Men’s Water Polo: Mann, Cupido Olympians

SAN DIEGO — John Mann will be competing in his second Olympic Games this summer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Anyone who watched his first opening ceremonies on television four years ago probably saw Mann’s face. A lot. The cameras were on him in London, and it was easy to understand why considering that his company at the opening ceremonies consisted of NBA superstars.

“We got kind of stretched out in the group,” Mann said. “I was looking around; I wanted to walk with my [water polo] teammates and I couldn’t see anyone. I looked next to me, and there were LeBron James, Tyson Chandler, Russell Westbrook, [James] Harden. I’m like, ‘I’m just going to stay right here, because everyone at home is going to see LeBron James.’”

James and the Team USA men’s basketball squad got something that summer that Mann and the men’s water polo team didn’t. The hoops team won gold, while men’s water polo finished a disappointing eighth.

Mann, the former Corona del Mar High and Cal star, hopes he’s on the path to his first gold this summer. The trip to Brazil became official on Thursday. Mann and Newport Harbor High alumnus Luca Cupido were among the 13 players named to the 2016 U.S. Olympic men’s water polo team in a ceremony held on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Midway Museum.

“It feels good,” Mann said. “I have the same feeling I had the first time. It’s exciting, but I want a gold medal. This is great, but I want a gold medal now. That’s really what I’m looking for, and I know my teammates are too, so it’s great.”

Mann is one of just four returners on the Team USA roster. Leading the way is team captain Tony Azevedo, the first five-time Olympian in USA Water Polo history. Jesse Smith made his fourth Olympic team, while goalie Merrill Moses is on the team for the third time.

The rest of the team, which is coached by Dejan Udovicic, consists of nine first-time Olympians. Team USA may be young, but it has shown progress lately after claiming silver at the FINA World League Super Final last month in China. The Americans are currently ranked sixth in the world.

Udovicic said he considers the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Mann, who turned 31 last week, a top-five center in the world. He is one of just two true centers on the Olympic roster, along with recent Harvard-Westlake High graduate Ben Hallock. Alex Obert, who graduated from the University of the Pacific last year, also can play center or defender.

“We need his help in every game,” Udovicic said of Mann, who is one of just four players born in the 1980s on the young-but-dangerous roster. “Everybody right now is afraid of us. We’re coming. We sent a message over the last year.”

Cupido, who plans to return to Cal in the fall after taking a semester off for training this spring, has been one of the main messengers. The 20-year-old has shown growth since moving to Newport Beach from Italy in the summer of 2013. He earned Newport-Mesa Dream Team Player of the Year honors that fall for the Sailors.

Cupido said Thursday that he thought he was done competing from national teams after moving from Italy. But he was happy when Udovicic gave him a call.

“I thought I would keep studying and playing water polo, but I thought I was done with high-level, Olympic-level water polo,” Cupido said. “Then the coach approached me , and I said, ‘Why not give it a shot?’ Slowly I realized I could be part of something bigger, part of the Olympic team. I’m pretty proud of my decision, and thankful for the opportunity.”

Udovicic recognized Cupido’s talent. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound attacker was the tournament MVP in the FINA Intercontinental Tournament held at Corona del Mar High in April, 2015. That July, he also scored the game-winning goal in Team USA’s semifinal win over Canada at the Pan American Games in Toronto. The win clinched an Olympic berth for Team USA.

Cupido was at it again this past May. He had the game-winner with two seconds left to again lift Team USA to the FINA Intercontinental Tournament title, this time in Japan.

“He’s got a bright future,” Udovicic said Thursday. “He can be, in one of the upcoming years, the best player in the world. No doubt.”

Udovicic and the American players hope that they will prove to be the best team in the world this August in Rio. They’re currently training in Coronado and staying at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista.

Their lone game remaining before the Olympics is a game against Montenegro on July 30 at the University of Houston. Team USA’s first Olympic game follows a week later, Aug. 6 against Croatia.

“We’re still respecting the teams we’re playing against, but I think at the beginning, we were like too respectful of the good players and good teams around the world,” Cupido said. “Now, we respect ourselves. We put in a lot of work every day and we’re going there not afraid of anyone. We can win or lose against anyone. It really just depends on how we play.”