By Matt Szabo - @mjszabo
Tony Azevedo isn’t leaving the sport of water polo, but his last game as a player was definitely meaningful and symbolic.
Azevedo, the legendary five-time Olympian for Team USA, gave his farewell where he electrified fans nearly two decades earlier: His final contest came on June 11 at Stanford University, his alma mater, as part of a four-game exhibition series against Croatia.
He scored a goal in the first half – a near-side blast from the left wing – and then sat out the second. And that marked the end of the career of one of the best, most-decorated water polo players in the sport’s history.
“It was emotional, like it was expected to be,” said Azevedo, who was honored in a halftime ceremony that included both of his Stanford coaches, Dante Dettamanti and John Vargas. “But you know, what I told the guys before the game was that that it isn’t about me. This is about you guys in the future. I want you to see my career, how much I gave and how happy I am. There’s nothing better in life than being able to represent your country, and I just want every one of these guys to know that. We want to be the best, and we want to bring the Gold medal back.”
Azevedo nearly got there in 2008 when he was team captain and the U.S. claimed Silver in the Beijing Games. In each of his first four Olympic appearances, he scored at least 10 goals. Azevedo scored five last summer in his final Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the city of his birth.
He dominated in college, winning the Cutino Award all four years and helping the Cardinal win NCAA titles in 2001 and 2002. In fact, Azevedo has dominated ever since he was invited to play on the national team by then-coach Vargas as a 15-year-old kid growing up in Long Beach, CA.
“It became very apparent he could play at that level when I was watching him at the ’97 U.S. Open, which is the highest-level tournament we have in the United States,” Vargas said. “All of the best players are playing in it, and Tony was one of the high scorers in that tournament at 15 years old. That was pretty amazing.”
Vargas lauded Azevedo’s leadership abilities as well, adding that because he’s also “the best player in the pool,” the tough-to-beat combination spawns “championship teams, you have special teams. When he was at Stanford, it was incredible what he was able to do as a player and as a leader. He clearly made his teammates better when he was in the pool.”
Goalkeeper Merrill Moses, a three-time Olympian who also joined the national team in 1997, said he considers Azevedo one of his best friends. He will remember the professionalism that Azevedo brought to the sport every day.
“Amazing player,” Moses said. “His longevity is due to how seriously he takes the sport, and how seriously he takes representing Team USA. The bottom line is that as a team captain, he was incredible. He was a huge part of why we were so successful in 2008. Obviously, we weren’t as successful in 2012 or 2016, but I wouldn’t want to have anyone else leading me in the water. It wasn’t just about the game; it was about your lifestyle and your actions in and out of the water. He genuinely made everyone that he played with and was friends with a better person, and that’s hard to find in a captain.”
Azevedo can now enjoy more family life with his wife, Sara, and his children, Cruz and Luna. But he doesn’t plan to step away from water polo.
Following the match, he turned his attention towards The Aquatics Games, a high-level Olympic style junior tournament created by Azevedo held Aug. 2-6 in Long Beach. Azevedo secured participation from teams from five international countries and the atmosphere was festival like, with entertainment and live music. In future years, Azevedo hopes to expand The Aquatics Games to include sports like swimming, kite surfing and synchronized swimming.
“We’re starting with an evaluation,” he said. “We’re working on evaluating these kids and comparing them with kids from around the world, to see where they stand and let them know where they need to get better. You go to baseball, they teach you how to hit. You go to basketball, every single club does a bounce pass. Where’s ours?”
Also in support of expanding water polo in the United States, Azevedo spoke of the need for an American professional league.
“This is a thing that we can do to help these guys extend their careers as well as, more importantly, making our sport even more popular,” he said. “That’s when we’ll really get the sponsors. That’s when people will come in and really want to support us.
As for the women of Team USA, two-time defending Olympic Gold medalists, Azevedo said they should be more than merely “stars.”
“They should be gods in this country,” he said. “A Gold medal is something that very few in the world achieve, percentage-wise. I want these women not just to be recognized by how many people come to the game, but they also should be making a salary, a higher salary, and they should be recognized more than they are.”
Such issues are ones Azevedo will continue to fight for. But now, in terms of his playing career, all that’s left are many memories.
Asked how he would like to be remembered as a player, he highlighted his competitive nature. “I would like everyone to think of me as the guy who would literally do anything to win, and I think I was that guy,” Azevedo said. “I would shot-block, I would defend, I would pass, I would shoot. I would do what was needed, but in the end, all I wanted to do was make my teammates better and win. It was never an individual game for me.”
Azevedo appeared at the final game of the Croatia series in his hometown of Long Beach on June 14 and handled everything in stride, broadcasting some of the game for USA Water Polo and signing some autographs. And, if you see him at a water polo game in the future, Moses has some advice.
“He’s a true friend, a genuine person and he’s a pretty funny guy,” Moses said. “If you ever see him, go up and introduce yourself, tell him you play water polo. He’s the nicest guy out there … He wants to grow the sport of water polo.”
This article appeared in the Summer 2017 of SkipShot
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