U.S. water polo coach makes emotional return after brother's shocking death
- U.S. women's water polo coach Adam Krikorian opens up about the unexpected death of his brother and how he plans to win gold for him in Rio.
RIO DE JANEIRO — Champions are built in the most unexpected of ways. For Adam Krikorian, who is among the most decorated coaches in water polo history, it all began with a baseball video game on his old Atari. Krikorian, 42, spent much of his youth playing the game against his brother Blake, seven years his senior. He calls Blake “my mentor and my best friend and my idol and my role model,” yet such a kind soul delighted in torturing his kid brother.
“We’d play Atari and he crushed me day after day after day,” says Krikorian. “And not only that, he loved to let me know how bad I was losing. I mean, literally pointing his finger in my chest and going, ‘Loser, loser, loser.’ I’d start swinging fists and he would just kind of put a hand on my head and hold me off. It was something I hated then, but I learned this a long time ago: he honestly did it out of love. He did it to make me stronger. He did it to make me tougher. And if you ask my team or former teammates, they’ll tell you I’m one of the most competitive people you’ll ever meet, and I attribute a lot of that to Blake, because he made sure everything that we did as kids was a challenge for me and that I always ended up on the losing end.”
At 5' 9", Adam was undersized by water polo standards, but he brought so much passion and fight to the pool he was made team captain as a junior and senior at UCLA, where Blake had also played polo. “There’s no doubt he went there to follow in his big brother’s footsteps,” says the middle Krikorian brother, Jason, who swam at Cal. After leading UCLA to its first national championship in 23 years as a senior, Adam channeled his considerable intensity into coaching at his alma mater. Blake gravitated to Silicon Valley and in time became revered for his vision and beloved for big heart and childlike enthusiasm for new technologies. He served as CEO of Sling Media, which he founded with Jason, and it is part of Valley lore that the spark for the idea of their popular Slingbox was Blake’s frustration with not being able to watch San Francisco Giants games while traveling. In 2007, the Krikorian brothers sold the company for $380 million. Blake served on the board at Amazon, headed Microsoft’s interactive entertainment business after it gobbled up another company he had founded, and was an angel investor in numerous startups, including Lyft.
Says Adam, ”People always made the comment, How can you follow in their footsteps of your brothers, who are both so successful? I never looked at it as a burden. I looked at it as a blessing and an opportunity to learn from and be inspired by two of my heroes.”
As the head coach of both the men’s and women’s teams at UCLA, he turned the Bruins into a polo powerhouse: from 1999–2009, Krikorian’s teams won 11 national championships. He took over the women’s national team in 2009, winning that year’s world championships and then gold at the 2012 Olympics. The runt of the litter’s accomplishments were celebrated lustily by his brothers. “We all grew up competing in Olympic sports,” says Jason, ”and for us the Olympics is the pinnacle of sport. At the same time, because of our athletic backgrounds, a coach is a very revered figure. To see your younger brother evolve into that very important, very influential position was kind of shocking and impressive and pride-evoking. To take it all the way to Olympic gold, Blake and I were both in awe of him.”
A secret to his success is that Krikorian inspires a similar devotion from his players. At the Olympics, coaches are not awarded medals, so after the podium ceremony in London the team surrounded Krikorian and all 13 players draped their gold around his neck. It was not a nod to his authority but an affirmation of something deeper. “We’re a family,” says attacker Maggie Steffens. “We all respect him and love him greatly as a coach, as a mentor, as a friend, as a father figure.
There’s an atmosphere that he has built that goes way deeper than just the typical player-coach relationship, and that closeness carries over into the entire team.”
Fostering that solidarity for this Olympic squad was always going to be one of Krikorian’s toughest tasks. The team is the youngest in U.S. history (average age: 23), with nine of the 13 players competing in their first Olympics. There had been plenty of growing pains in the run-up to the Games but once they arrived in Rio their discerning coach felt something click. On Aug. 3, two days before the Opening Ceremony, the team held an evening practice that left Krikorian “beaming.”
It was 11:30 that night when he finally turned on his phone, discovering from his father Gary a text message to call immediately. It’s the kind of note we all dread, and Krikorian’s foreboding feeling was confirmed the second he saw his dad’s ashen look on FaceTime. Haltingly, Gary delivered the awful news that Blake had died hours earlier, having suffered a heart attack while surfing. He was only 48, and left behind his high school sweetheart Cathy and their daughters, Lauren and Emma.
Adam tried to call his wife, Anicia, but she did not answer her phone as she was consumed with consoling their children, Jack and Annabell. He reached Jason but the connection kept breaking up. In Rio his assistant coaches and players were already asleep. “I felt so far away and so alone,” Krikorian says. He spent all night pacing the Athletes Village, periodically stopping to sit on a bench when he was overcome by sobbing.
The next morning he gathered his team to deliver the news. They had never seen their leader so broken and the players instinctively rallied around him. “It was very painful to see him that way,” says Courtney Mathewson, who has played for Krikorian every year since 2004, going back to UCLA. “We were all hurting, too, but we wanted to be strong for him. I think we wanted to give him the strength to do what he needed to do for himself and show him that he didn’t need to worry about us.”
Krikorian took the day off and left the team in the capable hands of his assistant coaches: Dan Klatt, a member of the 2004 U.S. team and now head coach at UC Irvine; and Chris Oeding, a two-time Olympian who currently serves as head coach at Long Beach City College. After much soul-searching, Krikorian made the wrenching decision to leave one family for another.
Before hustling out of Rio he delivered the message to his players that this was his burden, not theirs, and urged them to remain focused on the task at hand and to embrace their Olympic experience with gusto. He promised to return but didn’t say when. He caught a flight that night to Northern California, where the Krikorian clan had gathered. Walking into his brother’s home in Hillsborough was, he says, "probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. To see the anguish of Cathy and my nieces, man, that was overwhelming.” But for all the tears in the ensuing two days there were just as many laughs as the family told stories about Blake and remembered all the good times. “It was incredibly healing for all of us to be together,” Krikorian says.
Back in Rio, the team practices turned “chippy” in the words of Steffens. She adds, "We’re already a highly motivated group of athletes but for sure the situation with coach has given us some extra fire. Every single one of us is pushing really hard right now.”
Krikorian returned to Rio on Monday, Aug. 8, and raced through the airport hoping to make it to the end of that morning’s practice. He wasn’t sure if he was too late until he neared the pool deck and heard the players shouting at each other in the pool. “That sound put a huge smile on my face,” he says. “Just such a good, comforting feeling, to be back in that element, kind of where I belong.” When the players saw him they began whooping and hollering and splashing and they poured out of the pool and enveloped their coach in wet, sloppy, joyous hugs.
All of this pent-up emotion was unleashed the next day in the U.S.’s opening game against Spain, a longtime rival. The Americans dominated 11–4 and Krikorian could sense how much his callow players had grown-up in his absence. “I’ve given this team a lot of grief over the last couple years,” he says. “One of my goals as a coach is to create a team that feels empowered, that has ownership, that can handle adversity on their own without their coach telling them what to do every step of the way. I’ve given them a hard time, ironically, because I think we’ve struggled with that. And all of a sudden, it’s happening."
Understandably, Krikorian’s emotions remain raw. After the victory versus Spain he faced reporters for the first time since Blake’s death and the tears flowed. Steffens, the team captain, was walking by in the mixed zone at that moment and in a deeply moving gesture she didn’t say a thing but gently patted Krikorian’s back, like a parent consoling a sorrowful child. On Wednesday, during a team bus ride to practice, center Kami Craig cued up a song she wanted her coach to hear—Lord Huron’s “Brother”—and wordlessly handed him her phone and earbuds. Krikorian made no attempt to hide the tears that welled up in his eyes as he listened to the song.
“Is it weird that he cries in front of us? Not at all,” says Craig. “We work hard on this team to cut out all the fake bullshit, to take the mask off and get down to the real roots of who we are. That’s our foundation. That’s why we’re not shaken by anything, because we can be here for each other in a very real, powerful way. We all have our moments where we need to lean on each other, where we can crack, we can be weak, and then have the rest of the team raise us up.”
Back in California, Krikorian’s family is drawing inspiration from his team, which beat China 12–4 on Thursday. “The games themselves are a nice distraction,” says Jason. “It’s brought a level of normalcy, to focus on something else. Seeing the smiles of the players, seeing their camaraderie, it’s a wonderful reminder that there is still so much happiness in this world. Would Blake have said, go win a gold medal for me? No, he would have found that kind of ridiculous. But of course it would be a great story and give Adam, and a lot of other people, a happy ending.”
Krikorian has always been a maniacal preparer, but lately has found it difficult to concentrate on the details of his gameplan, his mind instead wandering to thoughts of his brother. He says he doesn’t really mind. These reveries of Blake are set to a new soundtrack in his mind, the song “Brothers.” There is one refrain that is particularly poignant:
Don’t turn away, don’t tell me that we’re not the same/
We face the fire together, brothers ‘til the end/
Don’t run away, our time will come but not today/
I stand beside you, brother, with you ‘til the end
Despite what Blake may or may not have wanted, his brother is determined to win a gold medal in his memory. So, too, are Krikorian’s players, who stand beside their grieving coach, facing the fire with him, there until the end.