We met Tony Azevedo, an American waterpolo ace and easily one of the top world players, at the pool of "Jug CO" in Dubrovnik. Approachable and down to earth fellow, as most greats are, he immediately agreed to share a few words about his background, the sport, cultural adjustment to living in Dubrovnik, Croatia.
CP: Tony, where do you come from, your family roots?
TA: I was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and moved to Long Beach, California when I was a year old and I've been living there ever since. I go back all the time (to Brazil).
CP: There are so many other sports, how come you opted for waterpolo?
TA: I don't know, really don't know. It was a big mistake (laughing). No, my uncle was a silver medalist in 100m butterfly, in Brazil, and my father played waterpolo for Brazil, tournaments, cup championships, things like that.
CP: Your father, Ricardo Azevedo, is also a waterpolo coach.
TA: Yeah, he was a US Olypmic coach for a while. Now he's coaching in Italy.
CP: Let's go back to your first polo days for a moment. When did it all begin?
TA: I played baseball and swam before that, but I was eight years old when I first begun. I happened to be at a polo practice once and just decided to jump in and play. Stayed with waterpolo ever since.
'Emanuel Estuarte, one of the greatest players of this game,
CP: Throughout the formative years, did you have mentors, players whom you looked up to, someone who inspired you with their game, or advice?
TA: I was a ball-boy at the '96 Olympics and I remember both Perica Bukić and Emanuel Estuarte were there, both playing my position. Emanuel Estuarte, one of the greatest players in the game, perhaps of all time, was someone I especially looked up to, 'cause he was small and I knew I was never going to be big, so I closely watched his game. Perica Bukić as well, seeing what he does in my position. Those two great players were my mentors as far as the players I watched in waterpolo. And then, of course, my father. He is a great coach and, in his time, a great player, and has taught me everything I know about the game.
CP: There are three Olympics behind you (Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008), and a great many top level games. Do you approach any of the games differently, in terms of the pre-game mental prep, or do you just believe a game is a game and you just jump in the pool and do your best?
TA: Up until about four years ago, I didn't really know how to approach the games. I mean, I probably approached every game differently. I was young and if I had schoolwork or other obligations, or got to the game tired, I ended up not thinking about it before actually in the game. Later, I learned a different approach, to treat every game the same. That way I'd be prepared for every one of them. This is especially the case when not playing overseas. In the U.S. we would get maybe six hard games a year.
CP: You scored 332 goals while studying at Stanford!
TA: Yeah (laughing). It was all a learning process. I learned what my warm up should be, what mental state I should be in, to think only of defense. That kind of helped me to forget about offence knowing it would come naturally.
'Talent you have to have -- you'll never be a great player without it,
CP: In your view, what is the ratio of talent vs. work when it comes to reaching the top level of playing ability?
TA: Talent you have to have --you'll never be a great player without it, but the best players are the ones who have it and work the hardest. Often times, really talented players don't end up being the best but the ones who really work the hardest.
CP: How would you rate that ratio work vs. talent in terms of percentage, 90:10?
TA: I would say, 70:30.
CP: As evident in different playing styles of the national teams, there are different philosophies to approach to waterpolo. What is the most prominent one today and the one you most naturally adhere to?
TA: Well, I'd say the Hungarians'. You know, the Italians have their style, rough and hard-pressing, the Croatians have great centers and defenders, so they base their game on that, while the Hungarians have the game that's creative as well as under control. There is ball handling, there is strength, there is speed...
CP: There is beauty to their game.
TA: There is, there really is.
'I think that right now waterpolo has potential to grow so much'
CP: Let's talk about the future of the sport.
TA: I'd like to see the sport grow. I think that right now waterpolo has potential to grow so much. With the U.S. winning the silver medal, there is now a lot of talk, lot more things going on, but still not nearly enough. On the other hand, the game has changed much overtime, and sadly, there are people in charge now who maybe played the game some thirty years ago and who may not have the best understanding of how to develop polo today. I think a good thing would be to have many clubs, many championships played. Now, with all the money problems, like in Italy, people aren't getting paid... No one wants to go anywhere any more, there are no real contracts... That tends to make the progress more difficult.
'It's the little things people don't think about that are the most important ones'
CP: Participating in the sport, playing for "Jug" here in Dubrovnik, what do you find the most challenging and what the most rewarding?
TA: Well, I'll start with the most rewarding. Just being here, maybe the most beautiful pool in the world, because there is such passion about playing, going around the city and seeing people, everyone, talking about waterpolo to me has been a most amazing experience. Having my coach be Elvis Fatović and Goran Sukno as the club manager, wherever I turn I have someone intelligent to talk to so that 's just it. As far as the challenges go, it is learning how to play with a new team. I need time. I am not a player that's selfish, I like to play for the team. But when you have a team that's as talented as "Jug", everyone wants to play for themselves in some points, and they have to, so it's learning to pick the right moment, the right amount and not too much. Our goal was to win everything we could so every big game I pushed myself, but these other games, as far as my position goes, I endeavored to learn how to best pass the ball to the centers and between myself and Miho Bosković, Maro Joković... as they're the ones passing me the ball from the right side. I've also been trying to learn how the centers move... It's the little things people don't think about that are the most important ones.
CP: Having been here for some time now, in retrospect, did you have an adjustment period -- a cultural shock of sorts -- or was it easy for you to adjust to living in Croatia, in Dubrovnik?
TA: Dubrovnik is amazing. The first time I saw the city I couldn't believe it. My fiancé thought so as well, wanting to explore the town all the time. I'd say wintertime is a bit slow, though. Once the sun went down, there wasn't really that much to do.
CP: Any advice for the newcomers to the game, anyone endeavoring to better their skills and knowledge of waterpolo?
TA: Hard work and talent are certainly the two most important things. But, you gotta study the game. Someone who has ball-handling skills and who swims the best, who has a heart, for sure will be a good player, they will do something within waterpolo. But it's the little things like passing and not being selfish, trying to make someone else better instead of trying to make yourself better, that are the key. At the end, you end up being better.
'I'd like to play at five Olympics'
CP: We're sure we'll witness much more in your illustrious career. Any long-term plans you wish to share?
TA: I'd like to play at five Olympics. I was 18 at my first and I'd be 34 at my fifth one. It's been done before, by Estuarte and others. I'd like to do that.
CP: Tony, it's great you shared your thoughts with our readers. Thank you very much.