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2016 Olympics: Pac-12 players pack roster for Team USA women’s water polo

Alex Espinoza/Pac-12 Networks

RIO DE JANEIRO -- When you watch the American women’s water polo team over the next couple of weeks at the Olympics in Rio, you might be fooled into thinking you’re watching a Pac-12 all-star team from the past decade.

Of the 13 athletes on the summer games roster, nine are Pac-12 players or alumni, while two more have signed letters of intent to compete in the Pac-12. Hailing exclusively from UCLA, Stanford, and USC, the Pac-12ers give Team USA a heavy California feel.

“It’s just a really unique opportunity for so many of us who have played against each other in college,” said team captain and Stanford star Maggie Steffens. “You’re rivals, you have scouting reports, you play in big games, you lose. I’ve lost to some of the girls on this team in an NCAA Championship, like [USC alum] Kaleigh Gilchrist. There are other girls on the team as well who have lost to other girls, or there are teams who have won. So it’s kind of cool to be on the same side.”

The USA women’s water polo program has been elevated over the past seven years, since UCLA legend Adam Krikorian took over as head coach. From 1999-2009 Krikorian served as the Bruins women’s head coach, winning seven NCAA titles including five straight from 2005-09. Now the Americans are the defending Olympic gold medalists and heavy favorites to repeat in Rio.

Tragedy struck earlier this week when Krikorian’s 48-year-old brother, Blake, passed away in the Bay Area, where he was a well-regarded entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. Blake Krikorian also played for the UCLA water polo team from 1986-89. Adam Krikorian flew back home to be with his family, but is expected to return to Rio on Monday, in time for Tuesday’s opener against Spain.

“Adam is a one-of-a-kind coach, a one-of-a-kind mentor, and a one-of-a-kind person,” Steffens said. “I always looked up to him and admired him and respected him greatly; but the way he’s handled this, my respect and the way I look up to him has just increased. He is dealing with this tragedy, but he is making sure that we enjoy opening ceremonies, that we live in the moment. At the same time, he’s there for his family.”

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One player who knows Krikorian better than most is Courtney Mathewson. She spent the 2005-08 seasons in Westwood, winning four straight NCAA titles with Krikorian, and thought she was ready to hang up her swim cap in 2009.

“I was just going to retire. Do the whole 40-hour work week thing. I was done.” Mathewson said. “He asked me if I was interested in trying out and I had obviously a lot of respect for him at that point. So I thought, ‘If he thinks that there’s that much potential, I’ll give it a shot.’”

Seven years later and Mathewson is still going strong, playing in her second Olympics after helping Team USA win the gold in London.

“I never would have imagined that I would be where I am today,” Mathewson said. “I certainly wouldn’t be here without Adam.”

[Related content: Follow the Pac-12 to Rio]

Mathewson used the word “dynamic” to describe the team, which also features three other returners from 2012 -- Steffens, USC alum Kami Craig, and Stanford product Melissa Seidemann. Other top stars include former Stanford attacker Kiley Neushul and UCLA’s Rachel Fattal, who is set to return to the Bruins in the fall.

When looking at the makeup of this summer’s squad in Rio, Mathewson couldn’t help but smile when discussing all the youngsters like UCLA commit Maddie Musselman or Stanford commit Makenzie Fischer.

“It’s very refreshing to have them kind of bopping around all over the place,” Mathewson said.

[Related content: Katinka Hosszu wins Pac-12's first gold in Rio]

But watching Sunday’s practice at the Flamengo Club in Rio, it’s clear that the 23-year-old Steffens is the vocal leader of the group.

“Although I do feel greater responsibility than I did last quad,” Steffens said, “I know all of my teammates feel that as well because we share that responsibility. We share that ownership of this team. It’s our team. It’s one team, not anyone else’s. It’s ours.”

With so much talent in the pool -- and two of the world’s best goalies in Ashleigh Johnson and UCLA alum Sami Hill -- these women have their sights set on nothing short of gold.

“It would be incredible,” Steffens said. “Clearly that’s why we’re all here and that’s what we’re all gunning for. But it’s not a repeat. We have a completely different team. We have a different framework, but at the end of the day we have that same foundation of USA water polo.”

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