Saturday July 30th, 2016

The United States women’s water polo team returns to the Olympics with four women from the gold-medal winning team in London. 

Since women’s water polo was added to Olympic program in 2000, the United States has never missed the podium. It won silver in 2000 and 2008 and bronze in 2004 before capturing its first gold medal in London.

Kami Craig brings the veteran presence and experience from two previous Olympics, but the team’s biggest star will be captain Maggie Steffens, the two-time FINA World Player of the Year and the 2012 Olympic tournament MVP. Steffens scored a record 21 goals in London, including seven in her Olympic debut against Hungary. 

History is also set to be made, as 21-year-old Ashleigh Johnson looks to become the first black woman to play water polo for the U.S. Olympic team. 

On the men’s side, Tony Azevedo heads to his fifth Olympics and still seeks his first-ever gold medal. The 34-year-old owns a silver medal from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, when the United States reached the final but lost to Hungary. The U.S. team heads to Rio after a silver medal finish at the FINA World League, where it lost to Serbia in the final.

He will have help from Jesse Smith and Merrill Moses, who were a part of that team in Beijing. John Mann is the other U.S. returner from the 2012 Olympic team who also holds experience from the Summer Games. The men’s team is comprised of nine Olympic rookies and Serbia’s head coach from the 2012 Olympics is at the helm for the U.S.

RIO OLYMPICS PREVIEWS: Men’s basketball | Women’s basketball | Rugby | Diving | Tennis | Triathlon | Men’s soccer | Women's soccer | Field hockey | Sailing | Wrestling​ | Table tennis | Synchronized swimming​ | Beach volleyball

Teams to watch

United States women’s national team

No country has defended its gold medal at the Olympics and the United States women look to change that. Since 2014, they have won every major global tournament, which includes their fourth consecutive world championship gold medal in 2015. They are favored for gold as they hold the Olympic, world championship, World Cup and World League titles.

Australia women’s national team

Australia enters the Olympics as the next best team behind the United States after the Netherlands failed to qualify following their silver medal finish at the world championships. The Aussies took bronze at the 2012 Olympics but previously won gold in 2004. Since London, they finished second at the 2013 world championships and then fourth in 2015. They also have one silver and two bronze medals from the FINA World League. The United States has lost twice to Australia and the two countries were drawn into different groups.

Serbia men’s national team

Serbia is one of most decorated countries in water polo but it has never won gold. Since London’s bronze medal finish, it has won the 2013, 2014, 2015 FINA World League titles and took gold at the 2015 world championships. In its five Olympics, Serbia’s best finish was silver in 2004. Serbia drew the tougher of the two groups as it will have to face Hungary and Greece in the round-robin stage. A repeat of the European Championship final against Montenegro is possible as it is in Group B. 

The team is led by Andrija Prlainovic, who was the Most Valuable Player of the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia. 

Croatia men’s national team

The reigning Olympic champions look to rebound from their loss to Serbia in the world league final. Croatia not won a major championship since London, where it went 8–0 in competition. It took bronze at the 2013 world championships and 2014 World Cup.

Match-ups to watch

Water polo at the Olympics operates a little differently from world championships. Each country will play the other countries in its respective group once. Wins earn three points, draws are worth one point and losses get zero points. The four highest-scoring teams will advance to the single-elimination knockout stage.

Possible men’s gold medal match: Serbia vs. Croatia or Montenegro

This possible gold medal match-up would be a rematch of last summer’s world league final. Serbia seeks its first Olympic gold while Croatia looks to go back-to-back. Serbia and Montenegro clashed in a European final that resulted in a packed 16,000-person stadium in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. Serbia won 10–8. 

Possible women’s gold medal match: USA vs. Australia

The U.S. has a firm grip on the gold medal but it has been beaten twice by Australia, which could make for an interesting final.

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Medal Matches

Aug. 19 — Women’s bronze medal match at 10:20 a.m. ET

Aug. 19 — Women’s gold medal match at 2:30 p.m. ET

Aug. 20 — Men’s bronze medal match at Noon ET

Aug. 20 — Men’s gold medal match at 4:50 p.m. ET

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