Olympic experience can pay dividends for U.S. water polo teams

There’s a number of ways Ryan Bailey could measure his water polo career. He could count medals or victories or even the Olympic Games opening ceremonies he’s marched in.

But to truly understand how far he’s come in his sport, Bailey says you have to look at his sleeping arrangements.

“When I first started with the national team, I was still at UC Irvine, a single guy just sleeping on people’s couches and hanging out at the pool all day,” says Bailey, who grew up in Long Beach. “I used to be able to go out at night and go to practice the next morning and it would be no big deal. But now it’s stay home with the wife. Take it easy. Ice my aching bones.

“It’s absolutely a huge difference.”

And if that sets the 36-year-old apart from teammate Tony Azevedo and women’s national team standouts Heather Petri and Brenda Villa, here’s one thing they share: all four will be competing in their fourth Olympics Games this summer in London, becoming the first U.S. water polo players to do so.

“It means a lot,” says Azevedo, the U.S. captain. “I don’t look at it like ‘I want to be in so many Olympics and it will be a record.’ I love the sport and I want to win.”

Speaking of winning, here’s another thing the four have in common: none have a gold medal. In the three previous women’s tournaments, the U.S. has finished second twice — losing in the closing seconds both times — and third once. The only time Azevedo and Bailey stood on the medal platform came four years ago in Beijing, where the U.S. won silver.

And while gold is the goal in London, with so much experience comes a great deal of perspective. So winning, all four agree, isn’t the only thing.

“You’re in sports to get the opportunity to play. And you give everything you have, every ounce of your being to try to win this gold medal,” says Petri, who turned 34 Wednesday. “But any given day someone could beat you. That’s what kind of makes it exciting. If we thought we were always to win the gold, what joy is that?”

Still, this could be the year both title droughts end. The U.S. women have not lost a World League title match since the last Olympics, winning their fourth straight recently in China. And the men’s team, which hadn’t beaten Hungary in 10 years, knocked off the three-time defending Olympic champions twice in five days this month behind nine goals from Azevedo.

They did that by beating them at their own game. Hungary had the oldest team in Beijing, with eight of its 13 players 30 or older. This year half the players on the provisional U.S. roster for London are at least that old — making the London team the oldest in U.S. history.

Not surprisingly it’s the most experienced too, with the 14 players having competed in 19 Olympics combined.

“This team is a special team,” says U.S. Coach Terry Schroeder, who played in three Olympics and missed a fourth only because the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow. “Experience in our sport pays dividends.”

That kind of experience was difficult to come by in Schroeder’s playing days. Few U.S. players played the sport professionally, forcing many to retire early and get a job.

Not anymore. Azevedo and Bailey have both played for top professional clubs in Europe. And Villa began playing in Italy in 2004 while Petri has played in Brazil, Italy and Greece.

“Go live in Europe for nine months and then come home for the three-month national team season. That’s the biggest change,” says Bailey, who travels with his wife, Angela, and their dog, a chihuahua named Lola. “It was just a different era. They all retired by 28 years old.”

Retirement is what Bailey and Petri plan to do after London. And the 32-year-old Villa says she is about 99.9% sure she’ll join them.

“There’s lots of other things that I want to try to challenge myself with,” Petri says. “It is hard, though, turning away from something that you love so much and have found joy [in] for so long. It’s hard to imagine that next thing will bring me as much joy as water polo has.”

Azevedo, at 31 the youngest of the four, is the lone holdout. The Brazilian-born Long Beach-raised son of former U.S. national team coach Rick Azevedo plans to hang around at least through the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, his birthplace. And if he makes it to 2020, when he’ll be 38, he’ll equal the record of boyhood idol Manuel Estiarte of Spain, the only water polo player to take part in six Olympics.

“Until I stop loving the sport, I’m not going to stop playing,” says Azevedo who, as an attacker like Villa and Petri, avoids much of the physical battering that Bailey must endure as a center.

The other three are hopeful they’ll be able to squeeze some lasting memories out of their last Olympics.

“It kind of takes me back to my first one,” says Villa, a three-time all-CIF selection while playing for the boys’ team at Bell Gardens High and a player so talented one former national team coach called her the “Wayne Gretzky of water polo.”

“Knowing that it’s the end you really want to enjoy that, enjoy teammates, enjoy the experience. It’s awesome.”

Adds Petri: “You make that mental thing in your head that, you’re like, ‘This is close to the end. So make sure you notice that small thing, that little flower they planted outside of our apartment. Or the color of the ball.’ Those little things that maybe the first time went right over your head. You can actually slow it down and absorb every small little detail.”

And if one of those little details includes what it feels like to have a gold medal draped around your neck, so much the better. But that will only be the final memory, not necessarily the best one.

“At the end of the day I’ve gotten to travel the world with my best friends for 16 years and that’s definitely a bigger thing,” Bailey says. “I may come back as a shooter. Or an archer. Just keep going.”