US water polo coaches return for 2020 Tokyo Olympics

CHICAGO (AP) Adam Krikorian took some time off after coaching the U.S. women's water polo team to its second straight Olympic gold medal. He mourned the loss of his brother Blake and spent time with his family before thinking about what he wanted to do with the next part of his life.

The process, the same one he went through after London, led to a return to the pool deck.

USA Water Polo announced new contracts for Krikorian and men's coach Dejan Udovicic on Tuesday, keeping the pair in place through the 2020 Olympics.

''At the end of the day I feel like I'm continuing to improve and I believe I can be a better coach and a better leader and that's one of the reasons why I've decided to come back,'' Krikorian told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

For Udovicic, who coached Serbia to bronze at the London Games, it's a chance to build on the work he started when he took over the U.S. program in May 2013. He brought one of the youngest teams in the world to Rio de Janeiro last summer and finished 10th, but he is hoping that experience will pay off in 3 1/2 years.

''Our main goal from the first day is 2020 Olympics in Tokyo,'' Udovicic said. ''We are thinking that we can do much, much better then. ... What is also important (is) that we established a new culture and that we will, going into Tokyo 2020 and after that, we will now be in the same position in the future.''

The men's program has just one Olympic medal since 1992; a silver in Beijing nine years ago. Many of the world's best water polo countries, mostly in Europe, have major professional leagues, leaving the U.S. at a distinct disadvantage.

Looking to bridge that gap, Udovicic is trying to create more demanding competition in the U.S. He also thinks some of his top young players will go abroad for valuable experience in the next few years.

''But I think for sure, right now, what we did in the last three years, for sure we are going in right direction,'' Udovicic said.

Under Krikorian's leadership, the U.S. became the first country to win consecutive Olympic women's water polo tournaments with a dominant performance last summer. The U.S. closed last year's schedule with 22 straight wins, taking its six games in Rio by a combined score of 73-32.

But Blake's death in early August took a toll on Krikorian, who returned home to California for a short time before rejoining the team in time for its Olympic opener. While his team rolled in the pool, Krikorian had to deal with his emotions surrounding the loss of his 48-year-old brother, who had been paddle boarding and died next to his car, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Those challenging weeks also came after a taxing run-up to the Olympics.

''Everyone just sees the shiny gold medal at the end. What they don't see is the inner struggle that you go through as athletes, as coaches, and I went through that,'' Krikorian said. ''Honestly, I didn't have as much fun as I wanted to.''

Krikorian's return is a coup for the USA Water Polo. The former UCLA coach and player is beloved by his team, and his presence could help convince some uncertain U.S. players to sign up again for the challenging process of going for another gold medal.

There were nine Olympic newcomers on the Rio team, so the roster could look similar for Tokyo. The chance to coach many of those players again is appealing for Krikorian, who praised their work ethic and unselfishness, but he said the chance to win another championship played no role in his decision.

''I just want to continue to be challenged and I want to continue to progress,'' he said, ''not just as a coach, but as a person, as a leader, as a father, as a husband, a friend. And I think that was the main goal for me, as I kind of went through the process, is just understanding what's going to help me do that.''

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Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

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