Palm Desert, CA
Taking on the defending gold medal champions in the opening round of these Rio games is about as tough an assignment the Team USA Men’s Water Polo team could have faced. But their veteran leadership, John Mann and Tony Azevedo, are tough competitors who are very familiar with a fixture in the local water polo scene.
Mann was asked by KMIR about the Coachella Valley’s water polo scene and Xavier Prep’s head coach, Pavol Valovic, and before the question could be fully offered, Mann jumped in.
"Oh yeah, absolutely. I played against him (Valovic) while he was at USC… We actually played against him in the finals… So he may not want to talk much about that," said Mann laughing. "He’s a great guy."
That’s right, Pac-12 rivalries know no bounds. Mann, a veteran on Team USA’s Men’s Water Polo team played at Cal-Berkeley while Xavier Prep’s head coach, Valovic, starred at USC.
KMIR caught up with Valovic at the Palm Desert Aquatics Center asking about his collegiate rival who now stars for Team USA.
"He was such a tough competitor," said Valovic. "John is a great, great player, he’s big…Extremely smart, extremely dedicated… He beat me a couple times, I beat him a couple times."
Thanks to the success of the local programs, Mann says the national team is familiar with the Coachella Valley. "Obviously there’s been a few players in the national program from the Palm Desert area."
But all the players and coaches KMIR spoke to say they look forward to a day that water polo has as large a following in the States as it does in Europe.
"It’s pretty much all over seas," says Team USA star Tony Azevedo. "I’ve lived in Italy, Montenegro, Croatia… In Croatia, I go out to dinner and I’m in the newspaper the next day with what kind of wine I drank… Here it’s different."
"Tony’s a world super star," echoed Valovic. "In Europe, tony’s the man. Here football, basketball, baseball, hockey players are the stars…In Europe, people want to be water polo stars… They are super stars.. they the LeBrons of their sport in Europe."
Valovic hopes a strong showing by Team USA in these games and Tokyo in 2020 will expand the reach of the sport at the high school level and beyond.
"That’s the best thing that can be for water polo," says Valovic. "I remember when I was little, I was just eating it up on TV so I hope all the players here and around the us are doing the same thing."
The men’s team fell to Croatia 7-5 Saturday morning. And our local programs jump in the pool to begin training August 15th.