FEATURE: At 2016 Olympics Preview, First Lady and Stars Talk Rio Games


NEW YORK CITY — With the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games mere months away, the United States Olympic Committee is pulling out all the stops to spread the Olympic spirit. Team USA’s Road to Rio—a nationwide extravaganza featuring nine stops across the country—touched down last month in New York City’s Times Square. Luminaries including Michelle Obama and UConn head coach Geno Auriemma communed with 85 Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls in joining the countdown to the opening ceremony of the Games of the XXXI Olympiad on August 5 in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã Stadium.

On a temporary stage surrounded by the assembled athletes, America’s First Lady spoke of her own connection to the Games.

“I’m here today not just as the First Lady, but as a real, life-long, diehard Olympics fan,” Mrs. Obama said. “To this day, I still remember the excitement I felt as a little girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago when Olympic season rolled around.”

The First Lady expressed admiration for the Team USA athletes who proudly represent their country both abroad and at home.

“The Olympics are also about inspiring young people here at home, to get them active, and to live up to the example that our Olympic and Paralympic athletes have always set,” she said.

Auriemma, winner of 11 NCAA Women’s Basketball championships at UConn and the head coach of USA Women’s National team since 2009, said of the assembled athletes, “This is some of the greatest times in these people’s lives, and they don’t take this opportunity lightly.”

Water polo athletes Courtney Mathewson and Tony Azevedo spoke passionately of their Olympic experience and expectations.

“It was incredible,” said Mathewson, who scored four goals in helping the U.S. women’s water polo team capture gold at the 2012 London Games. “It’s hard to describe, because it was the culmination of everything I’ve been through [for] my entire career.”

One of the most experienced members of a roster that returns only four players from the gold-winning squad, Mathewson, 29, spoke about the favored American squad’s chances of winning consecutive Olympic championships.

“You don’t want to repeat the same thing over again, and if it were the same people that were there in London, we would be trying to recreate the same experience. Here we are with a bunch of new girls trying to carve our own journey.”

One of the biggest challenges for Team USA is replacing heralded goalie Betsey Armstrong—who backstopped the U.S. in London, as well as at the 2008 Beijing Games—with Ashley Johnson, voted 2015 WaterPoloWorld Female Player of the Year.

“Ashley Johnson is incredibly talented,” Mathewson said. “It’s been great to see her develop. I have the utmost confidence in her. She is the best goalkeeper in the world, and we’re very happy she’s on our side.”

The 21-year-old Johnson will be competing in her first Olympics; for Tony Azevedo, captain of the U.S. men’s water polo team, the games in Brazil will be his fifth.

Set to join an exclusive club—only eight other water polo athletes have competed in five or more Games—Azevedo, 36, is arguably one of the greatest players to ever don the stars and stripes. With 65 goals in Olympic play, Olympic appearances in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012, a silver medal in ‘08 and the all-time scoring record at the FINA World Championships, Azevedo fully expects to captain his team to success.

“My goal, and what’s kept me going my whole life, is [winning] gold,” he said. “Maybe one day I’ll finish playing and look back on a great experience, but for me it’s always been about winning that gold medal.”

Nicknamed “The Savior,” early in his career, Azevedo—whose team features two high school players as well as Olympic veterans John Mann, Merrill Moses and Jessie Smith—has now become simply “The Legend.”

“To have such difference between the youth and then the veterans—that’s what really makes a great team,” he said. “You can’t have a team of all young guys, and—as you saw with us in London—you can’t have a team of [just] all veterans. [A] mixture of someone like myself, Jessie and Merrill who have been around for a long time can help these guys and guide them.

“There’s always got to be that guy in the middle of the storm that calms [everyone], and I think that’s me.”

In what likely will be an emotional return to Brazil, where he was born and lived briefly before moving to California, Azevedo expects to guide teammates young and old in an exciting, and potentially distracting, environment.

“One of the things I will do when we’re there is to introduce them to Rio, talk about the culture, make it seem more like a home, so that they’re the ones when someone asks a question [who can say]: “I know this.” or ‘This is how the culture works here.’”

If the USA men are to find a way to the winner’s podium this summer, they’ll likely have to beat Serbia, the world’s top side.

“This Olympics there’s only one team that’s proven to be better than everyone else, which is Serbia,” Azevedo said. “Everyone else we’ve beaten, and we’ve beaten them a number of times.”

Specifying that the U.S. has beaten the Serbs the last four times they’ve played, Team USA’s captain added: “We’re going for the gold.”