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Tough loss to Spain turns into a teaching moment for U.S. men’s water polo

U.S. attacker Hannes Daube shoots and scores during a Olympic quarterfinal loss to Spain.
U.S. attacker Hannes Daube shoots and scores during an Olympic quarterfinal loss to Spain at Tatsumi Water Polo Center in Tokyo on Wednesday.
(Gary Ambrose / For the Times)

For the U.S. water polo team, the Tokyo Olympics have been more about mettle than medals.

The U.S. men had their worst Olympic performance in history five years ago in Brazil, finishing 10th in a 12-team field. So Tokyo was about taking the first steps toward rebuilding behind a young team that includes eight first-time Olympians.

So far, the results have been mixed. Although the U.S. advanced out of group play, it lost its quarterfinal Wednesday to Spain, 12-8. It sends the Americans on to a loser’s bracket semifinal Friday against Italy, where a win would guarantee them a spot in the top six, matching their second-best finish in 29 years.

The hands make all the difference in Olympic sport climbing. Fingers must be strengthened and thickened over years, all the better to dangle from a ledge.

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That could also provide some momentum for a team that finished second in the FINA World League last month, matching its best finish in that competition.

Even the losses have become victories of a sort.

“You learn from failure. You learn more from losing than you do from winning,” said Ben Hallock, 23, the third-youngest player on the team. “You can definitely tell that the national team is trending upwards.”

“I think it’d be naïve to say that I’m not a different player now,” agreed goalie Alex Wolf. “Every time they throw the ball at me, I’m getting better for the next one. That’s what I’m taking home from this tournament.

“I think I learned a lot.”

Johnny Hooper passes for the U.S. men's water polo team against Spain on Wednesday.
(Gary Ambrose / For The Times)

The U.S. is the youngest team in Tokyo, with an average age of 26, a number that would be ever lower if not for the inclusion of five-time Olympian Jesse Smith, 38.

“We’d have a team meeting and he’d call back to an Olympic Games when some of us were only 3 years old,” said Wolf, a two-time All-American at UCLA and first-time Olympian.

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“These European teams have so much experience. Unfortunately, we don’t have [a] league in America. It’s a huge sacrifice guys have to take to go over and play in Europe. So every opportunity we do have got to make the most of it.”

Eleven of the 12 U.S. men in Tokyo have made that sacrifice and joined club teams in Greece, Italy or Serbia, where water polo is far more popular than it is the U.S.

“We want to always win. We always want to be the best. We’re not waiting around for anything.”

Hannes Daube, U.S. men’s water polo attacker

The Olympics have only added to that experience.

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“Any big tournament, whether it’s the Olympics or the world championships, is always going to only benefit us in the end no matter the result,” Wolf said. “See the other best players in the world and having them shoot on me only makes me better.”

Wolf was up to the challenge Wednesday, making eight saves against Spain in a game that turned on a penalty shot.

U.S. goalie Alex Wolf tries to stop a shot by Spain's Alberto Munarriz Egana.
U.S. goalie Alex Wolf tries to stop a shot by Spain’s Alberto Munarriz Egana during the men’s water polo quarterfinals on Wednesday.
(Gary Ambrose / For The Times)

With less than six minutes left in a one-goal game, a lengthy video review determined that American Luca Cupido had returned from the penalty area too early. Alejandro Bustos converted the resulting penalty, giving Spain, a European power who finished second in both the most recent European and World championships, an 8-6 lead and it never looked back.

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“We were great. I’m proud of my guys,” said U.S. coach Dejan Udovicic. “They’ve got more experience playing these games. We were close.”

Games like Wednesday’s will only get the U.S. closer.

“Being able to show that we can take the No. 1 seed from another bracket — who just pretty much dominated every team — all the way to the very end is very telling,” said Hallock, a graduate of the Harvard-Westlake School. “A lot of guys put a lot of great minutes [in]. We’ll learn a ton from it.”

Not everyone is satisfied with traveling all the way to Tokyo for an education, though. Hannes Daube, at 21 the youngest player on the U.S. team, says the Americans have more than proved their mettle here. Now it’s time to start winning.

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The U.S. has two more chances to do that. Win both of its last two games here and it finishes sixth. A pair of losses and it finishes eighth. Daube, who scored a game-high three goals against Spain, hopes this is the last time that scenario is considered a success.

“We want to always win. We always want to be the best,” he said. “We’re not waiting around for anything. We’re trying to do the most we can to win right now. And that didn’t go as planned.

“But the next tournament after this, we’re trying to win. The next Olympics, we’re trying to win. We’re not going for second, third or fourth. We’re going for first.”


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