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2014-04-02

USA water polo captain Tony Azevedo using pain of London 2012 as spur for Rio 2016

Brazil-born athlete, who literally came back from the dead, targets gold and predicts Rio Games will be ‘remembered forever’

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Captain America: Azevedo gives instructions to Team USA at Beijing 2008 (Photo: Getty Images/Adam Pretty)

Tony Azevedo is an American hero – captain of the USA water polo team and four-time Olympian. He is also a man of the world – he’s played for teams in Italy, Croatia, Montenegro and Brazil, and speaks six languages. But in his heart, Azevedo is a carioca.

“I was born in Rio and have visited many times, it’s a magical city,” he told rio2016.com. “I love how colourful and alive everything is and the people are so friendly and warm. I hope and believe that the Rio Games will be remembered forever.”

Azevedo’s father, Ricardo, is a bona-fide carioca, as natives of Rio de Janeiro are known. He met Tony’s American mother, Libby, when he was an exchange student in Long Beach, California. Tony was one month old when the family moved to the USA and by the age of eight he had followed his father – who played for Brazil’s national water polo team – into the pool.

Azevedo junior has won four gold medals at successive Pan-American Games since 1999. But his proudest moment so far was winning silver at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, when the unfancied Americans shocked favourites Serbia in the semi-finals before going down 14-10 to Hungary in the final. After that, eighth place at London 2012 was a disappointment. But Azevedo, now aged 32,  is using that pain as motivation for Rio 2016. 

“Our team was perfect in Beijing and surprised everyone by beating the unstoppable Serbians,” he said. “Then most of our players returned for London and we came into the Games as one of the favourites. We won our first three games, only to lose the following four games. It was very disappointing.

Carioca at heart: Azevedo soaks up Rio 2016 fever on the beach in the 'Marvellous City' (photo: personal archive)

 

“I started planning for Rio the day we lost to Croatia in the quarter-finals in London. The moment when the Olympics end is the most important point in an athlete’s preparations for the next Games. Even though it seems like you have a long time, this is when you need to make a serious commitment to train hard and improve your game. Four years can go by like a flash.

“Rio will be my fifth Olympics and, most likely, my last. I want to go out by winning a gold medal for Team USA.”

This competitive spirit is hardly surprising, given the sporting pedigree of the Azevedo family. After retiring from playing, dad Ricardo went on to coach the national teams of USA and China, while on the Brazilian side of the family, Tony’s aunt was a professional basketball player, his uncle was an Olympic swimmer and his grandfather was a pro jiu jitsu fighter. His sister also played water polo professionally in Italy and it seems likely that his son Cruz, born last May, will have sporting genes.

If it were needed, further motivation was born out of a serious accident that Tony suffered when he was just four years old. After falling while playing, he cut his throat, tearing his trachea. He was airlifted to hospital, his heart stopped and for a few minutes he was proclaimed dead. After making a recovery, the doctors told his parents that he would not be able to play sports or lead an active lifestyle. “I set out immediately to prove them wrong,” Azevedo says.

Many of the Azevedo clan still live in Rio and visits are easier nowadays as, since last September,  Tony has been playing for Brazilian club SESI, in São Paulo. He is helping to spread the water polo gospel, giving motivational speeches to youngsters as the club opens new branches across the country. “It’s an amazing programme that provides sporting opportunities for kids from lower-income families,” Tony said. “My dream is for water polo to become more popular and growing the sport in Brazil is essential for this to happen.”

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