another strong season at UCLA. And then trying to compliment all those strong athletes with players like Chancellor Ramirez, who just graduated from UCLA and had a strong showing in the Croatia series and is playing in the World League Super Final.
There’s Ben Hallock and [Thomas] Dunstan, who both went to Rio, they’re coming back now. We should start seeing the payoff this year, the next and through this quad, which is the maturation of those athletes that we did take to Rio and are now developing—Baron, Cupido, Roelse, Obert, Dunstan, Hallock—all these guys are continuing to develop.
Johnny Hooper has been in the USA Water Polo ODP pipeline for many years. He was born in 1997 and this year he’s getting a lot of playing time with the Senior National Team. Johnny was the leading scorer at the Intercontinental Cup in Australia in April and helped us win a silver medal there. He played throughout the Croatia series and is playing in the World League Super Final right now. It’s interesting to know that he’s also eligible to play in the Junior World Championship in Belgrade this August.
And then you’re getting an influx of college athletes who are either recently graduated or still have eligibility like Max Irving, who’s been a key piece to the last six months of development with the national team. There’s Nolan McConnell who was playing professionally in Australia—just last fall the Golden Coast Conference Player of the Year.
Matt DeTrane has been playing professionally in Europe as well and has come back to the team. You’re seeing the rest of the group fill in—over 40 athletes were invited to try out for the national team this year. Coach Udovicic is keeping a wide pool of athletes available.
In perhaps a study in contrasts, where the U.S. men are striving to move up, the U.S. women are striving to stay on top.
Again, going back to the facts, it’s unfair to compare the men and the women. Men’s water polo was the first Olympic team sport, competing in the Olympic Games since 1904, which dramatically changes the competitive landscape in relation to women’s water polo which has been in the Olympic Games since the year 2000.
Fact number two; the number of country’s playing men’s water polo is drastically different than those playing women’s water polo.
Fact number three: the women’s NCAA water polo is the best women’s water polo league in the world, hands down. That’s a huge advantage for the women versus the men, where the best leagues have been developed for over a hundred years outside of the USA.
The women’s NCAA league invites some of the best players from all around the world, and they are attracted to that league to play and develop.
The fourth factor is that the women’s calendar, the way it is now with the women’s NCAA season, being in the spring, is a huge advantage for the U.S. women as well. As their spring seasons are done they immediately go into national team play. For example, the women who just finished competing in the NCAA championships in Indianapolis immediately left from there and went to China to compete in the Kunshan Cup where Team USA won the gold medal.
I would say that those four data points are the biggest things to compare in terms of men and women but they still share similar issues. The competitive landscape for the women and the strength of our development of athletes in general in America is a huge asset for our women’s success. There’s a smaller competitive landscape and we’ve dominated because we’re the ones in control of the best league in the world.
There are similar issues in terms of player retention and athletes choosing to come back or not at the beginning of a quad, but it affects the women less than the men because of those things but issues do remain. Our women’s national team just won a gold medal at the World League Super Final with two goalies who did not go to Rio last year. With Ashleigh Johnson not present and Sami Hill not being there to replace her there were two brand new goalies and we still won a gold medal.
They won the Kunshan Cup without Rachel Fattal and Maggie Steffens who were back wrapping up the Cutino Awards ceremony. So, there’s some depth to the roster there based upon our NCAA league.
If it’s better to have a higher level of competition flourish on the women’s side, how can and will the world catch up to American women’s water polo?
Coach Krikorian is quick to remind everyone how well the rest of the world is developing at women’s water polo. The Hungarians are developing rapidly. In the last world championship we beat Holland 5-4 in the final. We’re one goal away from losing a world championship to a Dutch team that didn’t even qualify for the Olympics.
One of the other things that we’ll be seeing, and which will be helpful to the women’s game, is having ten teams at the Olympics. At the last two Olympics that we have won a gold medal, both Greece and Holland—which are two of the best teams in the world—did not qualify. You’re talking about Greece, or Holland or Australia—who have consistently been in medal contention since the beginning of Olympic women’s water polo—the recent resurgence of Canada, who won the silver at the World League Super Final. Not to mention the Italian women and so many others. The development of the women’s game is happening rapidly. Our ability of staying ahead of that will rely on us continuing to develop a strong pipeline of athletes here in America via our club, college and USA Water Polo system.
Make no mistake about it; the rest of the world is working hard to catch up.
With the potential or announced retirement of core players for two gold-medal winning teams—including KK Clark, Kami Craig and Courtney Mathewson—what new players will be expected to step up for Team USA?
Kaleigh [Gilchrist] is shooting for Tokyo in surfing; Kami and Courtney, I don’t think it’s safe to assume they’re completely done [but] they’re looking to start new chapters in their lives. We’ll see after this year where Ashleigh Johnson goes. She just graduated from Princeton last month. And as we talked about there are two new goalkeepers—but it’s not fair to say that Sami Hill has retired; nothing’s official with any of them until you see a similar press release as you saw from KK or Tony. You may see some of these later in the year as some of these chips start to fall, but nothing is official as we continue to work with the athletes.
Two new goalies step in; one of them Stanford’s Gabby Stone, the other Mia Rycraw from Arizona State and both had great runs in China. Last year Stone was part of the fulltime group with the women’s senior team so she was the third-string goalie who’s been waiting her chance and finally got an opportunity.
As a reflection on the men’s side—the Hallocks and the Hoopers and Bowens and these other athletes that have spent their time developing through the USA Water Polo pipeline—the same is happening on the women’s side.
Jordan Raney, Brigitta Games, Mary Brooks–all those athletes have been part of the USA Water Polo pipeline for many, many years. At the last junior world championship in 2015 Brooks won a gold medal with Team USA.
These athletes that we’re mentioning, they are not unfamiliar to Coach Krikorian and now they’re gaining more familiarity with international water polo.