Adam Krikorian is very familiar with the look and feel of a gold medal.
The Armenian American head coach of the US national women’s water polo team has earned 19 of them in 22 international tournaments since taking over the squad in 2009. Two of the gold medals are from the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games.
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Tragically, however, Krikorian has run into hardship in his family life.
Prior to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Krikorian coached with a heavy heart following the death of his older brother Blake. Now, as Krikorian and the US national team descend upon Tokyo for the COVID-delayed 2020 Olympics later this month, Krikorian finds himself grieving again—this time after the death of his father in May.
“I always knew that he was very competitive but strangely never felt it fall on my shoulders,” Krikorian wrote in an Instagram post about his late father Gary. “It was only ever love, support, patience, and a constant strategic push (unknowingly at the time) to empower me to be my best.”
Krikorian’s “best” has certainly been elite to say the least, and if there is anyone who has the pedigree to overcome obstacles, it’s Krikorian. Wherever he has gone, he has won. Accomplishments of great coaches like Bill Belichick and Nick Saban pale in comparison to the consistent dominance of Krikorian’s teams in water polo over the last three decades.
It all started at the collegiate level, when the California native won 15 NCAA water polo national championships with UCLA—11 as head coach, three as an assistant and one as a student-athlete. After that, he took the Team USA gig, and the Americans have done nothing but win since then.
Along with the back-to-back Olympic golds, Krikorian has led the US to four FINA world championships (2009, 2015, 2017, 2019), three FINA World Cup championships (2010, 2014, 2018) and 10 FINA World League Super Final Championships, while maintaining a No. 1 world ranking.
“You’re only as good as your next game,” Krikorian told The Weekly. “I’m very fortunate in that I am surrounded by a bunch of incredibly competitive women, who despite all of the success they’ve had, are hungry for more.”
The American water polo team was competitive prior to Krikorian’s arrival in 2009, but they had failed to win a gold medal in each of the previous three Olympic games. Krikorian believes prioritizing relationships with his athletes and focusing on team bonding helped the squad get over the hump.
“I think sometimes whether it’s in the sports world or any professional world we have the tendency not to be our authentic selves and be superficial a bit, and it’s really tough to inspire those connections (with your peers) that are so important, especially in team sports,” said Krikorian.
Krikorian credits his familial coaching style to his Armenian background. Growing up in Cupertino, California, Krikorian and his family were actively involved in the St. Andrews Armenian church community; he still maintains a relationship with the priest.
“You certainly got the sense of a family type of atmosphere and, to be honest, that experience has helped me become the coach I am today,” recalled Krikorian. “Instilling those family values and that family type of atmosphere is what I’m looking for with this team today and that wouldn’t be possible without my experiences within the Armenian community, and it’s something I take great pride in.”
Working on team chemistry and relationship building is especially important this year due to the inactivity of the squad. Because of the pandemic, the team went 453 consecutive days without playing a single game. Krikorian estimates that the longest layoff between matches is generally two weeks. As a result, the team had to find creative ways to prepare for the Olympics like intrasquad scrimmages.
“All of a sudden your teammates become your enemy and the opponent. To try to keep everyone sane and together and motivated and not at each other’s throats was certainly challenging. By no means were we perfect, but we have gotten through to the other side now and played some games and here we are at the doorstep of the Olympic games. I can’t help but to think I think we’re better because of what we went through.”
Krikorian has faced enough adversity this past year, but he’s anxious to be with his team in Tokyo when they kick off the Olympic tournament on July 24 against Japan.
“After everything we’ve been through, we’re just happy to play. It makes you appreciate the game itself and the teammates that you have and the process. Just give us a pool, throw a ball out there, a couple referees and an opponent and we’re ready to go.”
Krikorian says he is proud to represent the Armenian community in this international arena.
“Those are my people. There really is nothing that gives me more joy than just meeting someone outside or even in the sports world and they say, ‘Hey, you’re Armenian’, or ‘Hey, parev.’ It just brings a big smile to my face and I take great pride and joy in it.”
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