LONDON — The surprise silver medalists of Beijing are hoping for the title this time around.
The United States brought an experienced men’s water polo team to London that’s determined to improve on its strong finish four years ago.
The American roster includes two four-time Olympians and four players who played in three previous games, including captain Tony Azevedo and former San Luis Obispo High standout Jeff Powers. Only three London players are first-time Olympians.
With the clock ticking on their Olympic ambitions, Azevedo and the other veterans made a decision last year to forgo lucrative club contracts in Europe and train together as a team.
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“It was a big decision on all of our parts, obviously playing overseas, and money and all of that,” Azevedo said, “but all of us do this sport because we love it and we love each other and we want to win the gold and we want to be the best.”
They spent seven months together in the run-up to the London Games. The team observed a six-day-a-week workout schedule. For three days, the players would lift weights for two hours in the morning quickly followed by two hours in the pool, and then another 2½ hours in the water in the evening. The other three days, they did just one three-hour block.
Coach Terry Schroeder said the intensity and intimacy of the Olympic preparations will help the U.S. succeed in London.
“That’s something that is really going to make a difference here,” Schroeder said. “We have learnt a lot about each other. This has given us a chance to really work through some of the issues of respect and trust and love and I think we are at a really good place going into the games.”
The United States hasn’t won gold in water polo since the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. The Americans have finished second three times — Los Angeles, Seoul and Beijing.
The Americans cruised through the preliminary round in 2008, then beat world power Serbia in the semifinals before falling to defending champion Hungary 14-10 in the gold-medal game.
The U.S. faces Montenegro in its Group B opener Sunday.
It’s a tough group that includes gold-medal favorite Serbia, three-time defending Olympic champion Hungary and 2012 European Championship runner-up Montenegro.
But with a silver medal from Beijing in their back pocket, Azevedo and his teammates are confident their extra time together preparing for London will put them in a strong position to win gold.
“We won silver and now we all want to take the next step,” three-time Olympian Ryan Bailey said.
Azevedo, who made his Olympic debut at the 2000 Sydney Games and went on to become one of the best American water polo players ever, scored 17 goals in Beijing.
He said his team is ready to surprise again in London despite what will be a grueling campaign in the group stage.
“Any of us in the group can win the gold,” Azevedo said. “It will come down to what team is better physically and mentally, what team is willing to sacrifice more and what team wants it more.”